Nijo-jo: From the Hollyhock to the Chrysanthemum

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Asia, East, Japan

The Karamon (A Type of Gate Unique to Japan) of Nijo Castle

When I was planning a trip to Kyoto, the wooden pillars of Kiyomizu-dera, the golden pavilion of Kinkaku-ji, and the endless vermilion torii of Fushimi Inari-taisha were among the things I thought of visiting the most as countless photos of them always seemed to appear in every Google search of the city. Blame my ignorance, I was unaware of an important castle in Kyoto until the day I explored the city when James pointed it out. Located right in the heart of the metropolis, Nijo-jo (Nijo Castle) looked nothing like other Japanese castles I went to a few days earlier. Unlike Himeji Castle, Osaka Castle or the black castle of Okayama with their archetypal multi-story architecture – making them key landmarks in their respective cities – Nijo-jo lacked the loftiness of what one would expect from a Japanese castle.

Constructed more like a sprawl of single-story structures than a towering prominence, Nijo-jo differs from its counterparts in how it can’t be seen from outside its defensive walls. Only after we entered the palace compound through the Great Eastern Gate, pass the ornately-embellished karamon (a type of Japanese gate symbolizing authority), did Ninomaru Palace – one of two palaces within the moat-surrounded enclosure – show its elegance and grandeur. Under the clear blue skies, the grey roof tiles of the palace and the intricate carvings decorating its weathered wooden gables emanated a bold yet mellow tone, a character shared by great monuments from the past all over the world. To truly understand what the castle had gone through in the past, one must learn about the history of the Tokugawa Shogunate as the compound acted as a silent witness to the rise and fall of the third period of military rule in Japan.

Since the late 12th century, amid the political decline of the Japanese imperial court, Japan was effectively ruled by the shoguns (military dictators) although the emperors remained nominal heads of state. The feudal military government of the Kamakura shogunate ruled the country until 1333 when a restoration by Emperor Go-Daigo brought the imperial house back to power, albeit briefly. Three years after the fall of the first shogunate, the Ashikaga (Muromachi) shogunate rose to prominence and ruled Japan for more than two centuries. During this period, some of Kyoto’s most iconic edifices were commissioned, including Kinkaku-ji and Ginkaku-ji. But the second shogunate’s reign was also marked by Japan’s descent into chaos and disunity, beginning from a little over a century after the Ashikagas gained control of the nation.

In this period of social upheaval and conflict, local lords (daimyo) fought against each other over territories across the Japanese archipelago, everyone trying to assert his influence upon the shogunate. However, during this time of uncertainty, Japan’s foreign trade – especially with China – managed to thrive. In addition to that, small-scale businesses also flourished, providing the people with more opportunities and competition. Toward the end of the 16th century, a daimyo called Tokugawa Ieyasu gradually consolidated his power by subjugating weaker local rulers and amassing support from those who decided to stand behind his back. In 1600, after winning a decisive battle against the Toyotomi – the most powerful clan in Japan at that time – Tokugawa Ieyasu technically started the Tokugawa shogunate period, although the emperor only formally appointed him shogun three years later.

With control of the country firmly in his hands, Tokugawa Ieyasu began a period of relative stability in Japan as he brought strict social structure back in place, ensuring that everyone understood his or her position in society. However, as relations with European powers soured and Christianity was officially banned in 1614, the shogunate’s policy became increasingly isolationist, although trade activities with foreign countries were maintained to a certain extent.

Beautiful Curves

Intricate Details of Nijo Castle’s Karamon

A Touch of Gold on Black Roofs

Ninomaru Palace, One of Two Main Structures of Nijo Castle

The Chrysanthemum, the Imperial Seal of Japan

Walking around Ninomaru Palace

As the de facto new ruler of the country, Tokugawa Ieyasu commissioned Nijo-jo, a castle fitting for the third shogunate which, despite the seat of military rule being in Edo (present-day Tokyo), was constructed in Kyoto as it was still the imperial capital of Japan. Nijo-jo’s Ninomaru Palace was built as five contiguous structures connected by walls and shaded walkways. Unlike other Japanese castles where bodyguards occupied secret chambers within the structure, Ninomaru Palace’s layout allowed visitors to see the palace’s guardsmen, a form of deliberate intimidation to those who had even the slightest thought of harming the shogun. Another security feature in the palace lay beneath everyone’s feet, hidden from plain sight and only known by a select group of people. Underneath the wooden floor of the palace, upside down V-shaped joints were installed. Together they would make a chirping sound – hence the nickname “nightingale floors” – when walked upon, warning palace guards of potential intruders.

