Vegetarian's Japan Guide

The Ultimate Guide to Kyoto Gyoen National Garden

Kyoto is most famous for its temples and shrines. But nowadays, due to over-tourism, you can hardly enjoy the traditional township in the city center fully. Fortunately, Kyoto Gyoen National Garden (京都御苑), which is a few stations away from Kyoto Station, isn’t flooded with tourists. The vast park that houses Kyoto Imperial Palace and Kyoto Sentō Imperial Palace is a great place to adore Japan’s traditional architecture and gardens. The great news is entry is free!

Table of Contents

Kyoto Gyoen National Garden’s Brief Profile

Gyoen means that the garden is owned by the imperial family, and Gosho (御所) refers to the residence of a person of high status, such as the emperor. So Kyoto Imperial Palace in Kyoto Gyoen National Garden is called Kyoto Gosho in Japanese.

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Apart from Gosho, Kyoto Sento Imperial Palace (京都仙洞御所) and Ōmiya Palace (大宮御所) are also located in Kyoto Gyoen National Garden. Sento Imperial Palace was where the Emperor Emeritus lived, and Ōmiya Palace was for the Empress Dowager.

Since 1949, Kyoto Gyoen National Garden has been a spacious park open to the general public. It is under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of the Environment along with Kokyogaien National Gardens and Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden.

The garden was once lined with imperial families’ and court nobles’ mansions, so parts of their residences remain in the 65-hectare rectangular park beside the two palaces.

The well-maintained garden is scenic no matter which season you visit it. It is a great spot in Kyoto for cherry and peach blossom hunting in spring. In summer, many bird lovers would gather there for bird watching. The colorful maple leaves and golden ginkgo in autumn are picturesque, and the snow scenery and the plum blossoms create an artistic painting!

Moreover, Kyoto Gyoen isn’t just a tourist attraction but also a place for the locals to spend a relaxing weekend.

In addition to the scenery, Kyoto Gyoen National Garden is where the procession of Kyoto’s famous festivals, such as the Aoi Matsuri (葵祭) on 15th May and the Jidai Matsuri (時代祭) on 22nd October.

Tip: Look for the traditional wooden information plates in Kyoto Gyoen. Collect all folios of rubbings underneath the information plates to form one big picture!

Kyoto Gyoen National Garden’s Four Seasons

  • Spring:
    • The cherry blossom season at Kyoto Gyoen National Garden is from mid-March to April.
      • There are more than 1,000 cherry trees of various species in the garden.
      • The weeping cherry in the Site of Konoe Residence is the most famous cherry blossom in the garden.
    • The peach blossom season at Kyoto Gyoen National Garden is from mid-March to mid-April.
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  • Autumn:
    • Many trees in Kyoto Gyoen National Garden are over a hundred years old. The fall foliage scenery in Haha-to-Ko-no-Mori Forest (母と子の森) on the west is especially stunning.
    • The autumn foliage season at Kyoto Gyoen National Garden is from late November to mid-December.
  • Winter:
    • The plum blossom season at Kyoto Gyoen National Garden is from mid-January to mid-March. It is when the plum’s elegant fragrance surrounds you.
      • There are more than 200 plum trees in the garden.
      • Around mid-March, you may be able to adore both the plum and the peach blossoms at the same time.

The Must-Visit Spots in Kyoto Gyoen National Garden

Kyoto Imperial Palace (京都御所)

Kyoto Imperial Palace is the highlight of Kyoto Gyoen National Garden. The former residence of the Japanese emperor has splendid Japanese-style buildings from centuries ago and gorgeously maintained gardens. By knowing what used to be performed inside each of the buildings, you could picture the lifestyle of the Japanese monarchy a few centuries ago.

For more information, refer to our article on Kyoto Imperial Palace.

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Kyoto Sento Imperial Palace (京都仙洞御所)

Sento Imperial Palace, also known as Sento Gosho, was built in 1630. It was Emperor Emeritus’s living quarter. As no restoration took place after the fire hazard in 1854, only the palace’s garden and tea house remain today.

