When we were planning our honeymoon, and knew that we would be staying in an apartment in the area south of the Imperial Palace in Kyoto (known as the Kyoto Gosho/京都御所), I did some research into the Palace. Still a royal palace, and managed by the Office of the Imperial Household, along with the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, it lost its functions when the Emperor moved to Tokyo in 1869, although Emperor Taisho and Emperor Showa both had their coronation ceremonies at Kyoto Gosho.
During my researches, I learned that visitors need to apply for a permit to visit the Palace buildings, on a tour that takes visitors past but not inside the buildings, but that the park that surrounds the Palace is free access.
The entry in our copy of the Rough Guide to Japan suggested that we could either write to the Office of the Imperial Household in advance, or we could call into the Office, which is located in the park, and make an application in person to join one of the scheduled tours. The online option wasn’t available to us back in 2009. How times change!
We decided that we would chance it, and try to make an application in person. With that in mind, we went to the park on our first full day in Kyoto. The date was 5 May. Golden Week. This would have an implication for our plans.
We had a leisurely stroll around the park on our way to the Office of the Imperial Household. We passed a building that had no explanation. Perhaps it was a private residence? I liked the roof tiles. Later, I did some research and discovered that it used to be the residence of a branch of the Fujiwara clan and is called Kaninnomiya.
There are three shrines in the park. We took some time to look around Munakata and Shirakumo. We strolled slowly, taking photographs of strings of paper cranes, temple furniture, statues, torii and each other, stunned with jet lag, stunned with being in Japan.
Munakata is a smallish shrine, with some sturdy shrine lions and a couple of places to pray. One of the stone troughs where you can wash your hands and rinse your mouth before approaching the shrine to pray had some curious carvings on it.
There also seemed to be a sakura blossom theme at this shrine, which was the closest we were going to get to hanami on this visit, being far too late for cherry blossom season.
Shirakumo Shrine is a little larger than Munakata, and we wandered along the interlinked paths, finding something interesting around every corner.
The gravelled avenues in the park are regally broad. Wide enough for a whole troop of horses to accompany their monarch on a trip from the Palace into town. Two festivals start their processions from the Imperial Palace, one in May, the other in October. We have seen the October festival, called the Jidai Matsuri, but missed the Hollyhock Festival (Aoi Matsuri) by one day, as we had to leave Kyoto for Tokyo.
These days the avenues are places where Kyoto residents walk their dogs (perhaps their dogs walk them), or steal a view of Mount Daimonji, with its fire pit in the shape of the kanji for big (大). We spied the mountain as we walked from Shirakumo Shrine towards the Palace.
The Palace is near invisible behind its walls. An enigmatic place. We were quite intrigued to see what was inside.
We picked up our pace, passing a 300 year old tree as we made our way to the Office of the Imperial Household. The tree, a muku tree, is situated close to the site of another residence that used to stand in the Palace grounds, a house belonging to the court noble Shimizudani. According to the label next to the tree, during the Kinmon Incident of 1864, a samurai called Kijima Matabei died a noble death defending the honour of the Emperor.
We followed a path round the back of the visitor centre, looking for the Office of the Imperial Household. It was very quiet down that path. When we reached the door to the office, we discovered why. The Office of the Imperial Household is closed on National Holidays. Golden Week is a series of National Holidays. I should have done my research better!
We were a little crestfallen as we made our way back to the Kenreimon gate, which was also firmly shut.
To cheer ourselves up, we went to the Visitor Centre and looked at the souvenirs. I bought a postcard to send to my parents. In my journal from the visit, I have recorded how delighted I was by the paper bag the sales assistant carefully slid the postcard into. The bag is pasted into my journal. It is printed with pictures of the Palace. So close, and yet so far.
The Visitor Centre has a cafe in it, so we stood and tried to decipher the menu. A member of staff brought us a printed version in English. Unsure of what was likely to be vegetarian, we lit upon the description of noodles in broth with a fried tofu steak on top. Tofu sounded good. And so we bought our very first (huge) bowl of Kitsune Udon to share. The Instagram fashion of photographing your food had yet to start, so instead I took a picture of the empty bowl.
After our meal, we wandered back through the park towards Itsukushima Shrine, which is a branch shrine of the more famous one on Miyajima near Hiroshima. Here we paused on the bridge that crosses the pond to look at the Shusuitei tea house.
Despite not being able to go on a tour of the Palace itself, we had a lovely meander through the park. We haven’t been back since 2009 (apart from a quick visit to find food on our walk along Teramachi Dori!). Now that I know that it’s possible to apply for a permit to visit online, I’ll be more organised next time.
Of course, as you can see from this post, you don’t need to go on a tour of the Palace. The park itself is lovely, and is a place where local residents spend time strolling, or playing softball, or sitting in contemplation. It is well worth a visit.