Imperial Palace Tokyo is built over the site of the former Edo Castle, which dates to the mid-fifteenth century as the residence of the ruling Tokugawa shogun during the end of the Kamakura Shogunate. Imperial Palace history begins when the original Edo Castle was largely destroyed in an 1873 fire, and all that remain of it today are some ramparts, outlying buildings, and elaborate stone walls and foundations. Some lovely traditional Japanese bridges also remain, and several beautiful gardens are part of the entire park complex. Today the palace complex is a beautiful and tranquil place to visit in the huge metropolis of Tokyo.
Imperial Palace tours of the actual palace, which is still the residence of the Emperor of Japan and his family, are possible only with advance reservation through the Imperial Household Agency. This can only be done directly with the palace. If you have found a company selling tickets to tour the palace, they are not valid as third party applications are not accepted. Security is quite strict, and reservations must be done only on the official Imperial Household Agency website or by telephone. If you do it while you are actually on vacation in the city, you still need to allow a few days as you must present your passport to receive your visitor’s permit at least one day before the approved visit. Imperial Palace history and that of the oldest continuing hereditary monarchy in the world mirrors the history of the country. The Emperor has traditionally been considered almost a god. He is still revered, and is rarely seen except during state and ceremonial functions.
Imperial Palace tours are free and are guided and conducted in Japanese. English language pamphlets are provided, and you can obtain free English audio tapes. Your tours will begin with a video presentation in Japanese and occur twice a day on weekdays. They last a bit more than one hour, and may not be available during official functions. As with places such as Buckingham Palace and the White House in Washington DC, Imperial Palace tours do not include the private quarters that comprise the actual residence of the family.
The East Gardens are open to the public throughout the year, and admission is free. Special Imperial Palace Tokyo events include January 2, called the New Year Greeting, when the public is allowed into the inner gardens, and the Royal Family makes an appearance. The public is allowed into this inner sanctum on other special occasions, including royal birthdays. Visits to the grounds and gardens will reveal Imperial Palace history that is quite unique. Some of the walls and ramparts that remain of the ancient Edo Castle are made of rocks, many of which will have the special calligraphy mark of the donor family that helped finance the castle’s construction. This was done to ensure that others knew they had contributed.
Visiting the Imperial Palace Tokyo East Gardens (the Higashi Gyoen Gardens) is quite rewarding even if you do not tour the palace itself. On the grounds you can see examples of stone ramparts bearing the marks of those who donated to the original castle’s construction, ancient wooden guardhouses that resemble temples and shrines, and remains of the Edo Castle Tower. You can also marvel at the Ninomaru Gardens, one of the most exquisite examples of a traditional Japanese garden in all of Japan, and this is lovely during the cherry blossoms viewing time. Here also is the Suwa no chaya teahouse, dating to 1912.