When visiting Kyoto, I highly recommend including a stop at the UNESCO World Heritage site known as Nijo jo (Nijo Castle). Constructed in 1603, it served as the residence of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Edo Period (1603-1867), when he visited Kyoto. When the Tokugawa Shogunate ended in 1867, the castle was used as an imperial palace until it was donated to the city in 1939. A year later it was opened to the public and earned its UNESCO designation in 1994.
Nijo Castle is a superb example of feudal Japanese castle building and consists of two concentric rings of fortifications: The Honmaru which forms the main circle of defense and the Ninomaru which makes up the secondary circle of defense. Visitors to the castle enter the castle grounds through a large gate located to the east. Further in, you will find the Karamon Gate, the entrance to Ninomaru, where the Ninomaru Palace is located.
The 3300 square meter Ninomaru Palace survives in its original form and consists of multiple buildings connected by corridors. The rooms have tatami covered floors and the ceilings are beautifully decorated with colorful paintings. It was here in 1867 where Tokugawa Yoshinobu made the declaration by which authority was transferred to the Imperial Court.
One of the most striking features of the Ninomaru Palace are the “nightingale floors” used in the corridors. To protect the occupants from sneak attacks and assassins, the builders constructed the floors in such a way as to squeak like birds when anyone walked on them. Additionally, several rooms came equipped with special doors designed to be used by the shogun’s bodyguard when protecting him.
Outside of the Ninomaru Palace you will find the Ninomaru Garden, a traditional landscape garden consisting of a large pond, ornamental stones and perfectly manicured matsu (pine trees).
The Honmaru was once the site of a second palace complex and a five story castle keep. Unfortunately, both structures were destroyed by fires during the 18th century and never reconstructed. Today, the structure you see was what was originally known as Katsura Imperial Palace. It was relocated here in 1893 and renamed Honmaru Palace. The Palace served as the site for the enthronement banquet of Emperor Hirohito in 1928 (also known as the Showa Emperor).
The Honmaru Palace is not regularly open to the public however, visitors can stroll around the gardens and scale stone foundation of the former castle keep which affords magnificent views of the castle grounds.
There is a sakura (cherry) orchard with 400 late blooming sakura trees whose blooms last through the entire month of April and an ume (plum) orchard that is popular from late February to early March. You will also find a variety of maple, ginkgo and other trees that are ablaze with brilliant autumn colors during the second half of November.
So whether you are attracted to the historical significance of the castle or you simply want to take in the seasonal brilliance of its gardens, a visit to Nijo jo is a satisfying trip year round.
The castle is easily accessible from Kyoto Station via the Karasuma Subway Line, exit at Karasuma-Oike Station. From there, transfer to the Tozai Line to Nijojo-mae Station. The entrance of Nijo Castle is just a short walk from Nijojo-mae Station.