Kyoto Imperial Palace and Kyoto Gyoen National Garden｜京都御所と京都御苑
The seat of Japanese imperial power for six centuries, Kyoto Imperial Palace stands within the sprawling Kyoto Gyoen National Garden that is ever popular for leisurely strolls, jogging, picnics, and flower viewing. Hidden behind high walls and closed gates is the 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 expanded public viewing hours, we highly recommend those in Kyoto find time for this glimpse into history. Beyond the palace gates are various buildings that held important functions, such as the hall for state ceremonies, the emperor's living quarters, and the imperial study. Woven throughout and beside the buildings are beautiful gardens, which have a quiet pond and a stream, making for a refreshing atmosphere. The grand and imposing halls, constructed in a mostly open manner, allow you to imagine what life might have been like in the palace hundreds of years in the past. The Kyoto Sentō Imperial Palace gardens are also located nearby for those who want to see more of the lovely traditional landscapes.
The grand and imposing halls, constructed in a mostly open manner, allow you to imagine what life might have been like in the palace hundreds of years in the past.
Kyoto Imperial Palace
The home of emperors until the Meiji Restoration moved the capital to Tokyo, Kyoto Imperial Palace and its grounds cover a sprawling 27 acres that represent the full grandeur of the old court style. Composed of ceremonial halls, residences, and beautiful gardens, the palace allows visitors to take a peek back in time. This includes the famous Shishinden hall used for enthronement ceremonies, the Seiryōden hall where the emperor held various rites and rituals, Otsunegoten where the emperor resided, as well as numerous others. Though until recently visitors had to make a reservation or go during special open periods, Kyoto 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 10:00 and 14:00. Check the Imperial Household Agency's official website for further details.
Kyoto Sentō and Ōmiya Imperial Palaces
Built on the occasion of Emperor Go-Mizunō retiring in 1630, Kyoto Sentō Imperial Palace once served as a palace for former emperors, who often formally withdrew from power and handed over the official position to their successors, only to continue reigning politically from behind the scenes. Close by was Kyoto Ōmiya Palace, built as the residence for the consort of the abdicated 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 prime, 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 abdicated emperor was present and so no reconstructions were undertaken. The once separate north and south gardens were combined. 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 multi-language audio guides are available for free. Please keep in mind that for those hoping to visit without a prior reservation, same-day tickets are only offered until tour capacity is filled, so you’ll want to go early to secure your place. Check the Imperial Household Agency’s official website for more information.
Kyoto Gyoen National Garden
One of the best places in the city center to relax, enjoy fine weather, or picnic with friends or family, Kyoto Gyoen National Garden around the imperial palace is full of trails, lush grass fields, and seasonal flowers such as cherry blossoms, wisterias, plums, and lilies. On any given day you can spot locals relaxing on blankets spread on the grass, taking a bench break, jogging, walking their dogs, or biking through the area. Whether you choose to tour the actual palace or not, you can take in the large, opulent gates from the outside and walk the length of the impressive palace walls that once separated the emperor from the masses. Stop by the Kenreimon gate of the palace that is 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: it is a divine messenger placed there to guard the palace from malign influences coming from the unlucky direction.
Though the current buildings of Kyoto Imperial Palace are all less than two centuries old, its history 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 times 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 temporarily stay at the mansions of aristocrats in a custom called sato-dairi. Over time the location of a sato-dairi became the more preferred 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 provided financing to have them restored in their original ancient style.
As the center of government and imperial life, Kyoto 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 ritualistic than political. Those warriors who ruled as de facto leaders of the country usually made trips to the palace for nominal visits and reports to the emperor, though they were more for show than true subordination.
Because of the Ōnin Civil War and other battles the palace often ended up burned to the ground, so it was reconstructed countless times. In 1854, numerous buildings were lost to a fire, and some sections of the palace used by abdicated emperors and the consorts were not rebuilt. The Kinmon Incident in 1864, in which sonnō jōi patriots who strove to restore imperial rule and expel foreigners from the country began a failed rebellion attempt at the palace, also caused damage by fire.
Kyoto Imperial Palace experienced a period of upheaval upon the arrival of Commodore Perry, the end of sakoku (the centuries-long period of national isolation policy started by Tokugawa Iemitsu in the 1630s), and the increasing possibility of Westernization. With his government under threat, on November 9, 1867 the 15th Tokugawa shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, announced his retirement in an act known as taisei hōkan and restored Japan to imperial rule. On January 3, 1868 the Emperor of Japan proclaimed 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 further crippled at the Battle of Toba-Fushimi. However, the return of power did not herald a return of the glory days of Kyoto Imperial Palace, as Emperor Meiji moved the capital to Tokyo in 1869.
The last imperial functions performed at 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, please 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 for other operational reasons.