With wide moats, massive stone walls, and imposing keeps, Nijō Castle demonstrates the power of the Tokugawa shoguns who ruled over Japan for more than 260 years. Hidden behind this intimidating facade are, however, dreamy gardens and a magnificent palace where an exquisite collection of kimonos was on display.
Dominating a large area in the city’s north-western part, Nijō Castle (二条城) was intended as the official Kyoto residence of the first Tokugawa shogun, Ieyasu. The construction started in 1603 but was only completed some twenty years later, under the reign of Ieyasu’s grandson, Iemitsu.
After the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate near the end of the 19th century, Nijō Castle became imperial property. It was donated to the city of Kyoto in 1939. In the following years, the castle opened its doors to the public as an outstanding example of palace architecture from Japan’s feudal era.
Nijō Castle Architecture
Though its heyday is long gone, Nijō Castle remains an eloquent testimony to the Tokugawa’s might. The flatland castle consists of two concentric rings of fortifications: the Honmaru (main circle of defense) and Ninomaru (secondary circle of defense). Each is accompanied by wide moats, massive stone walls, and heavy yet intricate gates. Between the defensive, rings are green spaces, support buildings, as well as nearly 400 cherry trees.
A short walk through the beautiful gardens brought me to the lavishly decorated Karamon Gate – a symbol of authority during the Tokugawa shogunate. This gate marks the entrance to Ninomaru, where the castle’s star attraction, the Ninomaru Palace is located. For nearly 300 years, this magnificent building served as the residence and office of the shogun during his visits to Kyoto. The palace was fortunate enough to escape natural and wartime calamities. Thus, many of its features and decorative details survived in their original form.
Kimono Exhibition at Nijō Castle
During my visit, parts of the Ninomaru Palace were transformed into a kimono showroom, named “Kimono Roboto”. This extraordinary exhibition was the work of several visual artists who wanted to celebrate the remarkable beauty of the kimono and its historic technique.
From the quality of the fibers, and the intricate patterns, to the nature of the dyes, each robe is a masterpiece. It resonates with the complicated and painstaking process employed. At the center of the exhibition stood a glided robot, which represents the role of technology in the survival of ancient and endangered artistries on which the kimono depends.
Tips for visiting Nijō Castle
- The entrance of Nijō Castle is a short distance from Nijōjō-mae Station along the Tozai Subway Line. From Kyoto Station, take the Karasuma Subway Line to Karasuma-Oike Station and transfer to the Tozai Line to Nijōjō-mae Station. The whole trip takes about 15 minutes and costs 260¥ one way.
- Alternatively, you can take the city bus (number 9, 50, or 101) from Kyoto Station to Nijōjō (Nijō Castle) Station. It takes around 20 minutes and costs 230¥ one way. If departing from Gion, you can take bus 12 (also 20 minutes, 230¥ one way).
- The usual admission time is from 8:45 to 17:00. But on several special occasions, such as the Night-time illumination in early April, the castle is also opened from 18:00 to 22:00.