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My photo guide for Tokyo Imperial Palace

The Tokugawa Shoguns ruled Japan for about three hundred years. They are long gone, but Edo Castle, the seat of their power, still exists. Today it is known as Tokyo Imperial Palace and is home to Japan’s emperor. You can even take a tour of it. It is one of the top tourist destinations in the city.

Tatsumi Keep

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.

Imperial Palace moat at sunset
The National Diet Building is over the moat from the palace.

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. And some of the views are good. They won’t blow you away, but they are enjoyable and worthy of pictures.

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 are 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.

Seimon Main Gate entrance
Main Gate.

A brief history of Tokyo Imperial Palace

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, 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.

lines of people outside Tokyo Imperial Palace
Lines of people waiting outside the gates before an Emperor’s birthday event.

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.

Now it occupies a much smaller area than it once did and is known as Tokyo Imperial Palace.  It is a historic site that the government hopes to restore and preserve.  And it is one of the most popular tourist spots in the city.

Tokyo Imperial Palace Eyeglasses Bridge
Eyeglasses Bridge at Main Gate with Fushimi Keep behind.

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 bloom in spring.
  • Joggers.  As per the rules, they run in a counterclockwise direction around the walls.  You’ll see many of those.
  • The area near Main Gate and Main Gate Iron Bridge is off-limits after 5 PM.
Tokyo Imperial Palace moat at sunset
Taken from outside the Sakurada Gate, the National Diet Building.

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.  This is the most popular spot at the palace, and:

Tatsumi Keep (巽櫓) – this old defensive tower is the closest part of the palace to Tokyo Station.  You can line it up with the Kikyo Gate, and Fujimi Keep in the rear if you position yourself correctly.

Tokyo Tower between buildings
You can even see Tokyo Tower from the palace if you have a keen eye.

My favorite spots for pictures

I have two.  Both are near the Sakurada Gate.  They are:

a)  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, and;

b)  about 150 meters up the hill from the gate, look back.  You will be overlooking the moat, with the Sakurada gate on the left.  Beyond that are the Marunouchi skyscrapers.  The view is fantastic.

Sakurada gate with Marunouchi beyond
The Sakurada Gate with the Marunouchi District beyond.

The other thing I like is photographing the events.  Any chance to photograph the Imperial family is always welcome.  But, it is also good to photograph the police on duty and the crowds.  Those environmental-type photographs can make all the lining up and waiting 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 2022, it would be great because my pictures weren’t that good the last time it did it.  When this event is held, the details appear on the Imperial Household Agency’s website.

When is the best time to photograph Tokyo 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.  For flowers, it might be better to go to the East Gardens of the Imperial Palace;

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, and;

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.

Where is Tokyo Imperial Palace?

It is literally in the heart of the city.  Several train and subway stations are near.  Some are closer than others, though.  Here is a Google map:

Opening hours

The areas outside the Imperial Palace are open twenty-four hours a day.  However, during special events, the police often block them off.

What other photo spots are in the area?

1)  East Gardens of the Imperial Palace (literally, over the wall)

2)  Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery

3)  Kitanomaru Park

4)  Tokyo Station (great ceilings to photograph)

5)  Wadakura Fountain Park.

Is it possible to enter Tokyo Imperial Palace?

No, on regular days, you can’t.  However, the palace opens for some special events (i.e., New Year’s Greeting and the Emperor’s Birthday), so please look at the Imperial Household Agency’s website for more details.  There is also a tour you can do.

workboats on Tokyo Imperial Palace moat


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, but that’s it.  Most people would probably find twenty or thirty minutes there more than enough.  But, if you like jogging, there is that!  If you have any questions or comments please leave them below.

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