Kyoto Imperial Palace (京都御所) is the former residence of Japan’s Imperial Family until 1868, when the emperor and capital were moved to Tokyo. In this post, we’ll share photos from inside the palace and the Imperial Park, offer info & tips for visiting, and share our somewhat contrarian perspective on this popular spot in Kyoto.
While Kyoto Imperial Palace used to have a convoluted application process akin to other imperial properties and villas throughout the city, it now offers open-access without guided tours. This means it’s one of your only opportunities to visit an imperial property in Kyoto if you don’t schedule something else in advance.
Of note is that Kyoto Imperial Palace is located in the massive Kyoto Imperial Park (京都御苑, Kyoto Gyoen), which is basically Kyoto’s Central Park. It’s the largest green space in Kyoto’s urban core, is popular for biking and running, and is also lovely in the fall or spring when foliage or cherry blossoms give the park some pockets of color.
This post will lump Kyoto Imperial Palace together with Kyoto Gyoen, and frankly, that’s because I don’t have enough enthusiasm about the palace and park to do two separate posts about them. Also, because the approach makes sense given that the palace is inside the park…
The history of Kyoto Imperial Palace dates back to the late 8th century, when Emperor Kanmu moved the capital from Heijo-kyo (Nara) to Nagaoka in 784, and then to Heian-kyo (Kyoto) in 794. During its time as Imperial Palace, this location was home to Emperor Komei and his successor, Meiji, setting the stage for important events that would occur during the Meiji Restoration.
During its early years, the Kyoto Imperial Palace was damaged or destroyed by fire several times. On each occasion, aristocratic mansions provided temporary accommodations for the Emperor, serving as temporary Imperial Palace. The present-day site of Kyoto Imperial Palace is actually one such temporary location, originally called Tsuchimikado Higashinotoin-dono. This particular site served as the permanent Kyoto Imperial Palace for over 500 years.
During those 500 years, the palace was destroyed by fire several more times. Each time it was reconstructed faithfully in the ancient style. The last rebuilding of Kyoto Imperial Palace was completed in 1855, and those remain the current, present-day buildings. Kyoto Imperial Palace served as the residence of the Imperial Family for more than 1,000 years until 1868 when it was moved to Tokyo.
Tips & Info
Kyoto Imperial Palace Park is easily accessible along the Karasuma Subway Line. You can either get off at Marutamachi Station or Imadegawa Station, the latter being closer to the entrance gate of the Imperial Palace itself. Note that Google Maps is (in our experience, at least) a bit wonky when it comes to Kyoto Imperial Palace, and acts as if there’s only one entrance and exit for Kyoto Imperial Palace Park, which is not the case.
Crowds are never really a problem at Kyoto Imperial Palace Park, even on weekends and holidays. Its large size means it can absorb crowds, rarely feeling as crowded as other popular spots in Kyoto. An assortment of maple trees and cluster of weeping cherry trees near Konoe Pond in Kyoto Gyoen’s northwestern corner makes it a worthwhile option on busy days during those seasons.
While there is no longer an application process for Kyoto Imperial Palace, there is now security screening that includes baggage inspection prior to entering. Things such as food, tripods, drones, megaphones, and political propaganda are prohibited, but it’s their use that’s prohibited. In other words, you can bring a sandwich or tripod inside, you just will be instructed not to eat or use it.
Admission to Kyoto Imperial Palace is free. Opening hours are as follows: 9:00 a.m. until 4:o0 p.m. (Last entry 3:20 p.m.) October through February; 9:00 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. (Last entry 3:50 p.m.) September and March; 9:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. (Last entry 4:20 p.m.) April through August.
I’ll level with you: Kyoto Imperial Palace is pretty far from my favorite place in the city. Of the (air quotes) “important” points of interest in Kyoto, it ranks near the bottom of the list for me. It’s also my least-favorite of the imperial properties in Kyoto, and we’ve visited them all.
As for the park, it’s fine. To offer some context for American readers, the Kyoto Gyoen (Kyoto Imperial Palace Park) would be akin to New York City’s Central Park or Los Angeles’ Griffith Park…if you replaced the green places and lovely landscaping in those with a surplus of wide gravel paths and flatness.
Given that Japan has a knack for meticulously-designed parks and gardens, it’s a bit of a surprise that Kyoto Imperial Palace Park is (to be blunt) so dull and uninspired. You have to look no further than Tokyo to see this same general concept done right, both with Shinjuku Gyoen and Meiji Shrine/Yoyogi Park.
This is not to say that Kyoto Imperial Palace Park doesn’t have any green spaces and is simply a vast and impersonal space. In some regards, it’s a nice reprieve from the hustle and bustle of Downtown Kyoto. I can see why locals like it, but if you’re reading this, you’re probably a tourist rather than a local.
It wouldn’t surprise me if the local appeal is why Kyoto Imperial Palace Park ranks so highly elsewhere. Locals–particularly those who live in Downtown Kyoto–writing about their favorite places might be inclined to include this park because it’s somewhere they visit often. However, what appeals to locals often won’t be the same as what appeals to visitors. While nice for locals, I can’t see this park holding a ton of appeal for visitors with limited time.
With that said, there are some lovely areas in Kyoto Imperial Palace Park with beautiful maple trees that boast brilliant fall colors, and cherry trees that blossom in the spring. The park is most definitely at its best during sakura season, with a cluster of absolutely stunning weeping cherry trees. If you visit in late March or early April, the park is a must-see for those alone.
The thing is, throughout the rest of the year there are far superior green spaces throughout Kyoto, with numerous areas dotting Arashiyama and Higashiyama. For tourists with limited time, it’s difficult to recommend Kyoto Imperial Palace as a place to escape the concrete jungle of Kyoto, when you’re probably not experiencing much of that to begin with.
From our perspective, that’s the crux of the problem with Kyoto Gyoen/Imperial Palace. For residents of Kyoto who work and live in Central or Downtown Kyoto, this is a nice escape from the day-to-day routine. In this area of Kyoto, it’s one of the only large and free areas that offers a nice opportunity for outdoor living. Tourists, on the other hand, will have plenty of exposure to better green spaces throughout Kyoto.
Ultimately, Kyoto Imperial Palace & Park is/are fine places to visit. We don’t mean to sound so down on them, as they are not bad, and we even include a visit as part of our 1-Day Central Kyoto Itinerary. Rather, our goal is to keep expectations reasonable, and push back on some of the hype that ranks them among Kyoto’s best points of interest. Most “important,” perhaps, but from a tourist perspective, a visit to Kyoto Imperial Palace Park is better viewed as a midday change-of-pace, and something to do because it’s free and convenient.
If you’re planning a trip to the Japan that includes Kyoto, we recommend starting by consulting our Ultimate Guide to Kyoto, Japan to plan all aspects of our vacation. You should also check out our other posts about Japan for ideas on other places to visit!
Have you visited Kyoto Imperial Palace or any other imperial property in Japan? What did you think of the experience? Would you recommend Kyoto Imperial Palace to a first-timer visiting Japan? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Does visiting this spot in Kyoto interest you? Hearing your feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!