Date: 6 April 2016
What do you picture when you think of Japanese castles? Most people picture castles like Himeji Castle or Osaka Castle, the soaring three to five stories castle keep (tenshukaku). So it is not surprising that Nijo Castle (二条城, Nijōjō) often gets left out from one’s itinerary when they see pictures without a castle keep.
It was estimated that once there were thousands of castles in Japan, today only more than a hundred survived, or partially survived, some reconstructed. Castles are sectioned by maru (meaning circle), with the most inner section called honmaru, and second called ni-no-maru and the third called san-no-maru. Most of today’s surviving castle architectures are concentrated at the honmaru, while most of the buildings in the ninomaru are lost. Though having lost its honmaru (and thus the castle keep), Nijo Castle on the other hand has a rare surviving example of the Ninomaru Palace (二の丸御殿 Ninomaru Gōten), one of the main reasons to visit this castle.
Tokugawa Ieyasu (founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate) first instructed the construction of the castle in 1601. It was not until 1626 that the five story castle keep and other palace buildings were completed by Ieyasu’s grandson, Tokugawa Iemitsu. Nijo Castle is the Kyoto residence of the Tokugawa Shogunate (they ruled from Edo, old Tokyo).
Upon entering the castle, the first you will see is the Karamon (Chinese-style gate). The gate itself is lavishly decorated, displaying the shogun’s wealth and power.
Through the Karamon is the Ninomaru, pictured below is Kurumayose (entrance way) the entrance to the Ninomaru Palace. This palace served as the residence and office of the Shogun while in Kyoto.
The Ninomaru Palace boasts 6 buildings and 33 rooms. These buildings are connected by corridors made of uguisubari (nightingale floor), the type of floors that creaked when walked upon, used as a security measure against intruders. Daikaku-ji has these nightingale floors as well.
The sliding doors (fusuma) in the palace are also painted with various pictures, some of the more distinct ones are painted with tigers and leopards. Ceilings are also decorated, and it was difficult to go through the palace without being mesmerized by the art.
The next building, Tozamurai-no-ma (guard house) consists of waiting rooms for daimyo (feudal lords) visiting the castle. Shikidai-no-ma (reception) is used by the Shogun to exchange greetings with the council of elders. Ohiroma (great hall) is the room used by the Shogun to meet the daimyo. This room has a historical significance for being the room where Tokugawa Yoshinobu (the last Shogun) announced the restoration of the imperial rule (1867).
Kuro-shoin, while smaller as compared to Ohiroma, showcased more impressive decorations and paintings. It was also used as a meeting room between the Shogun and daimyo, but those of the Tokugawa family branch. Lastly, Shiro-shoin is the Shogun’s private living space, only accessible by the Shogun and his female attendants. I strongly recommend renting the audio guide (500 yen), which provides these details as you walk through the palace.
Outside the Ninomaru Palace is the Ninomaru Garden, designed by famous landscape architect and tea master Enshu Kobori. It features a large pond with various rocks and stones, and surrounded by pine trees and sakura trees. One of my favorite gardens, the pictures look like paintings.
Next is the Honmaru Palace, accessed through the Honmaru Yagura-mon.
As mentioned earlier, the Honmaru which consisted of a second palace complex and five story castle keep were lost and never rebuilt. The castle keep was struck by lighting and burned in 1750. Later in 1788, the Honmaru Palace was destroyed by the great fire in Kyoto.
The structure in Honmaru Palace was later replaced with a part of a structure of the former Katsura Imperial Palace between 1893 to 1894, which is what Honmaru Palace is today. The palace is only open to the public occasionally, however it is possible to view the palace from the site of the former castle keep.
The inner walls and moats around Honmaru Palace were impressive. These are the castle’s basic defense.
Another garden in Nijo Castle grounds is Seiryu-en, a garden with a mix of Japanese and Western styles. The garden has two tea-ceremony houses.
Various cherry trees are planted throughout the castle grounds, as seen in the above Ninomaru Garden and Seiryu-en pictures. There are cherry orchards and plum orchards, thus you can see plum trees between late February to early March, and catch different types of sakura between late March and late April. Though Nijo Castle is famous for its cherry trees in spring, a visit in autumn is an alternative as the castle grounds are also planted with maple and ginkgo trees.
I find the entrance fee of 600 yen rather cheap for this castle, and spent more than 2 hours here, mainly in Ninomaru Palace. Photos are not allowed in the palace, but the official site displays some of the pictures taken inside the palace.
Nijo Castle is a 7-min walk from Nijojo-mae Station on the Tozai Subway Line. Alternatively, a few buses (9, 12, 50, 101) runs to Nijojo-mae bus stop, which is a 5-min walk from the castle. Travel time between Kyoto Station and Nijojo-mae Station / Bus Stop is between 15-20 minutes.
Nearby (20 mins by bus or 25 mins by foot) is the Kyoto Imperial Palace, which is now easily accessed and free (previously it was only accessible through guided tours). A combined visit to this palace is recommended.