In 1600, Ieyasu Tokugawa’s (1542-1616) victory at Sekigahara enabled him to obtain a position of supreme power to order the the western feudal lords to construct Nijo-jo (Nijo Castle). Beginning in 1602 and continuing into the following year, the original castle only covered the grounds of the present day Ninomaru Palace.
Though the castle was used to plan strategy sessions for the winter and summer sieges of Osaka Castle in 1614 and 1615, it’s primary purpose, and hence the grand architecture and size, was to be a symbol of power to both allies and enemies. After the demise of Oda Nobunaga, Tokugawa Ieyasu was also wary of treachery, and very cautious. The castle became the headquarters for official business and, of course, as a residence for the Tokugawa Shoguns while in Kyoto.
During the Kanei era (1624-1630) a massive construction project was begun by the third shogun, Tokugawa Iemitsu (1603-1651). The project would not only add a bit of polish to the castle, but also increase it’s size and grandeur. In September 1626 the emperor Goyozei was scheduled to visit Nijo, an act that would affirm the power and authority of the Shogunate, and therefore the castle had to be prepared for the official visit. Additional pressure was added by the fact that in 1588 Toyotomi Hideyoshi (the rival of Iemitsu’s grandfather – Tokugawa Ieyasu) received an imperial visit at Jurakudai and it was this precedent that Iemitsu not only had to meet, but to outshine.
The construction began in 1624 and was completed in 1626. New buildings for the imperial party were erected within the Ninomaru compound, south of the pond in the Ninomaru Garden. A castle tower was transported from Fushimi Castle while the Ninomaru tower was moved to Yodo Castle, giving the palace a new look. In addition to the new buildings the original castle was not only expanded on, as was once thought, but totally reconstructed. For the interior decorations painters from the Kano school were hired and created brilliant paintings of landscapes and natural scenes on the sliding doors of the palace. When you walk through the Ninomaru palace these days, these are the masterpieces you can see. Take a moment to have a look at the detailed carvings as well. In the Ninomaru Garden, created under the supervision of Kobori Enshu (1579-1647), a brilliant architect and tea master, the very rocks were turned to face south to provide the Emperor with the best view.
The emperor was greeted on September 6, 1626 by both Iemitsu and his predecesor Hidetada and treated to five days of splendor. This visit brought the focus of the country to Nijo-jo, thus assuring the legitimacy of the shoguns and bakufu.
However shortly after the emperor’s visit the castle and grounds began to fall into disrepair due to the great expense involved in maintaining such a large estate. The shogunate had many of the smaller buildings dismantled and moved to other locations or simply destroyed to reduce the cost of upkeep. Several fires claimed some of the larger buildings. The most notable fires were in 1750 and 1788. The first fire, caused by lightning strike, reduced the five story pagoda (tower) near the Central Keep (Honmaru) to ashes. The second was the 1788 Kyoto fire that not only claimed several buildings in the complex, but also completely destroyed the Honmaru itself.
Ironically both the affirmation of the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1603, and the resignation of the final Shogun in 1867 took place at Nij-jo. Amid increasing chaos as Japan tried to adjust to the consequences of the arrival of the representatives of powerful industrialized western nations, Tokugawa Yoshinobu (1837-1913) resigned in October 1867, sailing to Edo (Tokyo) on a Dutch frigate, and abandoning his forces.
In early 1868 the young emperor Meiji signed a decree abolishing the shogunate, and thus restoring power (in theory at least) to the Imperial House. This “restoration” also meant that Nijo-jo was handed over to the Imperial Household, who promptly installed the Imperial Cabinet within the castle.
In 1871 Nijo was transferred to Kyoto and the city administrations set up their headquarters there. At the time many of the paintings were rolled up and stored while others were vandalized by civil servants, caught up in the popularization of westernization and trivialization of their own culture. Jurisdiction of the castle was then passed onto the war department but the City Administration Headquarters also remained.
In 1884 the castle once again changed hands, this time to the Imperial household department and it’s official name was changed to Nijo Detached Palace.
In 1893-1894, Prince Katsura’s palace, originally built in 1847, was taken from the Kyoto Imperial Palace grounds and moved to the grounds of Nijo Castle. It is this palace than is now known as Honmaru Palace.
A large reception was held in the northern section of the Ninomaru Palace in 1915 to celebrate the ascension of the Taisho emperor.
In 1939 Nijo Detached Palace was taken off of the list of Imperial buildings and the Imperial Family donated the Castle to the city of Kyoto. The name was changed to Imperial Gift Detached Nijo Palace and opened to the public in 1940. Twelve years later in 1952 Ninomaru Palace was named a National Treasure and the Honmaru Palace, along with other buildings on the compound, were named as Important Cultural Properties. In 1994 Nijo Castle was registered by UNESCO on the World Heritage List.
Surrounding Nijo is an outer moat and fairly high protective wall complete with guard towers. To enter the castle one must walk through the Main Gate located on the eastern side of the castle. After entering, on the right side you can see the guard house with mannequins dressed as samurai. The garrison was usually about 200, usually from Mikawa (modern day Aichi) and the Kanto area, rotated regularly so that they could not form relationships with the locals.
Following the wall to your left will bring you to the Kara Mon (Chinese Gate) which is the entrance into the Ninomaru Palace. Decorated by cranes, flowers, and butterflies on the outer panels and Chinese tigers, lions and a dragon on the inner panels this gate is a splendid sight. It is a good example of the influence China’s Ming dynasty era architecture had on Japanese art and architecture at the time. Though it now bears the imperial chrysanthemum, a seal placed there after the imperial restoration in 1868, it first bore the paulownia crest of Hideyoshi and after that the Tokugawa seal.
