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Tour the Imperial Palace in Tokyo for Free

Japan's Imperial Palace in central Tokyo has been the official home for Emperors since 1868; visitors can experience it up close on a free guided tour.

The Imperial Palace stands on the site of Edo Castle (est. 1457), a symbol of Japanese history and the seat of power for the Tokugawa shogunate during the Edo period (1603-1868).

Kikyo-mon Gate at the Imperial Palace
The tour begins at the Kikyo-mon Gate.

When Emperor Meiji moved the capital from Kyoto to Tokyo in 1868, the castle transformed into the Imperial Palace, the residence of Japan's Imperial Family.

It's a testament to Japan's enduring monarchy, one of the oldest in the world, and represents the cultural and historical continuity of the nation amid rapid modernization and change.

In this article, I'll share my experience of touring the Imperial Palace for free on my second trip to Tokyo and how you can do the same.

Touring the Imperial Palace

Dave and Kel at the Kikyo-mon Gate during a free tour of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, Japan
Dave and Kel at the Kikyo-mon Gate

Kel and I hit the breakfast buffet early at the Hilton Tokyo before walking to Shinjuku train station for the ride to Tokyo Station, a few blocks east of the Imperial Palace.

I wanted Kel to experience the impressive Tokyo subway system at least once during our brief stay en route from Vietnam to Texas.

The Imperial Palace, with its moats and gardens, covers a massive 280 acres in the center of Chiyoda City, a district in the middle of Tokyo.

We arrived at the parking lot outside the Kikyo-mon Gate by 9 a.m. and received a numbered ticket (#56) for the morning's free tour.

Due to work schedules, our only opportunity to see the palace grounds together was that morning. Since we had no idea of the demand for these free tours, we were grateful to have gotten there early enough.

At 9:30 a.m., the staff began collecting the tickets, and the free 90-minute tour of the Imperial Palace began near the East Gardens with a walk across the first of several bridges and through the Kikyo-mon Gate.

The large stone walls of the gate and inside the palace grounds reminded us of the Inca walls of Machu Picchu.



The Fujimi-yagura, also known as the “Mt. Fuji-viewing tower,” is one of the few remaining watchtowers of the original Edo Castle, which now forms part of the Tokyo Imperial Palace complex.

This three-story tower holds significant historical and architectural value. It is strategically located on the castle's northeastern corner, a spot traditionally believed to be vulnerable to evil spirits in Japanese geomancy.

Constructed in 1659 during the Edo period, the Fujimi-yagura is an excellent example of traditional Japanese castle architecture, featuring stone foundations, white plaster walls, and characteristic tiled roofs with curved eaves.

The Fujimi-yagura castle is overshadowed by the modern Marunouchi business district buildings in central Tokyo.
The Marunouchi business district overshadows the Fujimi-yagura castle.

The tower was used for defense and as a lookout point, offering panoramic views of the surrounding area, including Mount Fuji, on clear days—hence its name.

The Fujimi-yagura is one of only three remaining towers on the grounds of the Imperial Palace and is designated as an Important Cultural Property by the Japanese government.

Its significance lies not only in its architectural features but also in its role as a symbol of the shogunate's power and the continuity of Japan's imperial tradition.

Kokyo Kyuden Chowaden

Chowaden Reception Hall at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo
Chowaden Reception Hall

The second noteworthy building you visit on a free tour of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo is the Kokyo Kyuden Chowaden (or Kyuden for short).

This grouping of interconnected buildings includes the Chowaden Reception Hall, the largest building on the palace grounds.

These modern, steel-reinforced concrete buildings were completed in 1968, after the originals were damaged by fire in May 1945, toward the end of World War II.

Kokyo Kyuden Chowaden, the Reception Hall at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo
Kokyo Kyuden Chowaden and plaza

The Japanese Emperor and Imperial family make public appearances from a balcony here twice a year. The two occasions are a New Year's Greeting on January 2 and the Emperor's birthday on February 23.

Kyuden Plaza, from which I took these photos during the tour, can hold thousands of visitors for such events. The Kyuden complex includes a State Banquet Hall and the Emperor's offices.

Behind the Kyuden lie the palace's inner grounds and the Imperial Residence, home to the Emperor of Japan, which is neither visible nor accessible during the tour.

Nijubashi Bridge

Moat and “Eyeglass Bridge”

Our tour of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo continued with a walk south through the Nishinomaru Gate to the Nijubashi Bridge.

The Nijubashi Bridge is one of the most iconic and picturesque features of the Tokyo Imperial Palace. Its name, which translates to “Double Bridge,” refers to the two distinct bridges that cross the moat leading to the palace's main entrance.

The outer stone bridge is called Meganebashi or “Eyeglass Bridge” due to its arches' resemblance to eyeglasses when reflected in the water. The Kokyo Gaien National Garden and the modern Marunouchi business district are visible beyond it.

The inner bridge, closer to the palace, is a wooden bridge officially named Nijubashi, although the term often refers to both bridges collectively.

Nijubashi Bridge holds architectural and symbolic significance. It serves as the ceremonial entrance to the inner palace grounds, where the Imperial family resides, and is often seen in photographs and representations of the palace.

The bridge's elegant design and reflection in the moat create a serene and picturesque scene, making it a popular spot for foreign tourists and photographers. The inner bridge is only accessible on a guided tour.


View of Fushimi-yagura from the Nijubashi Bridge
View of Fushimi-yagura from the Nijubashi Bridge

While standing on the inner Nijubashi Bridge and looking west, visitors can admire Fushimi-yagura, another of the surviving watchtowers in the Tokyo Imperial Palace.

This two-story tower is at the southern end of the palace grounds, near the Sakurada-mon Gate. It is named after Fushimi Castle in Kyoto, as it is believed that the materials used in its construction were brought from there.

The Fushimi-yagura is an important historical structure showcasing traditional Japanese castle architecture with its white walls, tiled roof, and wooden interiors.

It served as a defensive lookout point, providing a strategic vantage point for monitoring the surrounding area and guarding the castle against potential threats.


At this point in our complimentary tour of the Tokyo Imperial Palace, we began the short walk back to where we started, retracing our steps past the Kyuden (Reception Hall) and Fujimi-yagura castle.

We were reminded that the East Gardens of the Imperial Palace were free to visit and did not require a guide.

This area includes Sannomaru Shozokan (The Museum of the Imperial Collections), which requires advanced booking and timed entry (1,000 yen or $6.65). If you don't take the tour, this museum is accessible via the Ote-mon Gate.

In addition to these beautiful gardens, there are several more attractions within Kitanomaru Park, a short walk north. These include The National Museum of Modern Art, the Science and Technology Museum, and the Nippon Budokan concert hall.

I called for an Uber to take her back to the hotel while I continued on foot to lunch at Sezanne, which I was excited to cover for Feastio, my food blog.

Free Walking Tours

Imperial Palace tour
Imperial Palace tour

Free guided tours of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo can be organized in advance by following the instructions on the official website. There's a 200-person limit to these tours.

There, you'll also find instructions for walk-in registration if you prefer to try your luck on the day of the tour you want. You'll need a government ID such as a passport or Driver's License. A maximum of 300 people are allowed for these guided tours.

We took the latter approach, and I'm sure we benefited by visiting in February instead of the warmer spring and summer months. We had about 50 people on our tour, which felt like a lot, so I can't imagine several hundred at a time.

If you prefer a more curated and personal experience, you can pay for a private tour through a booking site like Get Your Guide.

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Monday 19th of February 2024

Great write up Dave, I am adding this to my to do list for our next trip to Japan. Cheers.

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