Gosho (Imperial Palace)｜京都御所
The seat of Japanese imperial power for six centuries, the Imperial Palace stands within a sprawling park popular for leisurely strolls, jogging, picnics, and flower viewing. Hidden behind high walls and closed gates is the Imperial Palace itself, preserved as it was since the Emperor moved to Tokyo during the Meiji Restoration in the late 1800s. Now easier to enjoy than ever thanks to increased public viewing hours, we highly recommend those in Kyoto take a look at this glimpse into history. Past the gates are various buildings that held important functions such as the Hall for State Ceremonies, the Emperor's living quarters, the Court Room, and the Imperial Study. Woven throughout and beside the buildings are gardens, trees, and a pond, making for a refreshing atmosphere. The grand and imposing buildings, constructed in a mostly open manner, allow you to imagine what life might have been like in that palace hundreds of years in the past. The Sentō Imperial Palace gardens are also located within the park for those who want to see more lovely traditional landscapes.
The grand and imposing buildings, constructed in a mostly open manner, allow you to imagine what life might have been like in that palace hundreds of years in the past.
The Imperial Palace
The home of emperors until the Meiji Restoration moved the capital to Tokyo, the Kyoto Imperial Palace grounds are a sprawling 27 acres that represent the full grandeur of the old court style. Composed of ceremonial halls, residences, and beautiful gardens, the Imperial Palace allows visitors to take a peek back in time. This includes the famous Shishinden hall used for enthronement ceremonies, the Seiryōden where the emperor heard internal audiences, the Otsunegoten where the emperor resided, as well as numerous others Though you once had to make a reservation or go during special open periods, the Imperial Palace is now open to the public almost year-round with no reservation required, and it hosts free 50-minute tours of the grounds in English at 10 am and 2 pm. Check the Imperial Household Agency's official website for further details on when you can visit the palace.
Sentō & Ōmiya Imperial Palaces
Built on the occasion of Emperor Go Mizuno’o’s retirement in 1630, the Sentō Imperial Palace once served as a palace for former emperors, who in that age often ostensibly retired and handed over the official position to their sons only to continue reigning politically from behind the scenes. Close by was the Ōmiya Palace, built as the residence for the Empress Dowager, mother of the reigning Emperor. With a garden designed by the leading landscape architect of his time, Kobori Enshu (1579-1647), the two palaces and their gardens had to have been gorgeous in their time- and what remains is still a beautiful reminder of those periods. Multiple fires destroyed all the buildings but one until there came a time that no retired emperor was present and so no reconstructions were undertaken. The once separate north and south gardens were combined, and now tour groups who make reservations or those who manage to secure same-day tickets can take an hour long walk through the gorgeous strolling pond garden. The tour is conducted only in Japanese, but an audio guide is available for free for English speakers. Please keep in mind that for those hoping to visit without a prior reservation, same-day tickets are only sold until tour capacity is filled, so you'll want to go early to secure your place. Check the Imperial Household Agency's official website here for more information.
Imperial Palace Park
One of the best places in the city center to relax, enjoy fine weather, or picnic with friends or family, the Imperial Palace Park is full of trails, lush grass fields, and seasonal flowers such as cherry blossoms, wisteria, plum, and lilies. On any given day you can spot Kyoto-ites relaxing on blankets spread on the grass, enjoying a bench break, jogging, walking their dogs, or biking through. Whether you choose to tour the actual palace or not, you can enjoy the large, opulent gates from the outside and walk the length of the impressive walls that once separated the Emperor from the masses. Stop by the Kenrei-mon Gate, only opened for emperors and foreign dignitaries, or visit some of the small shrines on the property, such as Itsukushima Shrine, Munakata Shrine, or Shirakumo Shrine. Check out the northeast corner of the palace to find a monkey statue, a divine messenger placed there to guard from malign influences coming from the unlucky direction.
Though the current buildings are all less than two centuries old, the history of the Imperial Palace dates all the way back to 794 when Emperor Kanmu moved the capital to Heian-kyō, “the Capital of Peace”, and designed the city of Kyoto around his center of government. Once the dairi, the official location of the Imperial Palace, was decided, no matter how many time the wooden structures were destroyed by fire or lightning it was rebuilt in the same place. During the periods when the dairi was uninhabitable the Emperor would stay at the mansions of aristocrats in a custom called sato dairi, setting up his residence temporarily. Over time the location of a sato dairi became the more preferred location for the Emperor, and the dairi, the original Imperial Palace, fell into disuse until the imperial family eventually stopped rebuilding it after numerous wars and fires.
The currently standing Imperial Palace that was once simply a sato dairi became the official residence of emperors from the reign of Emperor Kōgon in 1331 until the time of Emperor Meiji in 1869, when the capital was moved to Tokyo. The current structures largely date to 1854, when the Tokugawa shogunate paid to have them restored in their original Heian period style.
As the center of government and imperial life, the Imperial Palace has naturally been the site of numerous important historical occurrences in the past thousand years. The famous 11th century novel The Tale of Genji often depicts scenes in the Imperial Palace (albeit in its original dairi location), as it deals with the romance, political scandal, and intrigue in daily court life. Once the samurai warrior class gained power and the position of the Emperor became more symbolic, the Imperial Palace’s functions became more ritual than political. Those warriors who ruled as de facto leaders of the country usually made trips to the Imperial Palace for nominal visits and reports to the Emperor, though they were more for show than true subordination.
The Ōnin Civil War and other battles often saw the palace burned to the ground, so it was reconstructed countless times. In 1854, numerous buildings were lost to a fire caused by wooly caterpillar pest extermination measures, and selective portions of the palace used by retired emperors and dowager empresses were not rebuilt. The Kinmon Incident in 1864, in which sonnō jōi patriots with the aim of restoring imperial rule and expelling foreigners from the country began a failed rebellion attempt at the palace also caused damage by fire.
The Imperial Palace experienced a period of upheaval upon the arrival of Commodore Perry to Japan, the end of sakoku (the centuries-long period of national isolation policy started by Tokugawa Iemitsu in the 1630’s) and the increasing possibility of Westernization. With his government under threat, on November 9, 1867 the 15th Tokugawa shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, restored Japan to imperial rule when he announced his retirement in an act known as taisei hōkan. On January 3, 1868 the Emperor of Japan announced that “permission has been granted to the Shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu to return the governing power in accordance with his own request” and the shogunate’s power was later crippled at the Battle of Toba-Fushimi. However, the return of power did not herald a return to the glory days of the Kyoto Imperial Palace, as Emperor Meiji moved the capital to Tokyo in 1869.
The last imperial functions performed at the Kyoto Imperial Palace were the enthronement ceremonies of the Taishō and Shōwa emperors in 1915 and 1928, respectively.
- General Admission: Free
- General Admission: Changes seasonally, check the official website.
- Closed: Monday (or Tuesday, if Monday is a public holiday), December 28 – January 4, any day when Imperial Court functions are scheduled or when "other unavoidable circumstances occur".
- Subway Karasuma Line ⇒ Imadegawa Station OR Marutamachi Station ⇒ 5 minutes walking
- Subway Tōzai Line ⇒ Kyoto Shiyakusho-mae Station ⇒ 20 minutes walking
- Keihan Line ⇒ Jingū Marutamachi Station OR Demachiyanagi Station ⇒ 10 minutes walking
- City Bus ⇒ Karasuma Imadegawa Bus Stop OR Furitsu Idai Byōin-mae Bus Stop ⇒ 5 minutes walking