In the very centre of Tokyo, hidden behind stone walls and a forest so thick it’s impossible to see through, is a place not many people know much about. Separate to the Imperial Palace, the Akasaka Imperial Estate covers about 50 hectares—almost the same size as Shinjuku Gyoen. It’s quite a chunk of central Tokyo!
Guards stand watch at the dozen or so entrances and can constantly be seen walking the perimeter of the estate on the lookout for anything or anyone suspicious. The reason for such high security? The estate is home to several members of the imperial family. Perhaps the most notable current resident is Crown Prince Naruhito who will become the new emperor of Japan after his father abdicates on April 30, 2019.
While the majority of the estate is off-limits for obvious reasons, there is one section open to visitors—the only part of the estate visible from the street. Instead of stone walls, an ethereal white and gold gate welcomes the general public to the Akasaka Palace.
Beginnings as a Palace
In 1899, work was started on a palace that was to be the-then Crown Prince’s new residence. It took a decade for the three-level building to be completed. It was made to be earthquake and fire resistant, and even survived WWII.
Headed by prominent architect, Tokuma Katayama, it was designed as a neo-baroque style palace—the only of its kind in Japan. Katayama had studied under a British architect and had lived in the UK and Europe, so it’s not surprising that Akasaka Palace resembles famous European buildings. Many say the exterior is like Buckingham Palace, while the interior is similar to the Palace of Versailles. There are also similarities to the New Palace in Vienna and the Louvre in Paris.
I’ve personally been to a few palaces in Europe, and while at first glance Akasaka Palace seemed very similar to many of them, there were some notably unique features. One of the most interesting elements was the mixture of western and Japanese reliefs and statues. Samurai armour, Japanese drums and phoenix birds were beautifully blended with chariots, violins and lions. Seeing sculptures of samurai armour in a palace took a little getting used to!
Also, I realise the palace was built only 109 years ago and has undergone renovations, but the interior was absolutely impeccable. Extremely clean and tidy, nothing out of place, looking worn or needing fixing. Everything was in perfect condition. Attention to detail is definitely what the Japanese are good at.
Inside the palace, there are several large rooms we can go in, though we can’t see inside the bedrooms where all the VIPs stay. We first pass by the entrance foyer which is made of black and white checker marble and stone. Very, very similar to Versailles! A red carpet leads official guests up the central staircase lined with gold lampstands.
On the top floor, we pass through reception rooms, banquet rooms and ballrooms, all with lavish gold leaf-decorated walls, velvet curtains, beautiful ceiling paintings, tapestries, enormous chandeliers, and exquisite furniture.
Conversion to the State Guest House
After WWII, more and more state and official guests from other countries began visiting Japan and an appropriate place to hold diplomatic events was needed. The-then Crown Prince moved to Togu Palace (also located in the Akasaka Estate), and from 1968 to 1974, a major renovation was undertaken to prepare the palace to receive guests and become the State Guest House.
The first official guest after the renovation was President Ford from the U.S. As a symbol of peace and friendship between the two countries, he planted a tree to the west of the fountain which is a now major landmark people come to see. Several months later, Queen Elizabeth II visited in 1975, also presenting two oak saplings from Windsor Castle. Tree no.1 is still going strong, and tree no.2 is at the nearby British Embassy as backup!
Apart from hosting presidents and queens, the palace has also been used for G-7 meetings, the 1964 Tokyo Olympics organising committee and international summits.
Addition of the Japanese-Style Annex
Since the main palace was a completely western-style building, the government wanted a place where they could entertain official guests in a traditional Japanese setting. So, the Japanese-style annex, called Yushin-tei, was built on the estate during the 1968-74 renovations.
The gardens surrounding the annex are minimalistic and beautiful. At the front is a simple Kyoto-style garden made of white, raked stones and a small bamboo forest. To the back of the building is a small pond full of carp, an impressive collection of bonsai trees the oldest of which is 140 years old, and a man-made hill covered in plum trees and cedar trees. The towering cedar trees were planted to block out the surrounding city buildings and create a peaceful oasis. It must be beautiful to visit in February when the plum flowers pop open creating a sea of red and white!
The pond was built close to the building so that light would reflect off the surface of the water onto the ceiling of the main banquet room inside, creating a soothing, relaxing mood. This main room is where guests are treated to various performances like ikebana (Japanese flower arranging) and traditional dances. Guests can also feed the fish in the pond from the window.
Continuing down the corridor, we come to a cosy izakaya-inspired bar. Here, the guests and hosts sit at a bar counter together, eating and drinking in a more casual setting and giving them a chance to bond. Another room of the annex is the tea room. Unlike a traditional tea ceremony room though, only the women making the tea sit on a tatami floor, while the guests get to sit in seats! I guess our world leaders don’t find sitting seiza-style (on your knees) comfortable—I completely understand.
Want to visit?
A calendar showing the days when palace is open to the public (i.e. when there are no state guests) is released online two months in advance.
Front garden: Entrance is free and doesn’t require a reservation.
State Guest House/Palace: Entrance costs 1,000yen (may increase when special exhibitions are held). An entry time-slot can be reserved online and is recommended during peak holiday periods. Visitors can also enter without a reservation but only a certain number of people are accepted per day.
Japanese-Style Annex: Entry is only possible through a guided tour (50min) which costs 1,500yen and includes entry to the palace.
I definitely recommend the Japanese-Style Annex guided tour. There are several Japanese tours each day, and one English tour at 3pm. For those doing the English tour, I recommend arriving at the palace around 12-1pm. Access is through the west gate opposite the prestigious Gakushuin Primary School (nearest train station is Yotsuya Station). Go through security check, get the audio guide (200yen) and start by doing a self-guided tour of the State Guest House/Palace which takes about 1 hour depending on your pace. Check out the exterior of the palace and the back garden before the tour which begins to the right of the fountain (meeting time is 2:45pm). There is a 15-20min video showing in the Administration Building if you have time. After the tour, spend time in the front garden where there are also food trucks and some souvenirs for sale, before leaving through the front gate. The palace closes strictly at 5pm.