For Tokugawa Ieyasu it paid to be extra cautious as he held the highest power in the country. Nevertheless, Ninomaru Palace was more than just a highly secure structure. Some of Japan’s finest wall paintings and intricate wood carvings were added to its interior, intended to display the wealth of the shogunate. The Kuroshoin (the inner audience chamber) even had gold leaf encrusting its walls. Nijo-jo was continuously used as the Kyoto residence of the Tokugawa shoguns, although its significance was gradually diminished following a lightning strike and a citywide fire in the 18th century. The year 1867, however, was probably the second most important time in the castle’s history – after the year of its completion – as Ninomaru Palace became the stage for Tokugawa Yoshinobu’s declaration to forever end the shogunate and return the true power to the emperor. The hollyhock crest – the official emblem of the Tokugawa shogunate – which once adorned Nijo-jo was subsequently replaced by the chrysanthemum, Japan’s imperial seal which is still used to this day as the official emblem of modern Japan.

As we were about to walk inside Ninomaru Palace, I gazed upon the weathered imperial chrysanthemum perched near the top of the sloping roofs, an intriguing piece of history of the castle’s bygone era. Unfortunately photography was not allowed inside the palace, leaving only our eyes to record the elegant opulence we were witnessing. Then, when we further inspected the palace’s vast interiors, a chirping sound was heard incessantly as visitors delightfully stepped on the nightingale floors. Imagine if this happened back in the days when the shoguns still lived in the premises – that person would probably not have come out alive to tell others about this unique feature of the palace. At the back of Ninomaru Palace was Honmaru Palace, originally a twin of Ninomaru Palace which was then modified in the late 19th century.

What was initially a place unknown to my ignorant self turned out to be among the most fascinating historic buildings I’ve ever visited. With such a long and intriguing history, it is no surprise that Nijo-jo is included in the UNESCO-listed Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto, a collection of Japan’s most outstanding architectural treasures situated in the country’s former imperial capital.

To the Back of Ninomaru Palace, toward the Modified Honmaru Palace

The Southern Walls of Ninomaru Palace

At the Garden inside Nijo Castle Compound

How Honmaru Palace Looks Today

The Inner Moat of the Castle

Donjon (Keep) at Honmaru Palace’s Southeastern Corner

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Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.

43 thoughts on “Nijo-jo: From the Hollyhock to the Chrysanthemum”

  1. I had read about the chirping floors before but never in such detail about Ninomaru Palace. It’s a pity you weren’t allowed to photograph the inner sections of the historical structure. (I hate the hypocrisy about not allowing photography). You have compressed the seesaw of power spanning a millenium in your travelogue.

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    • Speaking of not allowing photography, I remember when I was visiting Dolmabahçe Palace in Istanbul our guide told us that in the past visitors were allowed to take photos inside the palace as long as they didn’t use flash. But because of some really inconsiderate tourists’ act of taking shots with their flash on, now taking photos is completely forbidden. I wonder if banning those people from revisiting the palace would have been better than not allowing photography altogether. Thanks for reading!

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    • Thanks for your kind words! But to be honest Japan is a kind of place where so many things are easy on the eyes.

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    • It wasn’t particularly quiet when I was there, but compared to other sites in Kyoto (Kiyomizu-dera, Fushimi Inari Shrine, and Kinkaku-ji) Nijo Castle was indeed less busy.

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  2. The extent of the security measures, moat to nightingale floors, is quite impressive. It’s interesting that wealthy powerful people have to go to such lengths to protect themselves and all their belongings that they essentially become prisoners in their own homes. Your wonderful photos show well the spectacular buildings and surroundings of this castle. Thanks!

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    • That’s an interesting point, Marilyn! Some rulers even went further in protecting their wealth by building monumental tombs or an army to safeguard their riches in the afterlife. Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts!

