Since March 2018, the Imperial Household Agency organises free tours of the inner palace grounds in English. Previously this was only available in Japanese or you needed to download an app if you wanted to hear explanation in English. The tour takes you close to several buildings of the palace and former Edo Castle, while providing explanation on the history and background.
The main merit to join this tour is that you can have a closer look at Fujimi-Yagura and Fushimi-Yagura, while also walking over the iron bridge, the main entrance of the palace that gives you a great view over nearby Marunouchi district. Check out my full feature article on visiting the Imperial Palace and former Edo Castle.
Crossing Kikyomon Gate with the group
Fujimi-Yagura and Fushimi-Yagura are truly the highlights of a visit to the Imperial Palace. Without the tour you can only see them from far away or from an uninteresting angle (you can get very close to Fujimi-Yagura through the East Garden, but without a view of the wall on which it is built it is less impressive).
How to book the tour
Booking the tour is very straightforward. Select a day that is available and fill out the form. The person that books the tour can act as group representative, so one person can book for a whole group of people.
Website to book the free tour: http://sankan.kunaicho.go.jp/english/guide/koukyo.html
What to expect during the tour
Arrive more than 10 minutes before the tour starts! I arrived 15 minutes before the designated time and I was surprised by the number of people that were already waiting. At Kikyomon Gate, a guard checked my reservation number and gave me a badge. Then, they asked me to stand in a row and wait for a bit. After a couple of minutes, we were lead as a group through the Kikyomon Gate to a baggage checkpoint. After this checkpoint we were asked to have a seat in a big room inside of a small pavilion. In this pavilion were a small souvenir shop, vending machines and toilettes.
Inside of the waiting pavilion
A whopping 290 people joined the tour at the same time slot as I did. After some instructions were given in Japanese and English (such as a warning that you cannot shorten the tour), the Japanese language tour departed, followed by the English language tour.
The explanation of the tour-guide was quite clear. Even though a loudspeaker was used, it was best to not go too far from the guide. They left us pretty free to wander a little bit from the group to take photos, but if someone got too far away they intervened.
The two watchtowers and the iron bridge were the highlights of the tour for me. The main palace building and the other buildings next to it were not very impressive. I personally like the older buildings much more, so that is likely my own bias.
Keep in mind that the tour does not take you to all the important buildings and places of former Edo Castle, for this you will need to visit the East Gardens as well.
The Imperial Palace building built in the 1960s
1 Chiyoda, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo
Closest station: (distance towards Kikyomon Gate)
Otemachi Station – 6 minutes walk from exit D2 (Mita Line, Marunouchi Line, Hanzomon Line, Tozai Line, Chiyoda line)
Nijubashi Station – 6 minutes walk from exit 6 (Chiyoda line)
Sakuradamon Station – 7 minutes walk from exit 3 (Yurakucho line)
Tokyo Station – 11 minutes walk from Marunouchi exit (many lines)
Opening hours: only with reservation
Tour is organised everyday except Sunday and Monday. Closed on holidays or at special occasions (quite a lot of days). Tours are at 10:00 and 13:00, in summer only at 10:00.
Fee: free (please note the guide does not accept a tip at the end of the tour)
Names in Japanese:
皇居 Kōkyo (Imperial Palace)
江戸城 Edo-jō (Edo Castle)
On the map above, my suggested itinerary is in purple, the itinerary of the official free tour is in yellow. I recommend to do both the purple and yellow route.