Like an island of respite in the heart of Tokyo, the Imperial Palace is surrounded by parks and gardens, offering a getaway from the busy city streets. The grounds surrounding the home of the Emperor are carefully maintained and are one of the top destinations for visitors to the capital.
Covering 1.3 square miles (3.36 square km), the grounds include hanami (cherry blossom) spots, art galleries, ancient ruins and beautiful gardens — and a private section reserved for royalty. The land is now the most highly valued in Japan, and is just a short walk from Tokyo Station.
- The Imperial Palace is one of the must-visit places in Tokyo.
- The Imperial Palace stands on the site of the former Edo Castle that was the residence of the Tokugawa Shogunate who ruled Tokyo during the Edo era.
- The palace was destroyed during World War Two and rebuilt in the same style afterwards.
- The Nijubashi Bridge used to be a wooden bridge, constructed during the Meiji period in 1888.
- The Imperial Palace is the residence of the Emperor of Japan.
The Imperial Palace
The Imperial Palace, residence of the Japanese Emperor, was once the site of the Edo Castle from the 17th - 19th century. Located in the heart of the city, it is a vast expanse of green and is surrounded by moats.
The inner grounds are open only for two days of the year – January 2nd and December 23rd. There are guided tours in Japanese throughout the year. As with any imperial site, though, tours must be registered in advance at the Imperial Household Agency (Kunaicho). You may book up to a day before your intended visit.
Although the inner grounds are off limits for the majority of the year, visitors are still able to explore the parks and gardens free of charge and without registration. Keep reading below and find some useful information you need to keep in mind if you are planning to visit this palace.
Areas of the Imperial Palace
The area is divided into three main sections: the East Gardens, the Kitanomaru Koen Park and the Kokyogaien National Gardens — all surrounded by a great jogging route for those who would like more than a stroll.
The East Gardens of the Tokyo Imperial Palace are a beautiful green space in the midst of the bustling city. The public can enter the gardens through any of the three historic gates: the Otemon, the Hirakawamon or the Kitahanebashimon.
The East Gardens were laid out during the Meiji era when the Emperor seized control of the city from the Tokagawa Shogunate. They were opened to the public in 1968, and cover an area of nearly 52 acres, featuring a traditional Japanese garden, a tea ceremony room, a guard house, a concert hall and a small forest.
During spring, the garden is adorned with blooming sakura or cherry blossom trees. The garden has nearly 30 species of cherry trees. Other notable plants are bamboo, peonies, a grove of plum trees and willow trees.
The garden has over one thousand species of native Japanese plants. There is also a large green lawn, called the Oshibahu, which was once used for imperial ceremonies. Structures within the garden include two guardhouses that once guarded the gates and the remains of a stone tower, called the Tenshu Dai. It is open to the public daily, except on Mondays and Fridays, and a map of the garden is available at the guardhouse near the Otemon Gate.
Kitanomaru Koen Park
This is another park of the palace, surrounded by moats. Located at the north of the palace, this place used to be a military base before it was converted to a park. You can find sakura trees too, and the plus point of Kitanomaru Park is that it has many spots for picnics. This park is also quite well known for its autumn leaves!
The park was opened to the public in 1969, to commemorate the 60th birthday of the Emperor Showa.
Kokyogaien National Gardens
The Kokyogaien National Gardens comprise the areas around the Imperial Palace that are permanently open to the public: the south-eastern Garden Plaza, the northern Kitanomaru Garden, a bridge, a fountain park and twelve moats throughout the grounds.
The Garden Plaza of Kokyogaien National Gardens occupies the moat-surrounded "island" at the south-east corner of the Imperial Palace grounds, closest to Hibiya Park and the Marunouchi District. The Garden Plaza is dotted by approximately 2,000 carefully tended black pines, and also has the imposing Sakurada-mon Gate that, although reconstructed, dates from 1620.
The Nijubashi Bridge is the most famous bridge of the many that span the moats of the Imperial Palace. This graceful, stone-arched bridge is named after the double-storied wooden bridge that it replaces.
Wadakura Fountain Park, just north of the Garden Plaza, is particularly beautiful at night when its dancing jets of water are lit up. Wadakura Fountain Park was created to celebrate the 1961 wedding of Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko.
The twelve moats of the Imperial Palace occupy 37 hectares of the total 115 hectares of Kokyogaien National Gardens and form the only part of the gardens that is not accessible to the general public.
The moats are there to be enjoyed from the edges for their scenic beauty and the wildlife, including swans. The Chidori-ga-fuchi Moat, on the western edge of Kitanomaru Park, is one of the most well-known moats for the beautiful cherry blossom that adorns its banks for a couple of weeks every spring.
The history of the Imperial Palace
The Imperial Palace of Tokyo was built on the site of the former Edo Castle, which dates back to the fifteenth century and was used as the residence of the ruling Tokugawa Shogun during the end of the Kamakura Shogunate.
The Imperial Palace history started when the original Edo Castle was destroyed by fire in 1873. During the Meiji Restoration, the inhabitants and Shogun Tokugawa Yashinobu were required to leave Edo Castle. Later, the Japanese Emperor left Kyoto Imperial Palace and came to the new Edo Castle. At that very time this castle was renamed as Tokei (the alternative name of old Tokyo) Castle or Tokyo Imperial Palace.
The present Imperial Palace was reconstructed in 1968, after it had been damaged by fire during World War II. The palace was built with steel-framed concrete, designed in a modern way but still prepped with classic architectural accents that are unique to Japan, like the large hipped roofs and beams.
When to visit Tokyo Imperial Palace
The palace grounds are off limits for tourists on Saturdays and Sundays and on national holidays. Visiting on Friday might also be a bad idea, since the East Gardens are closed then.
A very auspicious day to visit the Imperial Palace would be January the 2nd. The whole Imperial Family makes a public appearance on this auspicious date directly after New Year, on the porch of the Chowaden Reception Hall. This is the only day in the year when the Imperial Palace is open to the public. Expect the palace to be very crowded, though, and expect to wait a long time in the cold.
You could also visit the Imperial Palace on the Emperor’s birthday on December 23rd. The inner grounds will be open to the public on that day as well and there will be a little ritual performed for the crowds in the morning and the early afternoon.
Pick the day that suits your travel plans best.
Guided tour to the Imperial Palace
If you like to get a little closer to the Imperial Palace, you can attend one of the guided tours for special access to the inner areas.
This tour will take you to special places, including the Fujimi-yagura (Mt. Fuji-View Keep), the Hasuikebori (Lotus Moat) as well as offering views of treasured spots like the Seimon Testubashi Bridge and the Fujimitamon Defence Gate. You will also get pretty close to the Imperial Palace itself.
These tours are free but require registration, either in advance online or on the day. The entry numbers were increased in 2016, so now 500 guests are accepted each day, with 300 spaces available for on-the-day registration.
Tours take place at 10am and 1:30pm and are conducted in Japanese, although headsets are available in a few other languages, including English. The tours take around 75 minutes and visit 11 different spots — starting from the Kikyomon Gate which is also where you register.
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Explore the Imperial Palace with Asia Highlights
Although the Imperial Palace offers a free guided tour to get you closer to the palace itself, please bear in mind that you need to register in order to join. Asia Highlights will help you to explore the Imperial Palace like no other! Skip the hassle and enjoy your day with our professional English-speaking tour guide. Please contact us if you have any questions!