Nijo Castle Must Visit World Heritage Site Kyoto – Part VI

NIJO Castle – Kyoto World Heritage Site

  • Kyoto residence of Japan’s top general in the Shogun era
  • Built using double protective layers and a “singing” floor design to alert in case of intrusion
  • World heritage site 20 minutes by train + 1 minute walk from Kyoto main Railway Station

For Kyomizudera see Kyomizudera In Kyoto Part I

Kinkakuji see  Kinkakuji In Kyoto Part II

Ginkakuji see  Ginkakuji In Kyoto Part III

Tofukuji see  Tofukuji In Kyoto Part IV

Fushimi Inari see Fushimi Inari in Kyoto Part V

 Nijo castle was the residence of the Shogun in Kyoto, This was the place that united the land once divided into numerous fiefdoms into one country that is Nihon -Japan. 

The Singing Nightingale

Japan was formally ruled by the emperor but power was concentrated in the hands of his .military general -the Shogun. Shogun set up his own administrative center in Nijo castle. Its where the he held his court. No wonder it was built to be secure as a fort with measures that included a surrounding moat and an outer and an inner perimeter fence. But the most unique feature of this castle was the state of the art defensive measure -the “singing platform”. Any potential assassin trying to tip-toe in would be detected as soon as he stepped on the floor as the floor would “sing”. This was a unique mechanism as ingenious in its engineering as scary in its message about the days political struggles.

Emperor, Shogun and the Ninjas

Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu was the first Shogun to have established himself as the supreme power in Japan. It was a time Japan was going through intense power struggle. Warlords fought for regional suzerainty. Hired assassins -the famed  Ninja’s – appeared in Japan’s history.  Known for their training in stealthy war craft Ninja’s were the greatest threat to Samurai lords. Nijo castle was built at this time, with this specific threat in mind. Inside the moat beyond the two perimeter walls, the inner quarters were built to alert the guards even if someone tried to tip toe on the floor. Erected from two separate layers with a series of metal spikes hanging in between , the floor would clank even under the gentlest push. This was the famous singing floor, a feat of engineering that survived through the ravages of time.

The watch towers and perimeter walls
The watch towers and perimeter walls

The Nijo Mae

The station next to Nijo castle is called Nijo Mae. “Mae” in Japanese means “in front”. So the easiest way to reach Nijo castle was to head to Nijo Mae station. Easy peasy, we thought. Unfortunately there are multiple surface,regional and subway lines leaving from Kyoto main railway station. Directions boards are there, but scant in number as compared to the number of lines and tourists. Moreover the entrance to the subway is a shoppers paradise. So if not careful one can get lost,like we did. Nijo showed up ts defenses even before we could approach!

In underground Google maps stopped working.. Shuffling through guidebooks, fumbling for the right word, taking to dumb charades – did all that to finally find our way to Nijo Mae.

Students with Notebooks

Way to the Tea Room
Way to the Tea Room

As we approached Nijo a further surprise awaited us. It was a school day. There were a bunch of kids in yellow caps at the crossing. As soon as the signal turned green a cockle of excited voices accompanied us to the entrance of the castle. A school excursion – explained one of the more curious kid eager to practise his English. It was to be the first of a series of interactions that day with the otherwise reticent bunch of Japanese schoolkids. It soon transpired that the kids were tasked to record visitor remarks also in their worksheets. In English. And this entire exercise was meant to make them less shy and more confident in dealing with foreigners! Japan was getting ready for Olympic 2020.  

Castle Quarters and the Courtyards

The castle entrance was via a bridge over a moat that surrounded the high walls. The gigantic doors opened into a wide lobby, guarded by towers. Attackers even if crossed the moat and made a successful entry would be pinned in this place by sharp shooters . Another layer of wall at its end secured the inner quarters. This is where the shogun set up his council.

Intricate carvings on wood and gold leaf
Intricate carvings on wood and gold leaf

Visitors from afar, the local land lords, the lower generals, the informers, the agents each had their separate visitor room inside the elaborately decorated wooden palace. Each room had its designated seating areas with the lord being seated guarded by body guards. The rooms were exquisitely decorated. There were real gold embossed paintings of cranes in lily pond or flying high amongst the clouds. The entire building comprising of visitor rooms private rooms store rooms was constructed in a rectangular fashion, with a central courtyard opening into a lily pond. 

Palace Gardens

Beyond the functional purpose of administrative head office, Nijo castle was also a show piece, a platform to demonstrate aristocratic finesse that only the shogun could summon. A court yard from behind the living quarters opened in to Japanese garden, with its flowing stream, and stone bridges. Walkways lined by maples and cedars meandered around the castle, During autumn, fall colors painted the area in red and yellow. A tea room at a corner at the far end, under the shadow of old cedar trees, offered a feel of peace and tranquility. Couples in Kimono walked by. A stepped path from here went up towards a terrace. The entire greater Kyoto with its blue tinged mountain ranges came into view from there.

The Quintessential Japanese

The stone bridge over to the Japanese garden
The stone bridge over to the Japanese garden
Maples in garden
Maples in garden

This embrace of nature, this surrender to  the ephemeral and eternal contrasts sharply with the identity of Nijo, as the war lords lair. This combination of power and renunciation is what defined the Shogun era Japanese psyche. Its the one common thread that runs through the defensive fabrication of the fortress, to the intricate gold leaf drawings on palace walls,  And this contrast captured in its highest form in Nijo distinguishes it as a World Heritage Site. Yes its a must visit site.     


The castle quarters with the blue mountain ranges in the horizon
The castle quarters with the blue mountain ranges in the horizon

Link to official web site for further info on latest opening times and ticket details

Nijo Castle Official Website

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