Home to the Emperor of Japan, the Imperial Palace is built upon the site of Edo Castle, home to the Shogun before 1868. Protected by wide moats and thick walls and surrounded by meticulously kept gardens, the grounds offer a peaceful green escape from the steel and glass of downtown Tokyo's modern office buildings.
Runners, cyclists and strolling couples and families frequent the palace grounds, and so can you. There are tours of the grounds as well, and you can get in to see the Imperial art collection for free.
The Imperial Palace is extensive, and can be reached from several different gates and metro stations.
The Ote-mon gate is one of the most popular options, since it connects directly to the East Garden. The gate is a five-minute walk from the Otemachi subway station, or a 15-minute walk from Tokyo Station.
The Hirakawa-mon and Kita-hanebashi-mon gates are located closer to Kitanomaru Park; both are a five-minute walk from Takebashi Station on the Tozai metro line.
Although much smaller than in its heyday, the grounds of the Imperial Palace extend for several kilometers and are divided into four main parts. Three are open to visitors — the Outer Garden, East Garden and Kitanomaru Park. The inner palace area can only be visited on special tours, which depart from the Kikyo-mon Gate.
Each of the three gardens has its own character. The Outer Garden is the most urban, offering views of the towering skyscrapers of busy Marunouchi that contrast with the Meiji era (1868-1912) Nijubashi bridge and black pines.
Housing Ninomaru — an Edo period (1603-1867) garden — the East Gardens are a delightful secret park filled with blooming flowers, ancient walls and the elegant Suwano tea house. A few guardhouses from the period have also survived.
This is where you can find the Museum of Imperial Collections, a free museum featuring rare works of art and historical artifacts from the Imperial collection.
Kitanomaru Park is full of little brooks. The park houses the Nippon Budokan hall — a large event space holding everything from judo to rock and roll — the Science Museum and the National Museum of Modern Art.
Thanks to its central location, there are lots of cultural sights and things to do around the perimeter of the palace. Near Tokyo Station are the Idemitsu Museum, Tokyo International Forum (which also houses the Mitsuo Aida Museum) and the elegant shops of Marunouchi.
In the northwest corner of the palace's moats is Chidori-ga-fuchi, where you can rent a boat and view the castle walls from a duck's-eye view. A short walk from Kitanomaru Park are the moving exhibits at the Showakan and huge torii gates of Yasukuni Shrine.
To the west, you can find the National Diet Building and the National Theater, which hosts traditional kabuki, noh, and other performances. Next to theater is the Traditional Performing Arts Information Centre, full of costumes, props and archive footage.