Tokyo Imperial Palace
The Emperor’s Residence and Gardens
Tokyo Imperial Palace is in Chiyoda ward, right at the center of the Japanese capital. The compound is surrounded by its original moats and is known to shelter Kokyo, the Emperor’s current residence, as well as several parks, some of which opened to the public.
Tour of the grounds available throughout the year
For the man on the street, the standard tour around the Imperial Palace includes the two adjoining parks:
- The East Gardens (東御苑 Higashi-gyoen) which cover a surface area of 21 hectares and can be accessed from the Kitanomaru Park;
- The Outer Grounds (皇居外苑 Kokyo-gaien) a bit lower down, whose entrance gate is located just outside the Marunouchi district, only a few dozen meters from Tokyo station.
The Imperial Palace grounds are located in the heart of the city and therefore surrounded by skyscrapers. They are protected by moats and more or less well-preserved walls. This is indeed all that remains of the famous Edo Castle 🏯, which was the residence of the shoguns (lords) in the Tokugawa period. By the way, the moats that had not been cleaned since 1965 have been benefiting from a new sewage system since the end of 2015.
At the beginning of the eponymous era, Emperor Meiji ordered that the capital be transferred from Kyoto to Tokyo where the Imperial Family set up their quarters from then on. The estate subsequently suffered the vicissitudes of History: it was destroyed by fire 🔥 a few years later in 1873, rebuilt in 1888, razed to the ground during WW2 and finally rebuilt in 1968.
Nowadays, runners circle (counterclockwise) around the Palace’s grounds that provide a 5-kilometers course between buildings and nature.
Guided tour of the inner grounds
Visitors are not allowed independent access beyond the Palace gateway, marked by the Nijubashi bridge, but it is possible to book a guided tour, exclusively organized by the staff of the Imperial Household Agency.
To do so, visit the official website and fill in the online form: you will be asked to select one of two daily time slots (10 a.m. or 1.30 p.m.). You may book your tour from 30 to 4 days prior to the desired date.
-- Update: Since 2016, June 25, the number of participants per group for the guided tour was raised from 300 to 500, with 300 reservation slots available on the same day.
The visit lasts about 1h15 minutes and is entirely conducted in Japanese (audio-guides in English are nevertheless available) and sticks to the outdoor parts of the estate: you will not be allowed to enter any of the buildings.
Since 2014, Inui-dori, an alley in the south-east is opened to the public during about one week each spring, usually around late March, to contemplate the 75 sakura 🌸 cherry trees blooming on the 600-meters long path. Inui-dori is also opened in autumn 🍁 to watch its maple trees redden at the beginning of December.
Attend the Imperial Family’s greetings
Visiting the inner grounds may moreover hold a major surprise, a treat scheduled only twice a year:
- On January 2nd, the day when the Emperor offers his New Year’s greetings.
- On February 23rd, the day of Emperor Naruhito’s birthday.
The New Year Greetings tradition is to resume on 2023, January 2, after 2 years of interruption since 2020 due to the Covid 🦠 pandemic. Advance online registration (before November 18) is required and only 9,000 visitors will be allowed, compared to nearly 70,000 normally.
On both occasions, you had better muster all your patience as people (mainly Japanese) come in great numbers. They form a compact waiting line that stretches out endlessly and inches slowly forward throughout the day until they catch a glimpse of the Imperial Family offering greetings from the vantage point of a balcony protected by bullet-proof glass.
This is actually the closest you will ever get to the private residence of the Emperor and his family.