After walking through the Kara Mon you will come to the main complex of Ninomaru Palace which is a group of five interconnected buildings staggering to the northwest. The first group of buildings you will see will be the Carriage Porch (Karuma Yose) followed by the Tozamurai. It was in this building that visitors would wait for an audience with the shogun. The next building is called Shikidai, followed by Ohiroma. In Ohiroma there are several mannequins (representing visiting daimyo and ministers) in traditional formal attire, sitting in on an audience with the shogun. The next building is connected to Ohiroma by a long chamber. This building, the Kuro-shoin, was reserved for the friends and family of the shogun. The last building, Shiro-shoin, was the shogun’s residence, where only his wives and concubines were allowed. The further one made it into the compound the more distinguished and high ranking they were.
The palace is decorated in the style of the Momoyama period (1573-1603) in both art and architecture. The most distinctive style of art developed was that from the Kano school, which was to paint expansive landscapes on the sliding doors of the room. By some stroke of luck the palace was not stuck by fires and each building in the contains the elaborate Kano school paintings. All of the buildings, except the Shiro-shoin, have paintings that use brilliant colors and gold leaf. Tigers, birds, flowers, and massive trees are some of the themes displayed in the paintings. On the other hand, the paintings in the shogun’s living quarters are more subdued and feature mountain and water scenes in softer shades than the rest of the palace. Sadly, neither photographs nor sketching are allowed (camera flashes may fade the paintings and sketching causes congestion, not allowing others to see the amazing artwork). But don’t be discouraged, there is a fine gift shop with postcards, slides, and other images of the paintings just around the corner.
It is obvious that Nijo is a fortress and one can see how a feudal lord and his soldiers could take up a position of defense in times of war. With the moat, guard houses, and high walls you cannot help but envision one of the Shoguns holding off an enemy until reinforcements arrived. Tokugawa Ieyasu never forgot the fate of Oda Nobunaga, and was determined to take every precaution against betrayal.
The shoin-zukuri style reflects the social hierarchy within the feudal period of Japan. As mentioned above, the higher the rank and the more distinguished a guest was, the further they got into the compound. Moreover, their position allowed them to be on a higher floor level. Each building has a slightly higher floor than the previous building, reflecting the social status of the guest. However, each building also had a raised platform on which the shogun would be seated during an audience so no one’s head was higher than his.
Adding to the security of Ninomaru Palace, aside from secret rooms and corridors where guards could keep watch, guard towers, and the moat, were specially designed wooden floors called “uguisu bari”, usually translated as nightingale floors. Designed to creak and squeak whenever walked upon, the floors prevented anyone from sneaking around in the castle without being heard, even if they were in bare or padded feet.
The creaking is produced when someone walks on the floor because the clamps used to fix the floorboards rub against holes in the boards. This phenomenon has also been known to naturally occur with years of people walking on the floor or the warping of the floorboards from years of exposure to wind and rain.
Looking at the design of Nijo Castle one may come to the conclusion that either Tokugawa Iemitsu was extremely cautious, planning for an attack at anytime (quite possible in his day) or that he was simply paranoid. However, the squeaking floors, secret passages, towers, moats, and walls were simply not enough for the third shogun. In case all of the defences of the Ninomaru Palace fell he had the Honmaru Palace as a fall back position. The Honmaru Palace is located behind an inner moat and yet another wall, creating a castle within a castle, and invisible to the naked eye from any of the hills surrounding Kyoto. In case of an attack, a shogun or his officials could retreat to this inner castle and be safe until help arrived from the outside.
The palace that stands there today is the Palace of Prince Katsura that was transferred from the Imperial Palace in Kyoto in 1847. The art work on display in the palace was created by Kyoto’s guild artists, also in 1847. Unfortunately these grounds are only open to the public for special viewing (usually during the autumn/fall). Again, no pictures are allowed inside the buildings but for a small fee you can still buys those slides and postcards.
The Ninomaru Garden, designed by Kobori Enshu, has undergone several changes over the years. Originally designed so as to not show the passing of seasons (no trees were planted) plants and trees have since been added and allow the garden to have color at all times of the year: Camellias in January and February; apricot blossoms in February and March; dogwood and cherry blossoms in April; azaleas in May; azaleas and cape jasmine in June; Indian lilacs in July and August; bush clover in September and October; maples leaves in November; and firethorn in December. No matter what season you go, there will be something beautiful and colorful blooming.
In the center of the garden is a large pond containing three islands connected by four bridges. Horai, the central island, represents the Island of Eternal Happiness and is flanked by Turtle Island (Kame-jima) and Crane Island (Tsuru-jima), both symbols of longevity. Waterlilies, plants, and rocks augment the beauty of the garden. It is really a very beautiful and peaceful garden, alone worth the trip to Nijo.
In 1965 the Seiryu Garden was built for the purpose of receptions and cultural events. This garden is landscaped in both modern and traditional styles and contains two tea houses, the Koun-tei and the Waraku-an. In June and November tea masters perform tea ceremonies for the public.
Disclaimer and Request:
Do you have good photographs or a story to share about Kyoto? If so, please share it with us, our community and our many visitors. Kyoto and Central Japan have so many beautiful places, and culturally and historically important destinations. We hope that as many people as possible can enjoy and experience what it has to offer. Japan Discovery and the weekend field trips visit this destination regularly.
For visitors and independent travelers, please note that opening hours, prices, booking procedures, schedules etc are subject to changes beyond our control. This site is just a guide, and we advise that you always check and confirm in advance.
Also, please note that suggestions, additions and correction of errors are always welcome. Please contact us.