Explore Japan’s Living History in the East Gardens of the Imperial Palace

With a giant moat, ancient, towering stone walls, and police officers and security guards around every corner, the Imperial Palace grounds, can be a little intimidating at first glance. However, not only is a large portion of the Imperial Palace grounds available for you to explore, but you can do so for free! Read on to find out how, and discover the true historic splendor that lies at the heart of Tokyo.


The East Gardens of the Imperial Palace

Overlooking the Honmaru O-shibafu (lawn). During the 17th and 18th centuries, a 33,000-square-meter palace, the center of Edo Castle, stood in this very spot.

Don’t let the name fool you: the East Gardens were created in the 1960s right in the center of the remains of Edo Castle. To explore these gardens is to travel back to the late 16th century, when the Tokugawa shogunate was in the midst of launching its 260-year rule over a united Japan—what history would reveal to be Japan’s final feudal government.

Making your way through the gardens

Upon entering the East Gardens via one of three public gates, expect a brief and courteous bag check. After that you’ll be handed an entry pass (again, completely free) which you’ll need to return upon exiting the gardens.

The Ote-mon (gate). The main gate of Edo Castle now serves as one of three entrances to the East Gardens.

After that, you are free to explore the expansive greenspace at your leisure. English guidance and signage is everywhere, so there’s no need to worry about language barriers. You can even download the official app for information in Chinese, French, Korean, and Spanish. Omotenashi (Japanese hospitality) is on full display here.

As you set out on your adventure through history, at the minimum, be on the lookout for the following:

  • The three remaining guardhouses of Edo Castle
  • The Fujimi-tamon defense house (you can actually go inside!)
  • The Fujimi-yagura, a defense tower dating back to 1659
  • Various flowers and trees from all over the country and the world

 

The Fujimi-yagura. During feudal times, the ocean and Mt. Fuji could be viewed from this tower (“Fujimi” means “Mt. Fuji view” and “yagura” means “tower.”) These days, land reclamation has pushed the ocean much further away, and towering skyscrapers block the view of Mt. Fuji.

When it comes to exploring the gardens, you can use the app to ensure that you don’t miss a single feature. Highlights include an audio guide and an interactive map that will notify you when you are near a point of interest.
That being said, I found the on-site signage to be more than adequate in explaining everything I came across. It just felt wrong to burry my gaze into a smartphone screen instead of soaking in the stunning and tranquil environment that surrounded me. However, the app was useful for periodically checking to make sure I didn’t miss anything important (which is actually easy to do).

Making the most of your visit

The East Gardens of the Imperial Palace are surprisingly expansive. By the time you reach the center, it’s easy to forget that you are in the middle of the world’s largest urban area. Here are some quick tips to make the most of your time in the gardens:

Get off the beaten path. Now, this doesn’t mean straying into areas that are clearly marked off limits. What I do mean is that you’ll see a lot of narrow paths that lead away from the center of the gardens. Be sure to follow them as some of the most interesting structures and historical spots are not within plain sight.

Plan ahead. With 40 points of interest, exploring the gardens can be overwhelming. Take a look at the app beforehand and note what points are most interesting. You can even enter and exit the gardens via different gates, and you may want to do so if you are on a tight schedule.

Gain some altitude. Surprisingly, the East Gardens of the Imperial Palace offer some amazing views. Keep an eye out for signs that indicate observation points and be sure to ascend the Tenshu-dai, the stone foundation of what was once Edo Castle’s main tower.

The Tenshu-dai: the base of what once was once the tallest castle tower in Japan. Completed in 1638, the structure was destroyed by a fire in 1657.

Much more to explore

This article only scratches the surface of what is perhaps the most historically significant place in Japan. Therefore, I encourage you to see the East Gardens for yourself and immerse yourself in its history.

Once you’ve seen the gardens, there’s still more to see and do. With a reservation you can continue your journey with a free guided tour of the palace grounds. If you happen to be in town for the New Year’s holidays, you may even be able to catch a glimpse of the Imperial Family. Or, if you just can’t get enough of the beautiful, traditional Japanese scenery, you can run (or walk) around the Imperial Palace grounds to your heart’s content. Whatever you decide to do, no trip to Japan is complete without a visit to this amazing historical site.

This stone marks the former site of the Matsu-no-o-roka, one of Edo Castle’s largest corridors. It’s famous for being the scene of where the events that sparked the legendary 47 Ronin tale took place. One of many important landmarks that are off the beaten path.

For smartphone users, please click the link below to go to the Tadaima Japan website which includes additional location details:
Explore Japan’s Living History in the East Gardens of the Imperial Palace

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AUTHOR

Anthony

Anthony

Writer / Translator

Originally from Riverside, California, I've been living, working, and writing in Japan since 2009. Japan has become my second home, and I'm especially fond of Shinjuku, Tokyo. That being said, I also love getting out into the countryside and exploring the entire country. Through Tadaima Japan, I hope to share the wonders of Japan with a wider, international audience. Check out my articles if you enjoy exploring on foot, convenient cafes, and affordable dining.

Information

Address 1-1 Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo 100-8111
Hours 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. (varies by season; see website for details)
Price free
Close Mondays and Fridays (see website for details)
Access Five-minute walk from Otemachi Station on the Tokyo Metro Marunouchi Line.
Phone +81-(0)3-3213-1111
Language Japanese
English
Website http://www.kunaicho.go.jp/e-event/higashigyoen02.html