For ten days a year, five in spring and five in autumn, the gates of the Imperial Palace in Kyoto open to the public without the need of any special tour reservation and application. These days are truly a special experience as you can take all the time you want to admire the amazing architecture and lush gardens hidden within the palace’s walls.
Walking along the Emperor’s path
Your visit to the Kyoto Imperial Palace will be following a set path which will take you by the Seiryoden, Shishinden, Kogosho, Ogakumonjo and Otsunegoten buildings. When you enter through the Gishumon you will first come across the impressive entranceways for officials who were visiting the palace for an audience with the Emperor. Near the largest entranceway you will also come across several large ikebana (Japanese flower arrangement) pieces which have been chosen for being the best in Japan to be displayed during the open days.
The inner courtyard with its vast gravel field looks out upon the Shishinden, which is the main ceremonial building as it housed the enthronement ceremonies of Emperor Taisho and Showa. You will notice the two trees planted in front of the hall, a cherry blossom tree on the left and an orange tree on the right representing eternity and change.
Exiting the inner courtyard you come across the Seiryoden. Taking a satellite view on the palace the Seiryoden lies behind the entranceways for officials as the Emperor received dignitaries and aristocrats to conduct any formal affairs in the Seiryoden. As you may know Japan was also ruled by the shogunate under the Emperor during feudal times and the Emperor would receive the shogun’s bannermen in the Kogosho looking out on the Oikeniwa pond garden.
In contrast to these reception buildings, the Ogakumonjo and Otsunegoten were the Emperor’s private courters where he studied and lived until the capital of Japan and with it the Imperial court were moved to Tokyo by Emperor Meiji in 1869. Although it is not possible to visit the insides of the buildings, the opened sliding doors highlight the stunning drawings in the rooms.
The Otsunegoten and surrounding buildings were the Emperor’s residence and look out on a more private precious garden. While the public days in spring are the most popular as the garden’s flowers are in full bloom around that time, the changing leaves in autumn are a spectacle in their own right.
Witnessing live Imperial Court performances
During the public opening several performances of Imperial Court games, music and dance are planned on certain days. A popular performance to watch is gagaku, literally meaning “elegant music” in Japanese, which is characterized by slow music and careful dance movements. For centuries gagaku has been performed during Imperial banquets and ceremonies featuring ancient Japanese songs, instrumental music as well as folk songs and poems. UNESCO has taking it up on its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity due to its importance to Japanese identity and history.
Another “performance” is kemari, an ancient football game of the Imperial Court. Don’t expect some famous football players to come along and play kemari though. The game is not about winning or losing, but about cooperation as all players together keep the ball in the air using any body part except for their hands and arms as they pass it to each other. Sounds easy? Well, try doing it while wearing elaborate traditional Heian period clothing.
Can’t make it for the public opening?
If you cannot make it to Kyoto on the public days (check here for the next dates, currently TBA), there is no need to worry. As aforementioned you can apply for a special guided tour in English or Japanese to visit the palace through the Imperial Household’s website. However, please be aware that although free these tours have to be booked in advance and they are limited in terms of time to about one hour. The Imperial Park surrounding the Palace itself is also worth visiting for a stroll or to visit the Sento Imperial Palace, which served as the residence for retired Emperors and is located south of the Palace within the park.
|Name:||Kyoto Imperial Palace|
|Address:||3 Kyotogyoen, Kamigyo Ward, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 602-0881|
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