Vegetarian's Japan Guide

The Best Guide to Kyoto Sentō Imperial Palace’s Must-See Spots

If Kyoto Imperial Palace iis on your itinerary, consider applying for a permit to enter Kyoto Sentō Imperial Palace (仙洞御所). The palace is renowned for its picturesque fall scenery. Many people also visit the palace for its garden view, decorated with blooming flowers in spring. As only 250 people are allowed to enter this part of the Kyoto Gyoen National Garden, reserving your spot as soon as the application is open is highly recommended!

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How to Get a Permit to Visit Kyoto Sentō Imperial Palace

To visit Kyoto Sentō Imperial Palace, you must join one of the guided tours conducted by the Imperial Household Agency. And don’t worry about language barriers, as an English audio guide can be rented when you get there!

As mentioned in the introduction, a permit is required to enter Kyoto Sentō Imperial Palace. Application is open at 5 am on the 1st of the month three months beforehand. If you plan to travel between mid-November to early December, applying by the 1st of August is recommended (or the 1st of September for a visit in December). The competition to secure a permit is incredibly fierce during the fall foliage season, with most permits gone on the 1st day!

To apply, follow the steps on Imperial Household Agency’s website HERE. Note that the address you put through must be found on Google Maps for the system to process your application.

Tip: If you were not able to get Kyoto Sentō Imperial Palace’s permit via advanced reservation, you could also try the same-day application. Please refer to point 3 of the above link.

How to Get to Kyoto Sentō Imperial Palace

  • From Kyoto Station, you can take the Kyoto Subway and get off at Marutamachi Station (丸太町駅). It will then be a 15-minute walk.
  • You can also take City Bus Routes 3, 4, 17, 37, 59, or 205 and get off at Furitsu Idaibyoin-mae (府立医大病院前). It will then be a 10-minute walk.

On the Day of Visiting Kyoto Sentō Imperial Palace

If you are lucky enough to get a permit to enter Kyoto Sentō Imperial Palace, please be at the north gate 20 minutes before the tour’s starting time.

If you arrive early, the gate may be closed. But it will open by the time of your reservation. Please either bring a print-out version of the permit or note down the permit number beforehand. An ID with your name printed is also necessary on the day.

Note that while the notice of permit says the entrance is at Kyoto Sentō Imperial Palace, the north gate of the complex is actually at Ōmiya Palace on Google Maps. There will be signs and palaces/guards at the north gate. If you are unsure, check with them.

After the registration is completed, there is a resting area next to the reception. Toilet facilities and coin lockers are available there. It is also where you can rent out an audio guide.

Tip: Don’t be disappointed if it rains on the day of your visit to Kyoto Sentō Imperial Palace. The moss covering the palace’s garden is even more gorgeous on a rainy day!

Kyoto Sentō Imperial Palace’s History

Where Sentō Imperial Palace is today was the residence of Fujiwara no Michinaga (藤原道長). Although not the emperor, he was still regarded as the most powerful man from the late 10th to early 11th century. This is probably why Toyotomi Hideyoshi chose to build his residence at the same spot after the Jurakudai (聚楽第), his mansion and government office when he was the emperor’s chief adviser, was destroyed.

The residence only took about half a year to complete in 1597. But Hideyoshi was not the one who moved in. It was his son, Hideyori. However, Hideyoshi died the following year, and Hideyori moved to Osaka Castle under Hideyoshi’s will. Then in 1599, after Hideyoshi’s wife handed Osaka Castle’s west quarter (大阪城西の丸) to Tokugawa Ieyasu, she moved to that residence, which is why it was called Kōdai-in Residence (高台院屋敷). However, the residence was completely destroyed during the Battle of Sekigahara (関ヶ原の戦い) to prevent enemies from using it as a base to attack the Imperial Palace.

Fast forward the time to 1627, Emperor Go-mizuno’o’s (後水尾上皇) intention to abdicate was passed to the Tokugawa shogunate. As a result, the construction of Kyoto Sentō Imperial Palace was ordered. The venue was chosen to where Hideyoshi’s residence was. The palace was completed in 1630 and became the living quarter for all Emperor Emeritus afterwards.

The palace was destroyed 7 times by fire after 1661. As there was no Emperor Emeritus, the palace was not restored after the fire in 1854. Only two tea houses and the palace’s garden remain intact today.

The term “Sentō” was taken from the immortals in Chinese culture. It symbolizes the world of immortals who lived in the deep mountains away from madding crowds.

About Kyoto Sentō Imperial Palace’s Garden

The palace’s garden was first designed in 1636 by Kobori Enshū (小堀遠州), a Samurai under the reign of Tokugawa Ieyasu. He was also a famous garden designer, poet, and tea master. Then, in 1664, the retired Emperor Go-mizuno’o renovated it into a strolling garden and divided the pond into the North Pond and the South Pond. After more changes were made to the garden, the original design could hardly be seen.

Okurumayose (御車寄)

Like Kyoto Imperial Palace, Ōmiya Palace also has an Okurumayose. The palace’s gate was the entrance for the ministers, aristocrats, and court nobles when they entered the palace after obtaining permission. In the good old days, oxcarts were used, so the roof was made extra wide to shield the oxcarts from the rain.

Behind Okurumayose, the Seimon Gate (正門) is where the state guests enter Ōmiya Palace’s Otsunegoten, the living quarters of the Empress Dowager.

Ōmiya Palace (大宮御所)/Otsunegoten (御常御殿)

Ōmiya Palace was the Empress Dowager’s residence. Like Kyoto Sentō Imperial Palace, it was destroyed by fire several times.