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

The palace’s garden was designed by Kobori Enshū (小崛遠州), a Samurai under the reign of Tokugawa Ieyasu. He was also a famous garden designer, poet, and tea master at the time.

The best time to visit Sento Gosho is autumn to adorn the fall foliage. This is why a reservation to visit Kyoto Sento Imperial Palace is hard to come by from mid-November to early December. In spring, you can also admire cherry blossoms, wisteria, and azalea at Kyoto Sento Imperial Palace.

For more information about this part of Kyoto Gyoen National Garden, refer to our Kyoto Sento Imperial Palace article!

Kyoto Gyoen Kan’in-no-miya Residence Site (閑院宮邸跡)

Kyoto Gyoen Kan’in-no-miya Residence Site is the best place to stop by before exploring Kyoto Gyoen National Garden. It is where you can learn the history of Japan’s imperial court, the relocations of the capital, and the completion of the Kyoto Imperial Palace.

While most of the 200 or so residences of imperial family members and court nobles were demolished after Japan’s capital moved to Tokyo, Kan’in-no-miya Residence was retained for several reasons.

The Kan-in-no-miya family was founded in 1710 by Prince Naohito (直人親王). He was Emperor Higashiyama’s (東山天皇) sixth son. The family is one of the four branches of the imperial family that is eligible to succeed to the throne. Prince Naohito’s descendants lived in the residence until 1877.

Kyoto Gyoen Kan’in-no-miya Residence’s main building consists of four rooms and a courtyard. The rooms on the south and west are open to the public as a museum. In particular, the south part of the building was constructed in the Shoin-zukuri style. It is a common architectural style in the Edo period.

  • Kyoto Gyoen Kan’in-no-miya Residence Site is open from 9 am to 4:30 pm from Tuesday to Sunday except from the end of December to the beginning of January.
    • The last admission is taken at 4 pm.
  • Entry is free.

Shūsui-tei Teahouse (拾翠亭)

Close to Kan’in-no-miya Residence, there is another scenic spot. The black-colored teahouse, Shūsui-tei, is the only remaining structure of the Kujō residence. The Kūjo clan was one of the Five Regents Houses (五摂家) when Japan’s imperial court still held political power.

Throughout the year, the Site of Kujō Residence is decorated with different flowers and maple leaves. The waterbirds that live around the pond in front of the teahouse also form a part of the view from Shūsui-tei.

The teahouse was built in the late Edo period in the 18th century. If you are interested in examining the interior of Shūsui-tei, visit it during its opening hours.

  • Shūsui-tei is open from 9:30 am to 3:30 pm from Thursday to Saturday except from the end of December to the beginning of January.
    • The last admission is at 3:15 pm.
  • The admission fee is 300 yen for senior high school students and above.

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Demizu Stream (出水の小川)

Beyond the restricted area next to Kan’in-no-miya Residence, there is an artificial stream. It was created by pumping the underground water to add a small river to the park and for children to play in the water in summer.

In spring, the cherry blossoms bloom at the sides of the stream is one of the photogenic spots in Kyoto Gyoen National Garden.

Sarugatsuji (猿ヶ辻)

From the Kyoto Imperial Palace‘s map, you can clearly tell that the upper right corner of the wall is recessed inward. This structure is called Sarugatsuji. It protects the palace from evil spirits because a statue of its guardian is placed.

Why the upper right corner? Because the Japanese believe that the gate to the demon’s world is located in the northeast direction. This is why the people in Kyoto made the wall recessed inward so that a northeast corner was “missing”.

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The monkey statues placed under the roof are the messengers of Hiyoshi Taisha‘s god.

Just to be clear, the metal mesh in front of the statue isn’t protecting the monkeys. The mesh was installed to protect those who walk past it at night because it was said that the monkeys were always mischievous.

