Nijo Castle (二条城, Nijō-jō) is my favourite Japanese castle (Backpackerlee agrees with me). The first time we stayed in Japan, in 2009, we rented an apartment on Nijo Dori, but it still took us until our last day in Kyoto to go and look at the castle at the other end of the street!
The castle was first built as the official Kyoto residence of Tokugawa Ieyasu, in 1603. The building work was completed 23 years later. Tokugawa Iemitsu had some buildings added from the earlier Fushimi Castle to complete the complex.
When sovereignty returned to the Emperor Meiji in 1867, the castle also returned to Imperial ownership, before being given to the City of Kyoto in 1939.
The castle has been a Unesco World Heritage Site since 1994, and consists of four main areas, the Ninomaru Palace, Ninomaru Garden, Honmaru Palace and Seiryu-en Garden.
On our first visit, we not only left it to the last day of our week in Kyoto, we left it to the last hour of opening! So all we got to look around was the Ninomaru Palace.
It wasn’t a disappointment. From the Karamon entrance gate, to the entrance door, and then the various inner rooms with beautiful original painted screens, it was a visual delight. The only shame was that visitors aren’t allowed to take photographs inside the building.
To enter the castle, visitors first need to buy a ticket, either from one of the staffed kiosks or from a ticket vending machine. On our first visit, there were coach loads of school children queuing at the kiosk, so we opted for the ticket machine.
The Ninomaru Palace is one of Japan’s National Treasures. There are a number of linked buildings, following a path to the heart of government. Your ability to reach the room where the Shogun received court officials was dependent on your social standing. There are 33 rooms in total, from the tozamurai, where visiting feudal lords waited for their chance to petition the shogun, and the shikidai, where the feudal lords got to speak to the Shogun’s ministers and hand over gifts for the Shogun, to the main hall or Ohiroma Ichinoma, where the Shogun met the visiting feudal lords, the Kuro-Shoin, where the Shogun held private meetings with the daimyo, and the Shiro-Shoin, or Shogun’s living quarters. Once inside the palace buildings, your every move could be heard because of the nightingale floors, or uguisu-bari. The floors are constructed in sections, with the floorboards resting above a second horizontal section of wood. The gap between the two layers is connected by metal clamps which squeak each time the weight of a person bears down on the floorboards.
As you enter the palace, you have to leave your shoes in a pigeon hole in the entrance building and walk through the palace in your stockinged feet. The rooms had mannequins of feudal lords, crouching in obeisance, waiting for their audience with the Shogun. At certain points there was an audio description of the room, as well.
After walking the entire route through the palace, we exited with enough time left to take a look at the Ninomaru Garden, a Special Scenic Spot. The garden is built in the shoin zukuri style. The pond has a large island, the Island of Eternal Happiness, in the centre with two smaller islands on either side, Crane Island and Turtle Island. The Crane and the Turtle together (tsurukame) are symbols of longevity and loyalty.
All too soon, we were summoned by a tannoy to leave the grounds as the castle was closing. We passed through more gardens and went by private tea houses where the women of the Shogun’s court would entertain guests. It was tantalising to see them but not have enough time to explore them properly!
It was enough of a taster for us to return on our third trip to Kyoto. The owners of the machiya we were staying in had left an information leaflet about the night time cherry blossom viewing that was being held at the castle during our time in Kyoto. On a very cold night, before much of the cherry blossom had had chance to appear, we popped up to the castle, armed with our cameras. Seeing the castle at night, lit by spotlights, was a very different experience. Once again, we had left it until the last minute, and had to rush through the last part of the trail through the trees and the buildings!
I’m looking forward to being in Japan again next spring. We’re having another week in Kyoto, and I’m determined to go back to Nijo Castle with plenty of time to look at everything!