Travel period Feb 2014
Former Kyoto Residence of the Shogun
Nijo Castle is one of Kyoto’s most popular and impressive sights. It shows the power that the Shoguns wielded over the emperors throughout the Edo Period. Nijo Castle, located at the corner of Horikawa and Nijo-dori in center Kyoto, was a shogunal residence and administrative center for the Tokugawa shogunate.
While Nijo Castle can be classified as a hirajiro (plains castle), it is much more of a palace than other existing Japanese castles.
A Brief History of Nijo Castle
The castle was established in 1601 when Tokugawa Ieyasu decreed that the feudal lords of western Japan must contribute to its construction. The actual construction began in 1602 and was completed in 1603.
The castle was later used as the headquarters of the Kyoto Shoshidai, and also as the shogunal residence in Kyoto. The Shoshidai was responsible for overseeing the affairs of the city.
During the reign of Iemitsu, the grandson of Tokugawa, the construction of the castle was completed in 1626 and further expanded the castle by adding a five-story castle keep.
In 1750 a lightning strike hit the castle tower, and the resulting fire burned it to the stone foundations. Disaster struck again in 1788 when a fire swept the city, claiming the Honmaru Palace. Neither the castle nor the palace was ever rebuilt.
After the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1867, the imperial residence was relocated from the Katsura Imperial Palace to Nijo Castle’s Honmaru in 1893 where it remains today as the Honmaru Palace.
In 1939 the Imperial household donated Nijo Castle to the city of Kyoto and opened it to the public as a historic site. Its palace buildings are arguably the best surviving examples of castle palace architecture of Japan’s feudal era, and the castle was designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 1994.
The castle consists of two concentric rings of fortifications, one is known as the inner wall and the other is the outer wall. Honmaru Palace (main circle of defense) is situated within the inner wall, along with its garden surrounded by stone walls and moats.
The Ninomaru Palace (secondary circle of defense), the gardens, the kitchens, and guard house are situated between the two main fortifications, also surrounded by stone walls and moats.
The Ninomaru Palace was the compound used by the shogun while in Kyoto to receive guests and also as his living quarters. The five connected buildings are arranged along a diagonal axis from the southeast to the northwest.
The first building known as Tozamurai, is the guard house and the largest building in the compound. It consists of several chambers such as the Imperial Messenger’s Chamber, the Willow Room, and Young Pine Room. Rooms here were used by the shogun’s retainers, while others were lounges where the feudal lords and Imperial messenger waited for an audience with the shogun.
The second building is the Shikidai and contains three chambers for shogunal ministers to meet with one another, and to receive guests. The highest-ranking Councillors of the military government would be based here when the shogun was in residence and convey greetings and gifts from visitors to the shogun.
The third building is the Ohiroma (the shogun’s grand audience chamber), this was used for meetings with feudal lords.
Originally consisting of three stepped sections, it was later reduced to two, and the shogun would sit on the raised floor of the Ichinoma (first chamber) while the feudal lords would sit below in obeisance in the Ninoma (second chamber).
A section of the ceiling directly above the shogun’s seat was similarly elevated, creating a canopy effect which amplified the sense of the shogun’s grandeur or power.
Attached to Ohiroma building is the Kuroshoin and Shiroshoin. It was the Shoguns private spaces comprising his sitting room and bed chamber. While beautifully decorated with ink sketches this private area was less lavish in its opulence and decoration than some of the other rooms.
The tiled roof styling of the Ohiroma continues on through the Kuroshoin. The areas were also styled with an Ichinoma and Ninoma, and used in the same way as the grand audience chamber to ensure the shogun’s grandeur or power.
Exploring Nijo Castle
We entered the castle grounds through a large gate in the east called Higashi Otemon Gate. There were English audio guides available for hire for 500 yen at a kiosk just inside the gate. Some people seem to like these but we found it frustrating, so we worked it out by ourselves as we went around.
As we walked further into the castle, we could see the Chinese style Karamon Gate, this is the main entrance to the Ninomaru (secondary circle of defense).
Ninomaru Palace, is famous for its “nightingale floors” (squeaky floors that would alert occupants to the presence of intruders). With assassination by ninja a real threat during Japan’s Edo period, the nightingale floor was specially designed as an alarm system to warn Daimyo or Shogun bodyguards of palace intruders.
When a person puts their weight on the floorboards, the surface bends and warps, causing flooring nails to rub against a jacket or clamp and produce low creaks reminiscent of chirping sounds. This chorus of chirps would alert the palace guards, giving any would be assassin little choice but to flee.
As soon as we entered the Ninomaru Palace, we were impressed with the architecture. The floor of the rooms are covered with tatami mat and elegantly decorated ceiling panels and beautifully painted sliding doors (fusuma), reflect the enormous power and attitudes of the warlords who occupied the castle. This castle is a fine example of arts and architecture at that time.
The palace called Honmaru Palace also belongs to the castle. It covers an area of about 1600 square meters. However, the Honmaru Palace is not regularly open to the public, although there are occasional special openings.
After touring the Ninomaru Palace, we took a leisurely stroll through the wonderful Seiryu-en Garden, that surrounds the buildings of the castle.
We certainly enjoyed our visit to Nijo Castle, and consider this a “must see” if you are in Kyoto. It is one of the more complete examples of a castle complex in Japan. It earns its place as a world heritage property for these many cultural assets.
Photography was strictly prohibited inside the palace, so you have to visit the castle and appreciate the architecture yourself.
Getting to Nijo Castle
The entrance of Nijo Castle is a short walk from Nijojo-mae Station along the Tozai Subway Line.
From Kyoto Station:
- By Subway take the Karasuma Subway Line to Karasuma-Oike Station and transfer to the Tozai Line to Nijojo-mae Station (the whole trip takes about 15 minutes and costs 260 yen)
- By Kyoto City Bus number 9, 50 or 101 (15-20 minutes, 230-yen one way)
- By Kyoto City Bus number 12 (15 minutes, 230-yen one way)
Opening Hours: Nijo Castle open from 08.45 – 17:00 (admission close 1 hour prior to closing time) and The Ninomaru Palace open from 09:00 – 16:00
Closing Days: Tuesdays in January, July, August and December (or following day if Tuesday is a national holiday) and 26th December to 4th January.
Admission Fee: JPY 600 (from April 2019, an additional 400 yen will be charged for admission to the Ninomaru Palace)
English audio guides are available for hire for 500 yen; furthermore, 90-minute guided tours of the castle in English are held twice per day for 2,000 yen.
Note: The information provided in this post was correct at time of publishing but may change. For final clarification please check with the relevant service.