Mori no Bunko Library (森の文庫)

The library in the garden north beyond Kyoto State Guest House (京都迎賓館) is located in a leafy area. It is where you can get some quiet reading time and relaxation. Many of the books on the bookshelf, such as picture books about birds and plants, are suitable for children.

As there are benches around the small library, it is a great spot to take a break and rest.

In addition, a birdwatching spot is close to Mori no Bunko. The small pond was created for birds to bathe.

Note that Mori no Bunko Library is open from April to November.

Hamagurimon Gate (蛤御門)

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Hamagurimon Gate is Kyoto Gyoen National Garden’s gate. Its formal name is Shinzaikegomon (新在家御門). The reason that it was nicknamed Clam Gate was because of a fire incident at Kyoto Imperial Palace in 1788 (天明の大火). When the normally closed gate was opened due to the fire, it was like watching a clam that opened up when cooked.

The gate is a historical landmark as it was where the Kinmon Incident (禁門の変) took place in 1864, which destroyed around 30,000 households.

You can still see the bullet holes in the gate’s beams and columns from the fierce battle between the Chōshū clan and the shogunate forces such as the Aizu, Satsuma, and Kuwana clan.

The Bicycle Path in Kyoto Gyoen National Garden

Along the outer wall of the Kyoto Imperial Palace, you might notice a line on the ground that isn’t covered by gravel. If you are wondering whether there is anything special about the line, the gravel wasn’t intentionally removed from that space!

Because the ground of Kyoto Gyoen National Garden is covered by gravel, it is difficult for bicycle tires to run on the small stones. Therefore everyone passes through the same marking where previous bicycles also passed due to the lack of stones. A white line is then naturally formed as a result (´▽`*).

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The Restaurant in Kyoto Gyoen National Garden

Kyoto Gyoen National Garden is huge and takes a few hours to explore properly. If you need a break in between, visit Nakadachiuri Rest Area (中立売休憩所) close to Kyoto Imperial Palace’s Seisho Gate (清所門). Restaurant Higakisaryo (レストラン 檜垣茶寮) here is open throughout the day. The restaurant’s interior is in a bright wooden theme, which is a good match with the nearby leafy area (refer to the 3rd to the 5th photo in the IG post).

During lunchtime, incredibly tasty noodle dishes are served. Coffee, tea, soft drinks, alcohol, and various confectionery are also on the menu. The best thing is the restaurant has more than one vegan option. Look for the ones that have a sprout mark!

Refer to the official website HERE for Restaurant Higakisaryo’s menu.

While waiting for your order, you can also check out the souvenir corner on the other end of the rest house.

Moreover, Nakadachiuri Rest Area is also Kyoto Gyoen National Garden’s tourist information center. Wheelchair rental service, coin-operated lockers, and a multi-purpose room are available here.

  • Nakadachiuri Rest Area is open from 9 am to 4:30 pm.
  • Restaurant Higakisaryo is open from 10 am to 3:30 pm (last order).
    • Lunch menu is available from 11 am to 3:30 pm (last order).

Discover Katsura Imperial Villa

Click the photo for more information about Katsura Imperial Villa!

Around 45 minutes by public transportation from Kyoto Imperial Palace, Katsura Imperial Villa is another facility related to Japan’s imperial family that you can visit. It is where you encounter amazingly designed gardens and buildings from the early Edo period.

So refer to our Katsura Imperial Villa article for more information about the perfect place to feel the beauty of traditional Japan!

Visit Shugakuin Imperial Villa

Shugakuin Imperial Villa at the west foot of Mt. Hiei (比叡山) is another Japanese imperial family facility worth visiting in Kyoto. The villa that has earned a 2-Star rating from the Michelin Green Guide is also known as the ‘Emperor’s Garden (帝王の庭園)’.

If you are interested in visiting the spot with the picturesque scenery in the photo to the right, refer to our Guide to Shugakuin Imperial Villa!

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Click the photo for more information about Shugakuin Imperial Villa!

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