An illustrated visit to the Tokyo Imperial Palace

The sky was a pale blue, with airplane contrails criss-crossing the frozen winter air high above, and a bright, shining sun. It was a great day to visit one of Tokyo’s most peaceful places, the huge gardens of the imperial palace, and residence of Emperor Akihito of Japan.

Urban sketch of Tokyo's imperial palace gardens
Imperial palace guard tower

The first important thing to know – you won’t be able to visit the palace itself, or even see it. Visitors can only visit the grounds. It is, however, a quiet and peaceful day of walking, and a great way to escape the chaos of Tokyo.

The grounds are an easy walk from Tokyo subway station. We crossed the bridge over the wide moat, and walked through the colossal wooden gates studded in iron. The palace outer walls surrounded the gardens, immense blocks of uneven size and shape, somehow fit together with great perfection.

Drawing of a japanese barracks at the imperial palace
The barracks at the Imperial Palace

We passed guardhouses and barracks, and climbed up to high ground where sentries used to keep watch. We took off our shoes and entered a long wooden building; an archers’ gallery overlooking the moat and the city beyond through shuttered window slits.

The wooden floorboards underfoot were freezing in the winter. It was the first time I’d ever visited an Asian country in the winter, and there was something endearing about the cold. Outside in the gardens, we inspected a curious persimmon tree with no leaves, just dangling orange fruit on a bare tree. Up the hill, bright red maple leaves floated to the ground.

There were some nice historic buildings, pretty trees and wide grassy areas – but I left the grounds of the imperial palace feeling like something was missing. Why couldn’t we see the palace?

I knew that shelling in the second world war had destroyed the original palace, but I also believed that it’d been rebuilt as well. I discovered later that the palace is largely hidden from public eye, deep in the garden grounds and away from tourists and locals. Only on special occasions do members of the public get to see the emperor, who waves from behind a pane of bulletproof glass.

Sketch of a Japanese meal with teapot
Japanese meal set with rice and tea

It was a little disappointing to not have even glimpsed the palace, but in the end, the walk around the gardens was a nice way to spend a morning. On the way back, we wandered the underground labyrinth of Tokyo station and straight back to the modern world of trains and commuters, and sat down for a bowl of rice served in a green tea broth.