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  3. Beautiful photos and words, Bama. We enjoyed a nice walk through this complex on a weekend afternoon in Kyoto. I didn’t know about the nightingale floors! Makes a lot of sense — my grandparents old, old house in Ohio had a similar, if unintended, squeaky floor alarm. 🙂

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    • Thanks Kelly. Since you went there on a weekend, was it very busy? I remember it was quite pleasant exploring Ninomaru Palace and the castle ground as there were not too many people around. I wonder if your grandparents would have been entertained had they known about what their house and a palace in Japan had in common. 🙂

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      • It wasn’t busy when we were there, but if I recall we were there on Christmas day so maybe that’s why. We had just been to the flea market (totally cool), held on the 25th of each month. It was such a fun day. Every day in Japan is fun. Love that country and all the social respect and honor that adds to its identity. And yes, my grandpa (and probably my grandma too) surely would have had a laugh about the floor! I can see his face as I would have told him your story sitting in the hanging chair on his front porch. Ah, you’ve inspired a nice thought. Thanks Bama.

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      • Being Japan, I believe everything you saw at the flea market was of really good quality. That’s such a lovely thought of your grandpa, Kelly!

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  4. I love the look of the palace, but the history brought back very strong memories of all the Shogun-related books I read in college and right afterward because my boyfriend for all those years was a complete Japan freak! From the karate books to Zen Buddhism to ancient Japanese warfare, I thought Japan and its culture would always be part of my life. Fast forward to now, and I’ve never even been there (and the boyfriend disappeared decades ago)! This post reminded me so much of a period I once really enjoyed learning about. Thanks!

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    • Your story is a testament to how much influence Japan’s soft power has on people’s lives all over the world. Wouldn’t it be nice if more countries ‘assert’ their power through cultural aspects like this instead of flexing their muscles and intimidating their neighbors? Lex, what are you waiting for? You should go to Japan! 🙂

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  5. Lovely shots of the castle! One thing that I try not to miss are the seasonal “night light-ups” Nijo castle has. They host them mainly for spring (during cherry blossom season) and autumn (when the Japanese maple leaves are at their brightest colors).

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    • I just Googled Nijo Castle night illumination, and oh my! The castle does look pretty day and night, doesn’t it? Thanks for bringing that up, Stefanie!

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  6. Great post! I just came across your blog and as I was looking around I was pretty glad to see you have some posts on Japan as well. This one particularly caught my attention because I lived in Kyoto for the past year and I took a very similar shot of Nijo-jo. I was also positively surprised when I visited it, it’s really a gorgeous castle and it is very different from others I have been to (I currently live in Matsumoto, which has an awesome castle of its own). Also, thanks for all the information! I tend to do little research before visiting places (shame on me!) and I always think of doing it later but end up forgetting about it. I just enjoy walking around and simply admiring how beautiful it is, I guess, but it’s great to have well informed people out there who share their knowledge with us, lazy folks. Good job, you got a new follower!

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    • Thanks Lola! Living in Matsumoto must be really exciting, especially having that beautiful castle in town. I haven’t been there, but I have seen countless photos of the castle and every single one always mesmerized me. Glad this post provides you with some information about Nijo-jo, which is quite interesting as the castle witnessed some of the most important events in the history of Japan. Thanks for dropping by and sharing your thoughts!

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  7. What extraordinary architecture. A wonderful combination of detail with wider angle photos. We have just returned from our trip and spent three days in Tokyo. It sparked a want for us to return to visit other areas of Japan. What an incredible country.

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  8. What a beautiful post, Bama. Considering just how well-maintained (and cared for) these Japanese heritage sites are, it seems all too easy to forget that places like Nijo-jo are more than 400 years old! Exploring the compound and stepping on the nightingale floor was just as memorable as the first time I went in my early teens. I’m glad we had more than enough time in Kyoto so I could take you there!

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    • Stepping on the nightingale floors is one of my fondest memories of that visit to Nijo-jo. If the palace was as quiet as that small sushi restaurant we went to in Kyoto, any intruder wouldn’t have had a chance to go further into Ninomaru Palace’s most important section. Glad you recommended this intriguing place, James!

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  9. What a beautiful place Bama, more appealing to me than the multi-storeyed castles of Osaka and Himeji. This seems closer in style to the architecture in Takayama. Perhaps a lot older. My sister and I so regretted not having enough time to explore Kyoto fully. One of the cities I most want to return to.

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    • I remember your post on Takayama, and I can see why Nijo Castle reminds you of the city’s old district. I don’t remember the amount of time you and your sister spent in Kyoto, though, but as you can see there are so many intriguing palaces, temples, and gardens to explore. Hopefully the chance for that second trip comes sooner than you think!

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