The current Ōmiya Palace was restored in 1867. After the imperial family moved to Tokyo in the Meiji period, Sentō Imperial Palace and the garden were combined, so the tour to Kyoto Sentō Imperial Palace also consists of Ōmiya Palace, as they are in the same complex.

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Ōmiya Palace remains where the royal family members stay when they visit Kyoto. In addition, until the Kyoto State Guest House (京都迎賓館) was completed in 2005, national guests such as other royal family members were arranged to stay at Ōmiya Palace when they visited Kyoto. Charles III, the current King of the United Kingdom and Diana, the late Princess of Wales, stayed there when they were in Kyoto.

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You might think all the buildings in Kyoto Gyoen National Garden are of Japanese style. While it is mostly true, there is one exception.

Ōmiya Palace’s interior was renovated to Western style in the early 20th century to provide a comfortable stay for His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII) of the United Kingdom when he visited Japan in 1922. Although you won’t be able to see the palace’s interior, you can see the Western-style white curtain covering the windows.

Dantei (南庭)

The garden south of Ōmiya Palace’s Otsunegoten is called Dantei (South Garden) as it is located in the south. Dantei has a couple types of plants, including pines, bamboo, and plums, so it is also known as Shōchikubai no Niwa (松竹梅の庭).

The North Pond (北池)

The pond that appears soon after leaving the Ōmiya Palace from Dantei’s side gate is the North Pond. It is a beautiful pond with abundant greeneries and various waterbirds. In spring and autumn, the blooming flowers and the vivid fall foliage at the North Pond are the highlights of Kyoto Sentō Imperial Palace.

Before Ōmiya Palace was combined into the Kyoto Sentō Imperial Palace, the North Pond was a part of Ōmiya Palace.

Akosegafuchi (阿古瀬淵)

Long before the completion of Kyoto Sentō Imperial Palace, a pond called Akosegafuchi existed. While the origin of the name is unknown, it is believed that the pond was named after Ki no Tsurayuki’s (紀貫之), a famous Japanese poet and court noble of the Heian period (794 to 1185).

Although it can hardly be seen, there is a monument to commemorate his former residence, which is believed to be close to the pond. The stone bridge crossing the pond is called Rokumaibashi (六枚橋), as 6 pieces of cut stone form the bridge.

Momijibashi Bridge (紅葉橋)

Dividing the North and the South Pond is the Momijibashi Bridge. You might notice that the bank around the bridge is slightly elevated.

Apparently, the soil dug to connect the North and South Pond was left at the banks and maple trees were planted. This is why Momijibashi is one of the best spots in Kyoto Sentō Imperial Palace to adore the fall foliage from mid-November to early December.

Yatsubashi Bridge (八ツ橋)

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The bridge completed in 1895 crossing the Sound Pond is called Yatsubashi Bridge. The word “Yatsu” is used to describe the zigzag shape.

As the bridge is covered by wisteria, it is the highlight of Kyoto Sentō Imperial Palace from late April to early May. Moreover, you can get a nice photo of the Momijibashi Bridge from the Yatsubashi Bridge!

Suhama (洲浜) and Kakimoto-Sha Shrine (柿本社)

Moving further down the South Pond, the Suhama on the west bank is covered by more than 11,100 flat stones to mimic the sand bank. This area is called Suhama.

The stones were gathered and offered to Emperor Kōkaku (光格天皇) by Odawara province’s citizens. As they were guaranteed about 1.5kg of rice per stone collected and carried to Kyoto, the stones are called Isshō-Ishi (一升石).

Ⓒ photo53.com
Ⓒ photo53.com

At the back of Suhama is a small shrine. The Kakimoto-Sha Shrine enshrines Kakinomoto no Hitomaro (柿本人麻呂).

It was established to protect Kyoto Sentō Imperial Palace from fire accidents as “人麻呂” can also be written as “火止まる”, which means the fire stops.

Teahouse: Seikatei (醒花亭)

South of the South Pond is the palace’s second teahouse, Seikatei, which was reconstructed in 1808. The view of the South Pond from Seikatei is the best.

In addition to tea, Japanese sake and meals were also enjoyed there!

The teahouse’s name originates from a poem by a well-known Chinese poet, Li Bo (701 – 762). The plaque with the poem written is hung in one of the rooms in the teahouse can’t be seen, but you won’t be able to see it during the tour.

Ⓒ photo53.com

Teahouse: Yūshintei (又新亭)

The 60-minute tour’s last attraction is the palace’s second teahouse, Yūshintei. It is on the North Pond’s west bank.

When you first walked from Otsunegoten towards the North Pond, you would have walked past it. But because the guide wouldn’t mention it in the early parts of the tour, you probably won’t pay much attention to it at the time.

Yūshintei was relocated from the Konoe clan’s (近衛家) residence as a gift to the imperial family in 1884. With a simple bamboo fence, the thatch shingle roof building is like a private residence separated from the rest of the palace. Another unique feature of Yūshintei is its big round window.

Discover the Must-See Spots in Kyoto Imperial Palace

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Click the photo for more information about Kyoto Imperial Palace!

North of Kyoto Sentō Imperial Palace is Kyoto Imperial Palace, where the Japanese emperors lived for centuries. As no permit is required to enter Kyoto Imperial Palace, remember to check it out before or after your Kyoto Sentō Imperial Palace tour.

You can refer to our Guide to Kyoto Imperial Palace for the must-see spots in this part of Kyoto Gyoen National Garden!