In the heart of Tokyo is the residence of the imperial family, surrounded by green parks and cut off from the rest of the world, around which big city life bustles.

In the centre of the Japanese capital is Kokyo1 (Imperial Palace), standing on the site of an earlier Edo-era castle. Just a short walk from Tokyo Station, visitors will see the waters of a moat shimmering with greenery, stone fortifications and bridges. Surrounding the imperial residence are the parliament buildings, the court, the police department as well as numerous banks and business centres.

Today, the area of the former Edo castle can be distinguished by the Imperial Residences in the Fukiage Gardens, which are not open to the public, and where there are also three main imperial temples known as Kyuchu sanden, the Imperial Palace in the western part called Nishino maru, Kokyo gaien (Outer Imperial Gardens), Higashi Gyoen (East Gardens), which include the Honmaru donjon, the outer citadel (Ninomaru) and Sannomaru fortifications, and Kitanomaru Park in the northern part.

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The inner gate leading to the Imperial Palace is opened wide to the public twice a year: January 2, when all of Japan celebrates the New Year’s celebrations, and December 23, the Emperor’s birthday. Crowds gather then to see the emperor with his family on the balcony behind bulletproof glass. On other days it is possible to sign up for a tour which follows a set route. To do so, contact Kunaicho (Imperial House Office; Mon-Fri 8.45am-12pm and 1pm-5pm). The free Japanese guided tour (you can hire an audio guide in English) lasts about 80 minutes (Mon-Fri 10am-1.30pm, except holidays and 28 Dec-4 Jan; 21 July-31 Aug 10am). Reservations can be made by telephone (3213-1111). At least one day before your planned visit, go to the Imperial House Office with your passport to pick up a special permit.

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Tokyo – Imperial Palace

The tour starts from the pavilion built in1986, serving as a gathering place and waiting area (Some ikan), where you can watch an introductory video with English subtitles. This building is located near the Kikyomon Gate (Bell Gate), which was used during the Tokugawa period by less prominent local daimyo rulers to enter the castle. The route passes by the former Sumitsuin (Imperial Secret Council) building, which was erected of reinforced concrete in 1921. It was to serve as a model for the Parliament building, which was constructed over a decade later. Worth noting is the three-storey, about 16 m high Fujimi watchtower (yagu ra), built in 1659 after the Meireki fire in1657. Today it is obscured by skyscrapers built behind the outer moat. The tower, standing on a foundation of natural stones and looking almost identical from all sides, suffered damage in the 1923 earthquake. However, it was rebuilt so that it could bear witness to the past glory of the Tokugawa castle.

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Behind Fujimi Tower is a moat called Hasuike (Lotus Pond) after the beautiful flowers with thick and wide leaves that fill it in summer. Near the moat on the East Gardens side you can see the Fujimitamon – a terraced building on a stone fortification rising 20m above the water level, where weapons were stored during the Tokugawa period. On the opposite side of the moat is the Imperial Household Office. The building was erected in 1935. In1952 the top floor was rebuilt and it served as a temporary residence for the imperial family until 1968, when the new palace was completed. It is here, on the asphalt-lined surface, that crowds gather on January 2 and December 23, eager to see the emperor and his family appear on the balcony of the Chowaden – the most extensive, representative part of the Kyuden Imperial Palace.

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The palace complex was completed in 1968. It is a reinforced concrete construction consisting of two floors and an underground, but it has elements inspired by traditional architecture – the long gabled, convex roof, beams and columns give it a Japanese character. Most of the materials used in the construction are of indigenous origin.

The 22,949 m2 complex consists of seven pavilions: Chowaden facing the square, the main building Seiden behind it, with Homeiden, Chigusa and Chidori to its right and left. Furthest from the square are Rensui and Omotegozasho, where the emperor attends various official ceremonies. The palace is not currently used as an imperial residence, but as an official place where, among other things, statesmen from other countries are received.

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The tour then goes past the Nijubashi Bridge. It used to be a two-storey wooden structure – hence the origin of the bridge’s name. Today it is often called Seimon tetsubashi (Iron Bridge at the Main Gate). The nearby Fushimi Tower dates from the 17th century and is one of the few surviving castle structures. It is said that Iemitsu, the third Shogun of Tokuga wów, had it built from parts brought from Fushimi Castle. The return follows the road behind the Imperial House Office building.

Tokyo – East Palace Gardens

Tourists can always take a stroll through Kokyo Higashi Gyoen (East Palace Gardens; Tues.-Thu., Sat., Sun. 9am-4pm, sometimes closed for imperial court ceremonies; admission free). Construction of the Imperial Palace Gardens began in 1961 and seven years later, on 1 October, an area of 210,000 m2 was opened to the public. Here you can admire flowering sakura trees in spring, lilies and irises in summer, red maple leaves in autumn and azaleas in winter. Traditional Japanese garden features such as stone lanterns, bridges, a tea pavilion and a pond invite visitors to stroll around.

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After entering the gardens through the Otemon gate (visitors receive a number which must be returned when leaving), it is worthwhile to head immediately to the right, to the Sannomau Shozokan treasury (Mon-Fri 1 Mar-14 Apr and 1 Sep-31 Oct 9.00-16.15, 15 Apr-31 Aug 9.00-16.45, 1 Nov-2 Mar 9.00-15.45; admission free). The Treasury Building was constructed in 1992 and houses the objects of traditional crafts, paintings and calligraphies that belonged to the imperial family.

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