Ten minutes from Tokyo Station lies the Imperial Palace: a wealth of gardens and galleries with guided tours and castle ruins.
Like an island of respite at the heart of Tokyo, the Imperial Palace is surrounded by parks and gardens offering a getaway from the busy city streets. Surrounding the home of the Emperor, the grounds are painstakingly maintained and are one of the top destinations for visitors to the capital. Covering 1.3 square miles, the grounds include hanami (cherry blossom viewing) spots, art galleries, ancient ruins and beautiful gardens—and a private section reserved for royalty of course. Once the site of Edo Castle, the land is now the most highly valued in Japan, and is a short walk from Tokyo Station. If you’re planning to visit, there are organized tours of inner areas available for free, as well as special days when you can see the Emperor himself—so read on and learn all you need to know about the palace and the treasures it holds!
The current palace grounds were the site of the Edo Castle, and before that, the residence of warrior Edo Shigetsugu. The land was close to Hibiya, which was then a beach and was a strong flatlands location, strengthened by moats. Built in 1457 by Ota Dokan, the Edo Castle (also known as the Chiyoda Castle) was an important location in the development of Japan. During the Siege of Edo it was taken over by the Hojo clan, and was later abandoned during the Siege of Odawara in 1590. The castle later became the base of Tokugawa Ieyasu and the Tokugawa Shogunate was formed there, with the castle becoming the military capital.
Following the Meiji Restoration it became the Imperial Palace, with Emperor Meiji residing there until the new Palace was built. Unfortunately, like many ancient Japanese structures, almost nothing remains of the castle or ancient buildings today following fires, earthquakes and war damage—but a few small areas have survived. The Tenshudai (above) is the foundation of the once tallest tower in Japan, and can be found in the East Gardens.
Grounds and gardens
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. The area is divided into three main sections: the East Gardens, Kitnomaru Koen Park and the Kokyo Gaien National gardens—all surrounded by a great jogging route for those who would like more than a stroll.
The East Gardens
Opened to the public in 1968, the East Gardens are located in the innermost circles of the Edo Castle: the Honmaru and Ninomaru. The former was the principal complex where the rulers spent their daily lives, the latter was where meetings would take place with visiting feudal lords. The two areas combined form the last Edo Garden to be preserved in Japan, and are filled with carefully maintained seasonal flowers and trees. The Honmaru is a large lawn area and the Ninomaru is a manicured garden, creating a great space for escaping the city and relaxing in some much needed nature.
The gardens also contain some of the few remnants of the Edo Castle, including the moat walls, the entrance gate and some guardhouses (pictured at the very top). In the lawn of the Honmaru area you can see the imposing foundations (tenshudai) of the former castle tower which was once the tallest castle tower in Japan. Unfortunately, it only stood for 19 years as it was destroyed in a fire in 1657 and never re-built (pictured in the History section). If you’re keen to know which flowers will be in season when you visit, check their handy (and very extensive) flower guide.
The East Gardens are closed on Mondays and Fridays, From Dec 28th – Jan 3rd and on some special occasions.
Otherwise, they are open from 9am to 4pm Nov 1st – Feb 28th | until 4:30pm March 1st April 14th & Sept 1st – Oct 31st | 5pm April 15th – August 31st.
Last entry is half an hour before closing. Entry is free but you will be given a small entry token to return when you leave, so they can keep track of guests before closing.
Kokyo Gaien National Garden
First opened to the public in 1949, the Kokyo Gaien were previously part of the palace grounds and feature the Nijubashi Bridge. The bridge was given its name as it was originally made with wood and an extra level was added, causing it to be nicknamed the “double bridge.” The area was once known as Nishinomarushita and was the location of the servant’s houses.
As well as the famous Nijubashi, you can see the Sakuradamon Gate, which is a cultural asset, and the bronze statue of Masashige Kusunoki. The bridge was given its name as it was originally made with wood and an extra level was added, causing it to be nicknamed the double bridge. Slightly confusingly, the title of Kokyo National Gardens is usually reserved for the section of gardens in front of the palace, but is also occasionally used to refer to the entire gardens complex, including the parks, so keep that in mind if you get confused (we’ve stuck to the specific park use though).
This area is best accessed by the Sakuradamon Gate (near Sakuradamon Station). Since it is a public park, access is free and unrestricted.
A real green oasis, Kitanomaru Park was once a medicinal garden and is almost entirely surrounded by a moat, giving it a real escapist feel (aside from all the other people). There are two original Edo gates at the entrances: the Shimizumon Gate which leads you to the Chiyoda ward office and the Tayasumon Gate which takes you to Kudanshita Station and was built in 1685. The park was opened to the public in 1969 to commemorate the 60th birthday of the Emperor Showa and is a mix of flowers and woodland—perfect for getting some shade in summer.
