Visiting the Tokyo Imperial Palace
Built on the remains of Edo Castle, the Imperial Palace is the primary residence of the Japanese Emperor, located in the center of Tokyo. Shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu and his family were forced to leave Edo Castle in the mid-19th century following the Meiji Restoration when imperial rule was restored in the country. The Emperor then moved in, leaving his former residence at the Kyoto Imperial Palace.
Throughout the Meiji Period, many of Edo Castle’s structures were either purposely removed or destroyed by earthquakes and fires, and only sections of its moat, stone walls, gates, and turrets remain today. The majority of new buildings were constructed from wood using traditional Japanese architectural styles, although many of these were later damaged during the World War II bombing raids on the city.
In addition to its sprawling gardens, the complex today includes the main Kyuden palace, as well as the private residence of the Imperial Family within the Fukiage Gardens. Their interiors combine both Japanese and European furnishings, including grand coffered ceilings with traditional decorative elements, as well as both carpeted and tatami mat flooring.
While most of the complex is off-limits to the public, the Imperial Household Agency runs free guided tours through a small section of the inner compound. Tours lead visitors through the Kikyo-mon Gate to the Someikan house and Fujimi-yagura, renowned for its views across towards Mt. Fuji, then through the East Gardens to the Inner Gate and Seimon-tetsubashi Bridge.
The tours take place at 10am and 1:30pm on Tuesdays to Saturdays, and last just over one hour. They aren’t held when functions at the Imperial Court are scheduled, or over the New Year period and are only conducted in the morning from late July through to the end of August.
Tours should be reserved in advance via their website (https://sankan.kunaicho.go.jp/order/index_EN.html) or over the phone within a month of the tour date. You can also make reservations by mail or in person at the Kikyo-mon tour office up to seven days before the scheduled date of the tour. Once the capacity of the tour group is reached, however, reservations are closed. On the day of the tour, you need to bring your tour permit card and photo ID and you should arrive no later than 10 minutes before the start of the tour.
If there is space left, you can register at the office on the day of the tour, provided you have photo ID. The tours are conducted in Japanese, but a prerecorded English audio guide is available. Children under the age of 18 can participate in the tour but they must be accompanied by an adult.
If you opt not to take a tour, you can still explore the Imperial Palace East Garden which is open to the public without any reservation necessary. It includes the old Honmaru, Ninomaru, and Sannomaru compounds, together with a number of public buildings. You can also view parts of the complex from the Imperial Palace Plaza, including the iron-built Niju-bashi Bridge and the stone-built Megane-bashi Bridge, as well as the Edo-era Fushimi-yagura watchtower.
On the Emperor’s birthday (December 23) and each New Year (January 2), visitors are allowed to enter through the Nakamon inner gate and gather in the Kyuden Totei Plaza. From here they can get a glimpse of the Imperial Family who appears on the balcony of Chowaden Hall, bringing wishes of good health and blessings to the people.
Visiting the Kyoto Imperial Palace
Prior to the Meiji Restoration when Japan’s Emperors moved to the Tokyo Imperial Palace, they resided at the Kyoto Imperial Palace. It comprises numerous different buildings reflecting the architectural styles of different periods, including the Shisinden ceremonial hall, the Seiryoden meeting room, the Ogakumonjo study hall, and the Otsunegoten imperial residence. Its grounds are open to the public throughout the year and tours of its buildings are conducted by the Imperial Household Agency.
The Kyoto Imperial Palace grounds are open from 9am to 4pm from October to February, 9am to 5pm from April to August, and 9am to 4:30pm during the months of September and March. Guided tours are available in English at 10am and 2pm and last around 60 minutes.
In all seasons, the last entry into the Kyoto Imperial Palace is 40 minutes before closing time from the Seishomon Gate. You need to bring a valid form of photo ID such as a passport to the Kunaicho (Imperial Household Office) and fill out a form. Admission is free of charge and no advanced application is needed, but keep in mind that bags will be inspected upon entry.
Visiting the Sento Imperial Palace, Katsura Imperial Villa and Shugaku-in Imperial Villa
The Imperial Household Agency also conducts tours at a number of other imperial residences in and around Kyoto. These include the Sento Imperial Palace, Katsura Imperial Villa and Shugaku-in Imperial Villa, each of which has their own ambiance and architectural features.
Located in the southeast corner of the Kyoto Imperial Palace is the Sento Imperial Palace, built in 1630 as the retirement palace of Emperor Gomizunoo. Its magnificent gardens feature a large pond linked by bridges and walkways, as well as the Seika-tei and Yushin-tei teahouses.
The Katsura Imperial Villa lies in the western suburbs of Kyoto and is one of the country’s most impressive examples of Japanese traditional design, combining the principles of early Shinto shrine architecture with the aesthetics of Zen Buddhism. It includes a shoin (drawing room) and numerous tea houses, set within one of Kyoto’s most beautiful gardens.
The Shugaku-in Imperial Villa is nestled in the hills to the east of Kyoto and includes three separate gardens – the Lower Garden, Middle Garden and Upper Garden. They are linked by pine-lined avenues which offer impressive views across the surrounding countryside, and each features traditionally-designed buildings. The Upper Garden is considered the most impressive, centered around an ornamental pond with its own waterfall.
For those wishing to visit the Sento Imperial Palace, Katsura Imperial Villa, or Shugaku-in Imperial Villa, tours are conducted daily (except Mondays) throughout the year, except for the period of December 28 to January 4. Tour applications can be made up to three months in advance at the Imperial Household Agency Kyoto office, with applications closing the day before the tour or once capacity is filled.
Tours can also be applied for online (http://sankan.kunaicho.go.jp/order/index_EN.html) from up to three months until four days before the tour is scheduled and are subject to a lottery system. After applying, those who are successful will be notified by email and given a 12-digit number as confirmation.
If tickets are still available, you can also apply in person at Sento Imperial Palace, Katsura Imperial Villa or Shugaku-in Imperial Villa from 11am on the day of the tour. These entry tickets are issued on a first-come, first-served basis and you must bring a valid form of identification, such as your passport, when applying for entry.
Tours at the Sento Imperial Palace are conducted at 9:30, 11:00, 13:30 and 15:00 and take around 60 minutes with a capacity of 50 people. Tours at Katsura Imperial Villa are held at 9:00, 10:00, 11:00, 13:30, 14:30 and 15:30 and also take around 60 minutes, with a capacity of 35 guests. Tours at the Shugaku-in Imperial Villa are at 9:00, 10:00, 11:00, 13:30 and 15:00 and take around 80 minutes, with a capacity of 50 guests. All tours are currently only offered in Japanese, although English, Chinese and French audio tours are available free of charge.