Imperial Palace Photo Guide: Uncover the Emperor’s Home

Fujimi keep at sunset
Fujimi keep around sunset.

Tokyo Imperial Palace was once home to the Tokugawa Shoguns. They called it Edo Castle. From it, they ruled Japan for nearly three hundred years. Today it is home to an Emperor. It’s highly unlikely you’ll see him there, but you can take photos of it. You can even get inside for certain events. In the twenty-first century, it is one of the city’s top tourist destinations in the city.

To be honest, I wouldn’t call the palace a “must” for photographers. Unless they have a particular shot planned. Its walls are too high, so almost nothing of the interior is visible. The majority of visitors will only see the bridges and a few buildings. Still, they go there in droves. It is the history and significance of the place that pulls them. I must admit though, it has a few cool spots, but you’ll have to search for them.

Imperial Palace Sakurada gate and Marunouchi skyscrapers at sunset
The Sakurada gate under the Marunouchi skyscrapers.

Maybe it’s like going to Buckingham Palace to photograph the seat of the British monarchy. And it is a pleasant place to walk around or jog if you are into that. By the way, some of the views are good. They won’t blow you away, but they are enjoyable and worthy of pictures.

Tokyo Imperial Palace moat
The Hanzo gate with the National Diet building behind.

And, you won’t get any pictures of the Emperor (but you knew that already!).  Yes, he lives at the palace, but you’ll never see him there.  It is impossible to get a photo of him on most days of the year.  There are only two chances for that.

Those two chances are on January 2 (his New Year Greetings) and February 23 (his birthday).  On those days, the gates open to the public.  He speaks to them from the balcony of Chowaden Hall.  Those events are over in the blink of an eye.  After each speech, he disappears inside again.  The process usually repeats itself three times per day.  They are his only regular appearances at the palace that I know.  But the pandemic can interfere with these.

Imperial Palace eyeglasses bridge
Eyeglasses Bridge with Fushimi Keep in the background.

Tokyo Imperial Palace – A Brief History

  • An Edo Clan samurai, Shigetsugu Edo, built his residence in the Honmaru and Ninomaru. That was at the end of the Heian or the beginning of the Kamakura period. Dōkan Ōta took over the area in 1457 and built his castle there.
  • In 1525 control then passed to the Hōjō clan, which lost it in 1590. Ieyasu Tokugawa took it over after Hideyoshi offered eight provinces along with it. With him becoming Shogun in 1603, Edo Castle became the center of his administration.
  • Construction was completed in 1638 by Ieyasu’s grandson, Iemitsu. There were thirty-eight gates, and ramparts about twenty meters high. Outer walls were up to twelve meters. Moats provided another layer of protection, and they went as far as Ichigaya and Yotsuya (and that is a long way). It must have been immense.
  • When the Tokugawa era ended in 1867, they surrendered their home. It then became Tokyo Castle. In October 1868, the name changed to Imperial Castle. Finally, in 1869, the emperor moved in and has been there ever since.
  • Tokyo Imperial Palace occupies a smaller than it once did.  It is a historic site that the government hopes to restore and preserve.  Tourists flock to its Main Gate and Eyeglasses Bridge to take photos in front of them. The castle is now one of the city’s most popular sightseeing spots.
Imperial Palace main gate and bridge
Imperial Palace's Main Gate.

Photography at Tokyo Imperial Palace

Other than moats and walls, there are:

  • Buildings:  Fushimi, Fujimi, and Tatsumi keeps are on the walls.  Through a gap, you can see the Imperial Household Agency.
  • Cherry blossoms in spring.
  • Ginkgo tree along some moats. They are beautiful with their yellow leaves in autumn.
  • Joggers. As per the rules, they run counterclockwise around the walls. You’ll see many of those.
  • Statue of Masashige Kusunoki. This is in the Kokyo Gaien National Garden, a short distance from the palace.
  • The area near Main Gate and Main Gate Iron Bridge is off-limits after 5 PM.
people waiting to enter Imperial Palace
People waiting to get inside for an Imperial event.

Where are the popular spots for photos?

  • Hibiya Moat: In autumn, the ginkgo tree leaves turn yellow here. Against the Marunouchi skyscrapers, it is a scene of beautiful contrast.
  • Main Gate (正門) – you can get pictures of the two Imperial guards on duty. And you can also get Meganebashi ((Eye) Glasses bridge) in the foreground with Niju Bridge and Fushimi Keep in the background.  It is the most popular spot at the palace.
  • Tatsumi Keep (巽櫓) – this defensive tower is the closest part of the palace to Tokyo Station. With correct positioning, the Kikyo Gate and Fujimi Keep will be in the rear.
Tatsumi keep and moat evening
Tatsumi Keep.

My favorite spots for pictures

I have four. They are:

  1. Go outside the Sakurada gate on the bridge. Look over the moat up the hill towards the Diet building. It’s a great view, especially in the morning or at sunset.
  2. About 150 meters up the hill from the gate, look back towards it. You will overlook the moat, with the Sakurada gate on the left. Beyond that are the Marunouchi skyscrapers. The view is fantastic.
  3. Hibiya Moat with its ginkgo trees in autumn.
  4. The huge palace ramparts (embankments). There are a few around the palace. A worker on them looks so small! It’s a great chance for minimalist photography.

Other things to photograph at the palace

  • There are some events.  Any chance to capture the Imperial family is always welcome.  But, it is also good to include the police on duty and the crowds.  Those environmental-type elements can make the lining up and wait worth it.
  • Seimon (Main Gate), Tatsumi Keep, and the plaza area are lit up in winter in some years. I enjoy seeing the bridges and Fushimi Keep at night, even though it can get freezing. If that happened in 2023, it would be great because my pictures weren’t that good the last time I did it. Details appear on the Imperial Household Agency’s website.

When's the best time to photograph Imperial Palace? 

  • Spring is the best. At that time, you’ll see cherry blossoms (Yes, I know. No pictures of them in this article at the moment) and azaleas. The grounds are beautiful. The East Gardens of the Imperial Palace is better for flowers.
  • Autumn can be very good. The palace’s Inui Street opens, and you can enjoy its seventy maple trees.
  • If you want a particular recommendation for a time of day, I’d choose dawn or sunset. That is when the light is at its best, and there is activity around the palace.
  • I like to visit the palace on partially cloudy days. Clouds always add a little drama and interest to any photograph, and this place needs the help.
imperial palace moat ginkgo trees
Ginkgo trees on the outer moat in autumn.

Photo spots near the Palace

Imperial Palace details

See the palace’s admission fees, opening hours, and location on the official website.

Is it possible to enter Tokyo Imperial Palace?

You can’t just walk in. The palace is open for the following events:

Wrapping up

In complete honesty, Tokyo Imperial Palace won’t be that exciting for most photographers. However, it is an opportunity to get some nice pictures of a famous historic place. Most people would probably find twenty or thirty minutes there more than enough. But, if you like jogging, there is that too!

External website articles with more historical information about the Imperial Palace:

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