Vegetarian's Japan Guide

The Ultimate Guide to What to See at Kyoto Imperial Palace

Amongst the many attractions in Kyoto, Kyoto Imperial Palace (京都御所) in the city center is definitely listed at the top of the tourist bucket list. The spot where Japanese imperial families resided from 1331 until 1869 is the best place in Japan to peek into the life of those of a high social status centuries ago. Aside from the luxurious traditional architecture, Kyoto Imperial Palace’s scenery throughout the year will be another highlight when you visit the emperor’s former residence!

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Tips:
☛ Please allow 60 minutes to explore Kyoto Imperial Palace.
☛ Kyoto Imperial Palace’s public toilet facility and lockers are located at the resting area beyond Seishomon Gate (清所門).
☛ There are vegan options in Restaurant Higakisaryo (レストラン 檜垣茶寮) at Nakadachiuri Rest Area (中立売休憩所) close to Seishomon Gate.
☛ For traditional dessert, visit Toraya Kyoto Gallery (虎屋京都ギャラリー), close to Nakadachiuri Rest Area.
☛ If you want to purchase high-quality tea, visit Ippodo Tea Kyoto Main Store (一保堂茶舗 京都本店) at Kyoto Gyoen National Garden’s south. The tea seller also has a traditional cafe attached.
☛ Electric-assisted wheelchairs can be rented at Kyoto Imperial Palace from Nakadachiuri Rest Area.
☛ Refer to our Kyoto Gyoen National Garden article for Kyoto Imperial Palace’s four seasons.

Important: Please refer to the official website HERE for Kyoto Imperial Palace’s opening days and hours.

How to Get to Kyoto Imperial Palace

  • From Kyoto Station, you can either take a train or a bus.
    • It is a 2-minute walk from Kyoto Subway’s Marutamachi Station (丸太町駅) exit no. 1 or Imadegawa Station (今出川駅) exit 3.
    • It is a 10-minute walk from Keihan’s Jingu-Marutamachi Station (神宮丸太町駅) or Eizan and Keihan’s Demachiyanagi Station (出町柳駅).
    • If you plan on taking a bus, you can take Routes 59, 102, 201, or 203 and get off at Karasuma Imadegawa (烏丸今出川).

Kyoto Imperial Palace’s Brief Profile

Kyoto Imperial Palace, also known as Kyoto Gosho, was the residence of the Emperor and the key members of the Imperial Family from 1331 to 1869. Although Emperor Taishō and Shōwa did not live in Kyoto Gosho, it was where their enthronement ceremony took place.

Ⓒ photo-ac.com

Like many historical spots in Japan, Kyoto Gosho was burnt down several times. The current Imperial Palace was restored in 1855. Influenced by Chinese culture, architectural elements of the Chinese imperial palace can also be found at Kyoto Gosho.

Since 2016, you can visit Kyoto Imperial Palace without making a booking. All you need to do is to check the palace’s opening hours on the official website HERE. The area opened to the public is located in the southern part of the palace. The rest is only open when special events are held.

  • A mandatory bag check is performed at Seishomon Gate (清所門) before you can enter the palace. Also, please follow the visitor route when you visit.
    • You will receive a permit to enter after the baggage check. Please wear the lanyard around your neck (refer to the 3rd photo in the IG post).
  • Free 50-minute guided tours are also held during the day. The starting time of the tours can also be found on the official website HERE.
    • The gathering point of the free guided tours is at the resting area beyond the palace’s entrance.

Things to Be Aware of When Visiting Kyoto Imperial Palace

  • Dangerous or large items such as suitcases cannot be brought in.
  • Pets are not allowed.
  • Smoking, eating, drinking, sketching, and flying drones are strictly forbidden in Kyoto Imperial Palace.
  • Photography is allowed, but you cannot use a tripod.
  • Stay away from Kyoto Imperial Palace’s outer wall. An infrared sensor was installed due to previous visitors drawing graffiti on the walls. Alarms will be triggered if you are too close.
    • You can refer to the last photo in the Instagram post above.
  • Kyoto Imperial Palace is paved with gravel, so wearing comfortable walking shoes is recommended.

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The Must-See Spots in Kyoto Imperial Palace

Since the Kyoto Imperial Palace is an important facility of the imperial family, you won’t be permitted to enter the interior of the building. However, you can still appreciate the architecture, the interior design, and the precious household items along the tour route.

Everything is full of charm. Whether the paintings on the paper sliding doors that decorate the rooms or the garden view that changes every season, your visit to Kyoto Imperial Palace will surely be memorable!

So what to pay attention to when you visit Kyoto Imperial Palace? Refer to the below!

Okurumayose (御車寄) and Shin-Okurumayose (新御車寄)

Okurumayose is Kyoto Imperial Palace’s gate. It was the entrance to the imperial palace for the ministers, aristocrats, and court nobles.