You can follow the Chidorigafuchi walking path which includes a moat-side stretch with cherry-blossom in spring without the risk of being run down by joggers. From April to November you can rent paddle boats on the moat which is especially lovely when surrounded by pink blossom, and creates a pretty picturesque scene for onlookers too. The park is also home to the Science Museum, Nippon Budokan and the National Museum of Modern Art, but more on those below!
This area is best accessed either during a walk via the East Gardens or Takebashi, Kudanshita or Hanzomon stations. Since it is a public park, access is free and unrestricted.
If you would 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. The tours will take you to special spots 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 and can see the more modern additions to the royal grounds.
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, so you have a good chance of getting in, if you arrive early. The 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.
Or instead of a tour, you can also download the free Imperial Palace audio guide app if you’re the type to wander around.
As well as the gardens and guided tours, the green escape is also home to a number of additional attractions that are well worth a side visit during your stroll. These three are positioned up in the northern area of the gardens in Kitanomaru Park.
National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo
Home to countless examples of Japanese and international modern art, this museum is a treasure trove for modern art lovers. There are excellent works in the permanent collection including photography by Walker Evans, abstract pieces by Willem de Kooning and works by Wassily Kadinsky. There is a focus on the effect of Western art on the Japanese scene and vice versa, and artists such as Yayoi Kusama and Ai Mistu have pieces on display. The museum is also home to Japan’s National Film Center which has a great collection as well as regular screenings.
Hours: 10am – 5pm | Closed Mondays | Free access on the first Sunday each month.
Built to host the judo tournaments of the 1964 Olympics, the Budokan is a large sports arena that still hosts martial arts events as well as other sporting events. The national championships of judo, kendo, aikido and karate are still held here annually and can be a great opportunity to see traditional sports in action.
It has also become a popular music venue; the first music performance was the Beatles in 1966 and since then hundreds of performers have take to the stage, including Diana Ross, Prince, AKB48 and Morning Musume. The venue is still popular and is a great place to check out events while you’re in the area! Take into consideration though that if there is an event on the day you visit, you may want to avoid the Kudanshita Station.
This museum is mainly for the kids and their adults, as it is a family-friendly educational mainstay that has been entertaining the Tokyo kids since 1964. It is a bit of an “all-in-one” museum and includes displays on computer technology, transport, space, the future, life sciences and more.
Hours: 9:30am – 4:50pm (last entry 4pm) | Closed Wednesdays (check here for exceptions) | Entry: Adult 720 yen Child 260 – 410 yen
They may be few, but they are not far between: the special entry days for the Imperial Palace all take place in winter, from the 2nd of December to the 2nd of January. Offering glimpses of the palace and even of the Emperor himself, these days are incredibly busy due to their rarity, so be prepared for crowds and queues!
December 2nd – Visit of the General Public to Inui Street
On this day you can walk straight through the palace grounds from the Sakashita-mon Gate to the Inuimon Gate. This route will mean you have the Fukiage Gardens and Imperial Residence on your left, and the East Gardens to your right, with a good portion of the walk following the Hasuike-bori moat.
December 23rd – The Emperor’s Birthday
To celebrate his birthday, the Emperor and his family make three appearances from the balcony of the Chowaden Hall. The day is also a national holiday, so it is a whole new level of busy. In the afternoon, the guestbook is opened to all visitors, and tents are set up allowing everyone to write a message to the Emperor. From 12:30pm to 3:30pm the book will be in front of the Imperial Household. The appearance times are 10:20am, 11am, 11:40am and you can enter the grounds from 9:30am until 11:20am at the main gate. Note that the East Gardens are closed on this day, but visitors can exit through them.
January 2nd – New Year Greeting
This is a rare chance to see the Imperial Family as the Emperor, Empress, and family will appear on the balcony of the Chowaden Hall to greet well-wishers. The event is hugely popular, and crowds are immense, so be prepared. There are five appearances , with the first two including the adult family members and the remaining three including the younger members too. The times are: 10:10am, 11am, 11:50am, 1:30pm and 2:20pm. You can enter the grounds at the main gate from 9:30am until 2:10pm but it is advised to arrive early.
If you’re heading straight over from Tokyo Station it’s a simple 10-minute walk from the Marunouchi Central Exit (not Yaesu), heading out onto Gyoko-dori and heading straight down to the Wadakura-mon Gate.
If you’re wanting to register for the tour, you need to head to the Kikyomon gate which is a 10-minute walk from Nijubashimae Station or Otemachi Station via the Otemon Gate, or 15 minutes from Tokyo Station.
For the northern area you can head to Kudanshita Station for the Nippon Budokan and Science Museum or Takebashi for the National Museum of Modern Art.
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