Exploring the History and Design of Tokyo’s Imperial Palace

From masterfully landscaped gardens to its world-class museums, the Imperial Palace compound is truly a Japanese treasure.Read More

A bridge crossing one of the waterways that flows by the East Garden (Source: iStock / BrendanHunter)

As is true of many storied destinations across the world, the Imperial Palace folds in numerous chapters of architectural design, culture, and war. The primary residence of the Emperor of Japan, it is a towering symbol of Japanese leadership and a popular tourist destination for visitors to the country’s capital. But how much do you know about this totem of Japanese history? And what is the best way to experience it?

A brief history of the Imperial Palace

Surprisingly, the Imperial Palace as we know it today has only existed for about a century and a half – augmented with several improvements over the decades, of course. The precursor to the palace, Edo Palace, was built by the Tokugawa Shogunate in the 1500s to serve as both military headquarters and home of the shogun. When the shogunate capitulated to imperial forces – which had long suffered from strict, oppressive shogunate rules and prohibitions – in 1868, Edo Palace became the home of the emperor.

Only 20 years later, a devastating fire destroyed what was once the shogun’s residence; a new Imperial Castle was quickly built to replace it, however. This was to be only one of many changes to the Imperial Palace compound during the Meiji period (1868-1912). Once imposing bridges and wooden buildings were replaced with ones that blended Japanese and Western aesthetics, furnished in similar fashion with the likes of ornate European rugs mingling with traditional Japanese tatami mats.

During WWII, however, much of the Imperial Palace compound suffered from the brutal bombing raids of Allied forces. It was here, in an underground shelter, that Emperor Hirohito agreed to surrender in 1945 – but not before the compound was nearly obliterated.

One of the original gates of Edo Palace, dating back to 1620 (Source: iStock / SeanPavonePhoto)
One of the original gates of Edo Palace, dating back to 1620 (Source: iStock / SeanPavonePhoto)

After the war, much of the compound was rebuilt – including the emperor’s own residence. Gardens were added and buildings erected to flesh out the compound with much-needed modern facilities. Slowly, the compound opened up to the public; in fact, by the 1960s, the post-war-constructed East Garden officially became a public park.

Today, the Imperial Palace compound encompasses about half of a square mile and folds in a gallery, museum, art hall, performance venue, administrative buildings, residences, and beautifully landscaped gardens with streams – or, if you will, modern moats – separating various public and private sections.

Visiting the Imperial Palace compound

The Imperial Palace itself, as well as the surrounding Fukiage Gardens, are off-limits to visitors. However, you can visit the East Gardens. Among the many buildings onsite are the music department headquarters for the imperial household (known as the Tōkagakudō), a historical archives building, the Ninomaru Gardens, featuring trees that represent each Japanese prefecture; and the Suwa no Chaya Teahouse.

To the north of the former Edo Castle sits Kitanomaru Park, which features two gates from the previously-constructed Edo Castle. One, the Tayasu-mon, has an inscription from 1685, making it the oldest surviving piece of the original castle.

The park also houses the Nippon Budokan indoor arena. This facility was originally built in the 1960s for hosting judo competitions during the Summer Olympics, but it has since become a venue for martial arts contests, wrestling competitions, sporting events, and musical performances.

The Imperial Palace compound is surrounded by lush green parks, some open to the public. (Source: iStock / Katharina13)
The Imperial Palace compound is surrounded by lush green parks, some open to the public. (Source: iStock / Katharina13)

Last (but certainly not least), Kitanomaru Park is home to the National Museum of Art in Tokyo, showcasing major modern art exhibits, contemporary cinema, and the work of Nihonga artists; and the and the nation’s beloved Science Museum.

Entrance to the compound is free, though there are fees to access various buildings or facilities, including the museums. Groups must apply for access to the private Imperial Palace, however; learn more about this process on the Imperial Palace website.

To extend your adventures, dig into our comprehensive travel guide to Tokyo — dining, history, fun parks, and more await.