The gate is connected with many buildings in the palace through hallways. Thus, in the good old days, their oxcarts would stop at Okurumayose. The roof was made extra wide to shield the oxcarts from the rain.

Shin-Okurumayose

Beyond Shodaibu no Ma (introduced below), there is also a Shin Mikurumayose. The carriage porch was completed in 1912 for Emperor Taishō when his enthronement ceremony was held. It has extra space for cars to pass.

The gate where the emperor’s oxcart arrived is called Mikurumayose. Although the Chinese characters are the same, the pronunciation is different.

Shodaibu no Ma (諸大夫の間)

Shodaibu no Ma is a building consisting of three rooms next to Okurumayose. It was where the ministers waited for the emperor’s arrival. Each rank had a separate waiting room. The images on the room’s sliding doors tell you which rank the room belonged to. The color of the tatami mats’ edge in each room differs as well.

  • Kugyō no Ma (公卿の間): Tigers
  • Tenjōbito no ma (殿上人の間): Crane
  • Shodaibu no Ma (諸大夫の間): Cherry blossoms

Shodaibu no Ma originally referred to the room decorated with cherry blossoms but is now used as a generic term to include all three rooms.

Kenreimon Gate (建礼門)

After passing Shin Mikurumayose, you will reach Kenreimon Gate, the palace’s south gate. In ancient times, only emperors could pass Kenreimon Gate. Even empresses could not pass this gate unless their husbands accompanied them.

Nowadays, Keireimon is the departure point of Kyoto’s important festivals, such as Aoi Matsuri. It is also used when the head of state of foreign countries visits Kyoto Imperial Palace.

Shishinden (紫宸殿)

Shishinden, located in the middle of the palace, is the main hall. It was where the emperors’ coming to age and enthronement ceremonies were held and where the audience with the ministers took place. The building in the Heian period style was completed in 1855.

The hall has an East Asian hip-and-gable roof made of cypress bark. Apparently only bamboo nails were used to build the roof. The emperor’s throne, Takamikura (高御座), and the empress’ throne, Michōdai (御帳台), are both found inside Shishinden. The current Takamikura and Michōdai were completed in 1915 and first used when Emperor Taishō was enthroned here. Compared to the emperor’s throne, the empress’ throne is 10% smaller.

In addition, the Charter Oath (五箇条の御誓文) that set the legal stage for Japan’s modernization was announced by Emperor Meiji at Shishinden in 1868.

Ⓒ photo53.com

As the imperial family does not reside in Kyoto, the Takamikura and Michōdai in Shishinden are transported to Tokyo during an enthronement ceremony.

Dantei (南庭)

Ⓒ photo53.com

The square covered by white sand in front of Shishinden is called Dantei. It was where the lower-ranked officials stood.

The mandarin tree on the left is called Ukon no Tachibana (右近の橘) because, in the Heian period, the officials of the Ukone clan (右近衛府) stood in front of it. The cherry tree on the left is named Sakon no Sakura (左近の桜). It was where the officials of the Sakonoe clan (左近衛府) lined in front.

If you visit Kyoto Imperial Palace in winter, the Ukon no Tachibana might be covered by a hut. It is to protect the mandarin tree from Japan’s harsh and cold winter.

The direction in the mandarin and cherry blossom’s name is from the emperor’s angle, who was inside Shishinden.

Tip: Sakon no Sakura usually blooms in late March.

Shomeimon Gate (承明門)

Shomeimon Gate is Shishinden’s inner gate. The gate that has 12 red pillars is at the south of Shishinden.

It is considered to be an important gate that was used by Emperor Emeritus and when the emperor departed for imperial visits.

Seiryōden (清涼殿)

Seiryōden is also a building with an East Asian hip-and-gable roof made of cypress bark. You will find the emperor’s Michōdai in the middle. It is where the emperor rested. In front of the Michōdai, a guardian dog and lion are placed. It is the tradition from the Heian period. The thick tatami mats are called Hinogoza (昼御座), used as the emperor’s seat during the day.

In front of Seiryoden are two bamboo trees called Kawatake (漢竹) and Kuretake (呉竹). They marked where the officials should line back then.

Initially, Seiryōden was the emperor’s living quarter from the 10th century. Because a larger building was required later, Seiryōden became both the emperor’s office and a ceremony venue in 1590. The emperor’s living quarter was relocated to Otsunegoten (御常御殿).

The current Seiryōden was completed in 1790. Compared to the one built in the Heian period, it is a lot smaller.

Close to Seiryōden, there is a building where a security force called Taki no Bushi (滝口の武士) was stationed. Because of the heavy taxation during the Heian period, public order was at its worst, which was why this kind of security unit was set up in the palace.

The security force was named Taki, meaning waterfall. This is because there was a waterway outlet where they were stationed. Waterfall was used to describe how the water falls from the outlet.

Kogosho (小御所) and Ogakumonjo (御学問所)

Kogosho, completed in the Kamakura period (1185 to 1333), was where the audience with the Shōgun and other officials took place. The current Kogosho was restored in 1958 after a fire hazard in 1954.

