Experience: Tokyo Free Walking Tour at the Imperial Palace

Six years into my time here in Japan and I have to admit, I am leery of free tours. Granted, I am an “info junkie” and all around history nerd so I often feel that these tours, given by enthusiastic but somewhat unqualified guides, never seem to satisfy. Still, I’d been curious about the Tokyo Free Walking Tour at the Imperial Palace for quite some time now and figured what better time to check it out then in June, when the East Garden is awash in irises.

TFWT, as it’s known for short, only runs once a week, on Saturday afternoons from 1pm until around 3pm. The meeting place is just outside the Marunouchi Central Gate at Tokyo station and there are always plenty of TFWT staff on hand to help with the sign up process and do the actual tour (so you can’t miss running into them!) The guides are unlicensed volunteers who seem to truly enjoy the varied, multinational groups that join them every weekend for a stroll through the Marunouchi neighborhood and into the palace grounds. (Tour guides offering FREE tours in Japan do not need to be licensed.) When a large number of participants shows up, the group is split into two. For my walk the other week, we had about 10 people in our small group and four guides, a very good ration if you want to ask general questions along the way without interrupting the flow of the main tour.

The guides are very friendly and their knowledge is quite good for volunteers. While some of the information was the tried and true stuff you can come across in guidebooks, there were a few excellent tidbits I picked up along the way that I hadn’t known:

  • Marunouchi, Tokyo’s central business district with thousands of office workers, claims only 7 full-time (overnight) residents.
  • The fountains to the east of the Imperial Palace were dedicated to the wedding of then crown prince Akihito (now Emperor).
  • Three types of stones were used to build the walls of old Edo Castle (where the Imperial Palace now stands) and our main guide, Kobayashi-san, could point them all out and explain their purpose.
Two of our guides outside the Imperial Palace
Two of our guides outside the Imperial Palace

The tour winds through the Marunouchi District, around the Imperial Palace grounds and ends up at the East Gardens. There is a ten minute stop along the way for restrooms and drinks, but other than that, you’re on your feet the entire time.

Was it worth it? I think so. Obviously, the only investment here is time, not money, and they even tell you in the beginning that you can wander off and leave if you get bored. Some of the guides were less sure of both their English and their information, and used cue cards to read off the pertinent explanations at each stop, but they did impart certain facts that I found new to me. And while I did see some different parts of the Imperial Palace grounds, I found that their explanation of the site related to the 47 Ronin was difficult to follow, mostly because they never used the term 47 ronin! (This famous incident is called the Chushingura in Japanese and I don’t know if they realized how English speakers refer to it.) But I stuck it out to the end and enjoyed my time with them.

If you’re looking to get a guided view of the Imperial Palace grounds and maybe even meet other travelers, this is a fun way to spend a Saturday afternoon. If you’re an old “Japan hand” and are looking for more detailed information in your tours, this might be one to miss.

4 thoughts on “Experience: Tokyo Free Walking Tour at the Imperial Palace

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  1. Great story and sounds like a good tour. I am a strong supporter of the volunteer (free) guiding system in Japan. I have used local tour guides in a dozen places so far – big, like in Ueno, to the small, around Hongu.

    1. Thanks, Tony. I’ve done free walks in Asakusa, Ueno and Kurashiki and have enjoyed them, for sure. But as a history nerd, I sometimes appreciate the larger bank of knowledge a professional guide can have. It really depends on what you want to get out of it, I suppose. These are great chances to meet “regular” Japanese people so that’s an appeal.

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