On a lovely and warm Saturday afternoon, I joined a Tokyo Free Walking Tour around the East Gardens of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. It is an easy way to get to know more about the history and culture of Japan and how significant the Imperial Palace has been through the ages.
The tour starts from the Marunouchi Central Exit of JR Tokyo Station every Saturday at 1pm, with occasional tours on weekdays. Rain or shine, the friendly volunteers from Tokyo Free Walking Tours will take you through the area, explaining significant features of the buildings and places. The whole tour takes about two hours, and ends near Takebashi Station.
No reservation is needed, and there are enough guides to go around. Each tour has roughly ten people, with two guides, who will take turns introducing the points of interest. During peak tourist season, the groups can get larger, but they are experienced enough to know how many guides to have on hand. With two guides, you get more opportunities to talk to both of them in between stops. This is the time to ask them just about anything you are curious about; from the places to see, what things to eat and what they like to do in Tokyo, from a local’s perspective.
The tours are all conducted in English, and the guides are well prepared with illustrations and diagrams to assist in explanations. Many of the places in the Imperial Palace have been destroyed by fire or fighting and rebuilt several times over the centuries, so the old paintings and woodblock prints are the only way to see what the palace grounds looked like at that time. Others are interesting diagrams showing, for example, how certain places are named in relation to their direction from important buildings, and how many children, wives and mistresses each shogun had.
The tour follows an easy pace and includes a 10 to 15 minute break, depending on the pace of the group. Quite a lot of ground is covered, but the route is relatively flat except for one part with stairs. I highly recommend this tour. Not only will it not cost you a penny, it is also informative and the guides are friendly, well-informed and have a good command of English. A few of the guides also take the opportunity to wear traditional garb while leading the tour. All the guides are volunteers, and it is commendable for them to share their Saturday afternoon with visitors to help them understand more about Japan.