3.2 miles, Half day
The Tokyo Imperial Palace is where the Japanese Imperial family lives, as well as the grounds of several administrative buildings, a museum, archive, and gardens. The area is really more like a large park with lots of greenery and a moat surrounding it. It's a nice escape from the city.
It's built upon the site of the old Edo Castle, and is nearly three square miles, or 7.5 square kilometers, large -- that's nearly three times the size of New York's Central Park. It's really rather surprising how much real estate the grounds take up, and interesting to note that the grounds are considered the center of Tokyo -- the rest of the city is built around this area.
The history of the palace grounds reflects the history of Japan as well. After the fall of the shogunate, in 1868 the Emporer moved from Kyoto to Tokyo, and it is here that he took up residence -- calling it the Tokyo Castle. In 1888, after several fires destroyed old aspects of the grounds, a new Imperial Palace Castle was built. In May of 1945, allied forces fire-bombed most of the palace and its elements. In fact, the basement of the concrete library serves as the location where Emporer Showa (Hirohito) declared the surrender of Japan on August 15, 1945, ending World War II. The new palace and residences were built in the 1960s on the Western side of the grounds.
The eastern side of the grounds is now called East Garden and is a public park, with ninomaru garden, a lovely Japanese-style garden.
This guide starts you off at Otemachi station, takes you through the Imperial Palace grounds to Ote-Mon gate, where you can enter the East Garden and view the Imperial Museum Collection, the Ninomaru Japanese Garden, and the Honmaru Tenshuydai, where you can see the remains of Edo Castle. Leave the garden from the Kitahanebashi-Mon gate.
After you exit this gate, you'll pass by the National Museum of Modern Art, the Crafts Gallery (part of the MOMAT), the Science Museum, Nippon Budokan, and you'll stroll through Yasukuni Shrine -- a famous and controversial war memorial. You'll then see the Chidorigafuchi, the shrine for unknown soldiers, then walk by the Italian Institute of Culture, the British Embassy, and then get to Hanzomon Gate. Near here you have the option of passing by the National Theater of Japan and the Supreem Court while walking along the moat. Pass through the Sakurada-mon gate and you'll reach Niju-bashi bridge and view the statue of Kusonogi Masahige. Then, you'll be able to easily access Tokyo Station and end the guide.
For the most part, the inner workings of the palace and residents are closed to the public. However, there are two times a year that tourists can enter the inner grounds through the Nakamon (inner gate) and see the royal family make several balcony appearances -- for the New Year Greeting on January 2 and on the Emporer's birthday on December 23. Check the official Imperial Household Agency's website for exact times that the family will make appearances for both occassions.
In order to tour the Imperial Palace, tourists must fill out an application either over the phone or online in advanced. They will not accept applications through tourist agencies. You can download the application at the Imperial Household Agency's website.
The East Gardens are open to the public through Ote-Mon gate, and don't require an application. Otemachi station is the closest subway station to the gardens, though they are about a 15-minute walk from Tokyo station.