Cut off from the outside world by wide moats and high stone walls, the Imperial Palace is an especially mysterious place for us “commoners.” But it doesn’t have to be.

Like the Diet building and Defense Agency, access to the palace is restricted, but it’s not completely off-limits. In fact, all three of these places are open to visitors who follow the right procedures.

Following is a peek at what you’re missing and directions on how to get inside for a better look:

The royal tour

The Imperial Palace, the Imperial family’s place of residence, got its start as Edo Castle. Built in 1457 by the warlord Ota Dokan, it was at first little different from ordinary local castles.

The Imperial Palace in the heart of Tokyo

But soon after Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate, captured it in 1590, he launched a large-scale renovation project, pouring in a vast amount of time, money and labor. The castle’s transformation to a modern, magnificent fortress was completed during the reign of Ieyasu’s grandson, the third Tokugawa Shogun Iemitsu.

In April 1868, the shogunate emptied Edo Castle following the restoration of power to the Imperial family; Emperor Meiji relocated there from Kyoto in September of the same year.

Although the palace complex has suffered serious damage over the centuries due to fires, earthquakes and the Tokyo air raids, some traces of the old Edo Castle can still be seen.

These vestiges include Fujimi Yagura, a three-story castle watchtower built on the 14.5-meter-high stone walls. Constructed in 1607, it was the former site of the castle’s dungeon; it burned down with much of Edo in the inferno of 1657 but was rebuilt in 1659.

The Imperial Household Agency offers guided tours of the palace grounds every weekday. The tour is narrated in Japanese, but English-language pamphlets are available. An introductory video (subtitled in English) of the palace interior is shown at Someikan Hall before the start of the tour.

The tour lasts 90 minutes without breaks, so it is recommended that you use the bathrooms at Someikan before starting off. The hall also has lockers and a souvenir shop that sells ties, bags and other items bearing the Imperial crest, the chrysanthemum.

The walk is 3 km, so wear comfortable shoes. Visitors can take photos during the tour, but video cameras and smoking are prohibited.

For tour reservations, call the sankan-gakari (visitors’ office) at the Imperial Household Agency at (03) 3213-1111, ext. 485, and specify the date and time you would like to take the tour (Monday-Friday, 10 a.m. or 1:30 p.m.). Confirmation must be made by mail at least 10 days in advance.

On A4-size paper, write down the date, time, and the names, addresses, occupations and ages of the members of your party. Make two copies and send them, along with a self-addressed stamped envelope (postage 80 yen), to: Imperial Household Agency, Sankan-gakari, 1-1 Chiyoda, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo 100-0001.

You should receive your tour pass from the agency a few days later.

Power trip

The Diet building houses the legislative branch of the Japanese government. Completed in 1936, it covers 12,400 sq. meters, with the House of Councilors on the right and House of Representatives on the left. With an exterior of domestic granite, it truly is a magnificent building.

While one of the most popular destinations for school excursions, the Diet building is also open to smaller groups and individuals. Guided tours are offered Monday through Friday when the Diet is not in session.

Reservations are required for groups of 10 or more, but otherwise all you have to do is show up at the entrance of the House of Councilors between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. and fill in an application form.

The tour usually does not begin until a small group of participants has gathered, so you might have to wait.

When English-speaking guides are not available, headsets providing English narration will be offered to visitors from overseas. The tour lasts 30-40 minutes.

The Diet building is located at 1-7-1 Nagata-cho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo. The closest station is Nagatacho Station on the Yurakucho and Hanzomon subway lines.

Before you go, it is wise to call the office at (03) 3581-3111 to confirm the tour is available on the day of your visit.

Tour of duty

Though Japan renounced war as a sovereign right in Article 9 of the Constitution, the government interprets it to allow for the defense of the nation. The Self-Defense Forces — consisting of ground, maritime and air units — were formed on the basis of that belief.

The role of the SDF is the subject of much debate, but so far its activities have mainly been restricted to disaster-relief and U.N. peacekeeping efforts.

For civilians curious to learn more, the Defense Agency, the administrative body responsible for the management of the SDF, offers a tour of its facility in Ichigaya, where part of the Ground Self-Defense Force is posted.

The highlight of the two-hour tour is the memorial hall, which was originally the administrative building of the Army Academy (Rikugun Shikan Gakko), the principal school of the Imperial Japanese Army. This building is also famous for being the place where acclaimed novelist Yukio Mishima committed suicide by seppuku in 1970.

The tour is offered twice a day, at 10 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., Monday through Friday.

Those wishing to take part in the morning tour should arrive at the entrance post between 9:40 a.m. and 10 a.m., and for the afternoon tour, between 1:10 p.m. and 1:30 p.m.

There are no English-speaking guides or English pamphlets.

The Defense Agency at Ichigaya is located at 5-1 Honmura-cho, Ichigaya, Shinjuku-ku. For more information, call the Defense Agency at (03) 3268-3111.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.