Most of the year you have to book in advance and follow a guide round a special tour route. For just 2 (separate) weeks the Palace is open to all, with just a security check at the entrance, and we were lucky enough to be in Japan then. As its normally much harder for the Japanese to get permission to visit than overseas visitors, the place was thronged with locals all enjoying the free view, many of them dressed in their finest. It was a great atmosphere and because of the size of the place, never felt crowded.
It's true you don't actually get inside the buildings, but many of the exterior screens were pulled back so everyone could enjoy the artwork inside.
The gardens at the southern end of the Palace are really lovely and we especially enjoyed those. Overall the standards of presentation were - well Imperial.
There were covered sitting places at various points on the route, and the whole was easily accessible to those with physical disabilites and there were a number of toilet facilities en-route.
In the outer Palace grounds various stalls were set up selling the usual Japanese souvenirs - beanpaste sweets, green teas, calendars of Imperial family, etc., and a large cafeteria open for meals. They had clearly geared up for the rush; meals were served virtually immediately. I had an excellent bowl of rice, beans etc - with unlimited tea & a great place to sit and ponder- for just 250 Yen! Amazing.
If you don't like conducted tours - check for the general public opening dates. The Imperial Palace is well worth a visit.
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