Kyoto’s Nijo Castle

Around 1600, the Tokugawa family became the dominant power in feudal Japan. The Emperor was essentially a figurehead. The Tokugawas moved the administrative capital from Kyoto to Edo (Tokyo), while the Imperial Court remained in Kyoto. Nijo Castle, completed in 1628, was built as the Kyoto residence for the head of the Tokugawa family – the Shogun.

Judy and I visited on an overcast day last September.


This is the Great Eastern Gate in the castle’s outer wall. Nijo castle has two concentric rings of walls and moats. Inside are two palaces: Ninomaru, inside the outer ring, and Honmaru, which is surrounded by the inner ring.


The Tokugawas were a fierce bunch. On the other hand, their family crest was a hollyhock, so they couldn’t have been all bad. (The chrysanthemum is the symbol of the Imperial Family.)


Inside the castle, we passed through a type of gate called aย karamon, which means noble or elegant gate.

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I was very taken with the intricate wooden carvings.


The gentleman in the middle doesn’t look happy. I wonder what he’s thinking about.


Nice dragon.


I thought the Ninomaru Palace garden was by far the more interesting. It was built around a pond and contained extensive compositions of stone.


A big bunch of big stones in the garden was considered an intimidating display of power. Aside from any anatomical interpretations, all those rocks implied great wealth given their considerable expense. Sometimes large rocks were confiscated from the gardens of foes or underlings.


Partly due to all the stones, the landscape at Ninomaru Palace is considered a Warrior Garden. Other Japanese gardens use stone sparingly. Certainly stones imply solidity, but do they have an aura of peacefulness or of aggressive power? It all depends on the character of the observer, I guess.



The pond in this garden had three islands of varying sizes, two of them joined by stone bridges. There are also some rare plants, like the Cycad to the left.


Here’s one of 2 gates that lead through the inner walls.


Grass billowing along the inner moat.


In 1867, Nijo Castle was the site of the ceremony in which the last Tokugawa Shogun surrendered his authority, along with Nijo Castle itself, to the Imperial Court.


The Tokugawas tried to rule Japan by keeping it sealed off from the rest of the world as much as possible. This turned out to be a poor strategy once they got into the 19th Century.


You can climb the remains of a castle keep and get a better view of the Honmaru Palace. You can go inside some parts of each palace, but Judy and I were exhausted just from exploring the grounds, which cover almost 70 acres.




An additional garden was added to Nijo Castle in the 1960s. I like this moss island in a sea of gravel.


The newer garden also has this tea house by a small pond.


Near the exit from Nijo Castle was this fun sculpture called “Breathing Flower”, by the Korean artist Choi Jeonghwa. It’s a lotus flower that rises and falls, decorated with 808 Chinese characters that have been incorporated into Korean and Japanese. Come on, watch the video, it’s less than 30 seconds!

25 Comments on “Kyoto’s Nijo Castle

  1. Fascinating post – I adore Japanese aesthetics. I usually love rocks, but there were just too many in that garden. Maybe I was influenced by your text, but they seemed aggressive and threatening. The moss island in the sea of gravel on the other hand is very peaceful and I love it. I haven’t made it to Japan yet, but hope to go some time. Thanks for sharing …

  2. Wow! So much to notice. The wood carvings are fantastic. I’ve never heard of any leader stealing rocks from someone else. Finally, sealing off a country is never a good idea.

      • Well, some things about the olden days weren’t so golden. I know I would have been a peasant in such a society. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  3. A beautiful and huge space! I love the intricate wood carvings. Breathing flower must be the kind of bloom grown by those waving fabric guys out front of car dealerships.

  4. I know very little Japanese history so the stories behind these gardens are very interesting .. I look at rocks in Japanese gardens in a different way now

  5. The older part of the garden seemed a little more chaotic than the newer part. I love those stone bridges. I wonder why I wasn’t surprised that the Japanese had a blow up lotus on display??

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