If you are a Japanese story buff, you probably have heard of Kogosho. It was where discussions of how to deal with the Tokugawa shogunate were held.

The building at the back of Kogosho is Ogakumonjo, the emperor’s study room. Emperor’s Waka poem parties and the crown price’s First Reading Ceremony (お読書始) were held there.

Ogakumonjo was built by Tokugawa Ieyasu, the man who started Tokugawa Shogunate. This is why the building style resembles those of Samurai’s Shoin-tsukuri. Until 1613, it was a part of Seiryōden. Ironically, Emperor Meiji issued the “Decree for the Restoration of Imperial Rule” in 1868. In other words, the Tokugawa shogunate was ended in the building built by the man who started it.

While you can’t enter any buildings, the paintings on the wooden sliding doors are visible from outside. One of the paintings depict the nobles playing Kemari in the Kemari no Niwa.

The rectangular space between Kogosho and Ogamumonjo is called Kemari no Niwa (蹴鞠の庭), a playground for Kemari. Kemari is an ancient football game popular from the late 8th century. Initially a game that was only played amongst the aristocracy, but was later spread to the Samurai class and commoners. Nowadays, Kemari games are also held at Kemari no Niwa when Kyoto receives state guests.

Kogosho and Ogakumonjo are connected by a hallway. Only those of high social status were allowed to use it. The palace maid and servants could only use the corridor underground, called Gekō (下床). You can see the entrance of Gekō at the lower part of the hallway.

Oikeniwa Garden (御池庭)

The garden in front of Kogosho and Ogakumonjo is Oikeniwa Garden. The strolling pond garden offering this beautiful scenery was first constructed by Maeda Gen’i (前田玄以), a Buddhist priest from Mt. Hiei and then a retainer of Oda Nobunaga before becoming Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s Go-Bugyō. The garden was later renovated by Kobori Enshū.

Oikeniwa Garden used to source water from the Kamo River. It is said that it is one of the main reasons Kyoto Imperial Palace was built at its current location.

While mostly covered by vegetation, the small house in the second last photo in the Instagram post was where Japan’s royal family would evacuate if there was an earthquake.

The area covered by flat black pebbles is called Suhama (洲浜). The kind of garden design replicates the seashore. The flat rectangular stones that go into the water is where boats are anchored.

The Keyakibashi Bridge (櫸橋) leads to Hōrai Island (蓬莱島), a small island with a dense forest where the immortal lives. While it is not possible to explore the entire garden, the garden view from the tourist route is breathtaking no matter when you visit.

When Queen Elizabeth visited Kyoto Imperial Palace, she fed the corp fish from Keyakibashi Bridge.

Otsunegoten (御常御殿)

Otsunegoten is the biggest building in Kyoto Imperial Palace, comprising 15 rooms. It was built when Toyotomi Hideyoshi repaired Shishinden in 1589. After Otsunegoten was completed, the emperor moved from Seiryoden to Otsunegoten. Centuries ago, men were forbidden to enter Otsunegoten. It is said that only the court ladies, children who have not reached adulthood and some elderly men could enter the palace to take care of the emperor.

Jōdan no Ma (上段の間) is the most special room in Otsunegoten. The room is painted with images of paulownia, plum blossoms, and bamboo, symboling the emperor. A sword and a comma-shaped jade are placed behind the Fusuma sliding door of Jōdan no Ma. They are symbols of succession to the throne.

Gyoshin no Ma (御寝の間) is where the emperor slept. The drawings on the Fusuma sliding door were replaced when Emperor Meiji was enthroned. Tigers were drawn instead of the original bamboo, chrysanthemum, and chicken images. The floor has two layers with rice husks providing heat retention underneath the thick tatami mats.

The Gonaitei (御內庭) is Otsunegoten’s garden. Apparently most of the stones in the garden, including the stone lantern and the stone bridge, were tributes to the emperors.

Kyoto Sento Imperial Palace (京都仙洞御所)

Sento Imperial Palace, also known as Sento Gosho, was built in 1630. The palace next to Kyoto Imperial Palace was Emperor Emeritus’s living quarter.

The gardens at Kyoto Sento Imperial Palace is arguably more stunning than Kyoto Imperial Palace.

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

Ⓒ photo-ac.com

Kyoto Gyoen National Garden (京都御苑)

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Both Kyoto Imperial and Kyoto Sento Imperial Palace are in Kyoto Gyoen National Garden. The 65-hectare rectangular park has a couple more spots that are worth your visit.

Refer to our Kyoto Gyoen National Garden article for more information!

Discover the Must-See Spots in 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!

Click the photo for more information about Katsura Imperial Villa!

Visiting Shugakuin Imperial Villa

View-from-Rinuntei-in-Upper-Villa-Shugakuin-Imperial-Villa-Kyoto
Click the photo for more information about 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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