I pull my scarf closer and walk faster as the wind gets stronger. Nothing can dampen my spirits, not even the first drops of rain. I’m all smiles. Standing outside the looming stone walls of the Imperial Palace East Garden, I’ve just spotted an unexpected smudge of pink.
It is mid-April and given this year’s early hanami (the blooming season), I’d lost all hope of seeing a cherry blossom on my first trip to Tokyo. Here it is – a glorious, wizened little tree on the banks of the Imperial Palace moat in the late evening rain. I hear a splash and turn to see a fish, the size of my forearm, leaping out of the water. I feel like leaping myself.
Much like the cherry blossom, the Imperial Palace grounds are a great embodiment of the beautiful culture of Japan.
When I returned the morning after my initial blossom sighting to explore the Palace gardens, I was pleasantly surprised by the extent of information on offer. The open, outdoor spaces and self-directed walking tour make for a peaceful and relaxed encounter with multiple milestones of Japanese history.
Your journey starts with a bridge crossing. I felt a palpable sense of antiquity as I crossed the moat, almost as though I was an ancient warrior invading the keep. A white swan was making its way under a nearby bridge as I entered through the heavy doors of the Ote-mon gate, rendering the whole picture serene and reverent.
The current complex stands on the same site as the original Edo castle, which was one of the biggest fortresses in the world during the military rule of the Tokugawa from 1603 to 1868. In 1888, after the Tokugawa shogunate were overthrown, a new Imperial Palace was built, only to be bombed in World War II. The present-day reconstruction is home to Japan’s current Imperial family.
For this reason, most of the site is blocked off to tourists. You can book online with the Imperial Household Agency for a tour of a small part of the interior compound. These tours run at either 10am or 1.30pm every day except Sunday and Monday. If you’re like me, and can’t squeeze a tour into your schedule, the gardens are marvel enough and easy to explore on your own. Entrance is free; you just need to collect a token at the gate and return it when you leave. Then pick up a map from the Resting Area visitor centre, which guides you past numbered pit stops at your own pace.
Top picks to see inside the Imperial Palace
1. O-bansho guardhouse
There are three guardhouses left from the Tokugawa-era Edo Castle, and O-bansho was my favourite. It served as the last checkpoint before the entry to the main castle.
The word ‘fujimi’ translates to seeing Mt. Fuji, and a ‘yagura’ is a tower. Unfortunately, the skyline is cluttered with high-rise now, but Edo warriors could once see Mt. Fuji, which is 100 odd kilometres away, from this defence tower.
3. Fujimi-tamon defence house
Remove your shoes and head inside this 17th-century building for window views of the palace compound and main street.
It is believed that this stone cellar was used to protect valuables in the event of fires in the Tokugawa era.
5. Tea gardens
This tiered garden is a good central point from which to explore the manicured lawns, trees and well-kept shrubbery of the main gardens.
6. Main tower
This stone base of the main tower was laid in the mid 1600’s but a tower was never built on top, as the Tokugawa rulers believed their rule was strong enough that Edo Castle didn’t need such defence.
Make use of the fabulous subway network by jumping on either the Marunouchi, Chiyoda, Mita or Tozai lines and getting off at Otemachi. This is an easy walking distance from the entrance at Ote-mon gate. If you’re using the JR rail, disembark at Tokyo station.
What to do nearby:
Right near the Imperial Palace, within strolling distance of the outer moat, you’ll find some great museums. I spent a couple of hours in MOMAT, Tokyo’s Modern Art museum which summarised Japan’s recent history really well and showcased some astonishing works. Nearby is the affiliated Crafts Museum with frequently-changing exhibitions. Tokyo Station, not too far from the Imperial Palace, is a sight to behold in and of itself – the domed structures, terrace gardens and shopping mall are worth a visit. At the adjacent Tokyo Ramen Street, taste test delicious bowls of the famous Japanese noodle soup.
Love the idea of visiting the Imperial Palace in Tokyo – check out the My Discoveries tour of Japan.