Huge Municipal Park surrounding Kyoto Imperial Palace
Kyoto Gyoen is one of the three National Gardens in Japan (the other two gardens are "Shinjuku Gyoen" and "Kokyo Gaien" in Tokyo). It is HUGE ! 1,300 meters from South to North, and 700 meters from East to West. It seems to me that the garden takes up almost 5% of the entire central Kyoto. When you go there, make sure to put on sturdy walking shoes - lots of walking there.
Kyoto Gyoen National Garden is a park where anyone can come in anytime. Very nice & relaxing municipal park, centered by Kyoto Imperial Palace (you need to apply for a permission to get in the Imperial Palace ahead of time). Kyoto Imperial Palace was originally located 2 kilometers west when Heiankyo (ancient Kyoto) was established in 794, but it moved to the current location in 1331 when Emperor Kogon ascended the throne. Later toward Edo Period (1603 - 1868), as many as 200 residences of court nobles were built surrounding the Imperial Palace. In 1869, however, the capital was transferred to Tokyo as the result of Meiji Revolution. Due to that, Emperor Meiji moved to the newly built Imperial Palace in Tokyo. Court nobles living near Kyoto Imperial Palace followed the Emperor and their residences in Kyoto became vacant and abandoned for years. When Emperor Meiji temporarily came back to Kyoto in 1877, he was shocked to see the devastated Kyoto Imperial Palace and the court nobles' residences, and he ordered preservation and maintenance of the entire area. Following the imperial order, the court nobles' residences were removed, stone walls were restored and many trees were newly planted there. In 1949, the big project came to the end, and the area was open for public as a national park.
Lots to see in Kyoto Gyoen National Garden
Besides Kyoto Imperial Palace, there are some other buildings inside the park you may want to visit;
Sento Imperial Palace: This imperial palace was originally the residence of retired Emperors. Although the residence itself is no longer there (burnt down by fire), there are still two tea ceremony houses and a beautiful garden. To visit there, you need to apply for a permission. There is another building in the same ground called Omiya Palace which used to be the residence of Empresses. It is not open for public and is still used by Imperial family as a villa in Kyoto.
Kyoto State Guest House: This guest house is for VIP's visiting Japan as official guests of Japanese Government. President Obama stayed there when he visited Kyoto. It is open for public, but you need a permission to get in. Visit the website of Cabinet Office to see the open dates and how to get the permissions.
Shusui-tei Tea Ceremony House: It is open on every Friday and Saturday between March and December. You do not need an advance permission. Admission fee is Yen 100 per person. It is a really beautiful tea ceremony house with gorgeous garden.
Kan-In-no-Miya Residence: This was the residence of Kan-In-no-Miya family, one of the four major Imperial Prince's families. This beautiful residence is open everyday except for Mondays and the year-end/new-year holidays.
A Monkey guarding Kyoto Imperial Palace
BTW, there is a very interesting spot in Kyoto Gyoen - Saruga-Tsuji Corner. This corner is the north-east corner of the walls enclosing Kyoto Imperial Palace. North-east has been said to be the Demon's Gate (bad direction), and the corner is recessed to confuse Demon trying to get in the Palace. Also, there is a statue of monkey covered by wire net under the roof.
Monkeys were considered underlings of guardian god enshrined in Hiyoshi Taisha Shrine located right in the northeast of the Imperial Palace. So, the monkey under the roof has been watching Damons and keeping them out of the Imperial Palace. Since the monkey often played pranks on the people turning the corner, it was caged in the wire net.
The ground in Kyoto Gyoen is not paved - not good for cyclists. But, there are narrow traces in the gravel ground plowed over the years by bicycles going back and forth in Imperial Palace. Cyclists use these traces as their bicycle lanes and interestingly people walking in Kyoto Gyoen stay out of the traces not to bother cyclists.
"Must-Visit" place near Kyoto Gyoen
On the west side of Kyoto Gyoen, along Karasuma Street, there are several places you may want to stop by. Of such places, I personally like Go-ou Jinja Shrine which has a miraculous power to heal sore legs and lower back. Go there before visiting Kyoto Gyoen and pray to the God for protecting your legs and lower back. If after visiting Kyoto Gyoen, you can ask the God to heal your leg and back pains.
About 200 meters north of Go-ou Jinja Shrine, there is a nice hotel called Heian Hotel. I love the cafe in the hotel - "Albois", which faces a beautiful Japanese garden with a pond. They have very affordable lunch menu items. If you happen to be in the area around lunch time, I suggest that you have lunch there with a glass of wine, overlooking the Japanese garden.