Visiting Japan’s old capital city Kyoto leaves you with no shortage of things to do and see. There are a plethora of temples and shrines to visit, museums to go to, and countless shops to check out. However, no trip to the old capital is complete without a visit to the old Tokugawa Shogunate’s stronghold, Nijo Castle in Nakagyo-ward. Nijo-jo is a sight to behold in the middle of Kyoto’s bustling city centre, not far off from the old Imperial Residence and the lively shopping districts of Shijo Street.
Nijo Castle was originally built in 1603 for Tokugawa Ieyasu, the Shogun or military general at the time, while he resided in Kyoto. During the Edo Era, the shogunate predominately held power over the country rather than the Imperial Family, though the era was filled with various power struggles. The final editions to the castle were made in 1626, by Ieyasu’s grandson Iemitsu. The site remains unchanged since then. The modifications that were made were to improve the view of the gorgeous garden from the Grand Hall and the drawing room.
When the Edo Era came to close and the Meiji Restoration kicked in, the castle was temporarily used as an Imperial Palace before being donated to the city of Kyoto and officially being opened to the public for the first time.
The castle grounds are approximately 270,000 meters2. The grounds are separated into two main parts—the Honmaru, the inner circle of defence, and the Ninomaru, the outer circle of defence. Both circles are surrounded by large stone walls and a moat. There is a large garden separating the two areas. Many people believe that the buildings are the greatest surviving examples of Feudal Japan’s castle/palace architecture. In 1994, Nijo Castle was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has since remained a vastly popular, yet well-kept, site to behold when in Kyoto.
The main attraction of Nijo Castle is undoubtably Ninomaru-Goden. It served as both the residence and office for visiting military generals. It consists of numerous buildings, with a total of 33 rooms. They are all connected by corridors with the famous nightingale floors, uguisu-bari. These famous floors are designed to squeak when stepped on to warn of intruders. Must have made sneaking out for a late-night tryst or pantry run hard! Poor little shogunates!
All the rooms have tatami flooring and the ceilings and sliding doors are extravagantly adorned with gorgeous paintings. The paintings of “matsu-kujaku”, or pine trees and peacocks, located in the Grand Hall are exceptional. The Shogun and daimyo, feudal lords, were greeted by the site every time they held meetings.
The gardens of Nijo Castle are breath-taking, and I can never get enough of them!
The garden dividing the two circles of defence is as old as the castle itself and surprisingly has retained the majority of its original landscape for nearly 400 years! This is no small feat and it truly speaks to the beauty of it and dedication of those maintaining the grounds. Japan has declared the garden itself to be a Special Place of Scenic Beauty, or tokubetsu-meisho (特別名勝), at the national level. Visitors are able to walk around the elegant garden and over the large pond during their visit to enjoy the different sceneries they provide.
When the castle was originally built, there was a five-story castle keep, or tenshukaku, that was in the Honmaru. However, the tenshukaku was destroyed in 1750 after it was struck by lightning. Having burnt to the ground, the Honmaru-Goden is the only remining building in the Honmaru. The building is registered as an important cultural property and it not open to the general public, except for rare special occasions. Visitors can still enter the main grounds and enjoy the gardens around the Honmaru-Goden.
The gardens of Nijo Castle are filled with cherry trees, over 400 to be more specific. They start blooming towards the end of March and are absolutely stunning when in full bloom. If you are in Kyoto in spring, you have to check out the cherry blossoms at Nijo Castle! There is usually a night illumination, along with the general day viewing, which is breath-taking. The view of the cherry blossoms against the traditional scenery of the castle buildings is fabulous.
If you are planning a trip to Kyoto, you need to add Nijo Castle to your list of must-see places! The history alone will blow you away and the scenery only adds to the appeal of the UNESCO World Heritage Site! Be sure to check out Nijo-jo during your next trip!