Nijo Castle, or Nijo-jo, as it is called in Japanese, is one of the absolute highlights of Kyoto. The lovely atmosphere, the beautiful Japanese Zen gardens, and the ancient buildings and palaces with their ornate gold-covered architecture and fantastic interiors and wall paintings – I love it all! Therefore, Nijo Castle is a recommended stop on our recommended 3-day Kyoto Itinerary.
The former Imperial Villa Nijo-jo Castle was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1994. The castle buildings and gardens underwent a huge full-scale restoration in 2011 and are shinier and fresher than ever!
Nijo Castle is one of the very few remaining castles from one of the golden ages of Japanese architecture and design – the early Edo period. That it has survived over the years, through earthquakes and wars, is fantastic.
If you want to get the most out of your visit to Nijo Castle, you should consider joining a Nijo Castle Tour. This tour lasts 1 hour, and you get a guided tour of the whole castle and castle grounds and hear the full story behind it by an enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide. There is also a self-guided audio tour available.
Guide To Nijo-jo Castle
History Of Nijo Castle
Nijo-jo Castle is more than 400 years old and was completed back in 1603, at the beginning of the Edo period.
The Edo period also called the Tokugawa period, lasted between 1603 and 1868. During this period, Japan was under the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate.
The founder of the first Shogun of the Tokugawa Shogunate, Tokugawa Ieyasu, first built Nijo Castle. After its finish in 1603, the castle served as the residence of the Shogun himself whenever he visited the Imperial Capital Kyoto and got the name Nijo Rikyu – Nijo Imperial Villa.
The Nijo Zaiban samurai guards were garrisoned at the castle when the Shogun was not using the castle himself.
As you walk around inside the main palace of Nijo Castle, you will notice that the floors make a squeaking sound as you step on it. You might think, “ah, that’s because they are just old and made of wood.” But they are squeaking on purpose. As a safety precaution, the Shogun had “nightingale floors” fitted in the palace. That way, he could easily hear intruders – clever man! 🙂
He also had concealed chambers installed around the buildings where his bodyguards could hide and keep watch.
The Structure Of Nijo Castle
The former Imperial Villa Nijo Castle grounds are surrounded by a broad outer moat and a stone wall.
Nijo Castle is not like other more famous and “classic” Japanese castles, like Himeji Castle or Osaka Castle with their tower-like structures. Instead, it is a flatland castle consisting mostly of low rise buildings, palaces, and gardens, where Ninomaru Palace (Ninomaru-Goten) is the main palace.
Nijo Castle is divided into three main areas:
- Ninomaru Area – The main palace and a garden with a lake, surrounded by a tall fence
- Honmaru Area – A palace and garden, the inner circle of defense, surrounded by an inner moat and stone wall
- Outer area – Gardens surrounding the Honmaru and Ninomaru areas
If you want to explore the grounds on your own, you can rent an audio guide at the entrance, which we did. It is a good investment as it explains the history of Nijo-jo Castle and the highlights of the buildings and gardens as you walk around the area. Some explanations even have photographs and images pop up on the audio guide screen to highlight the storytelling. You also get a map with all the 26 highlights explained by the audio guide.
The audio-guided walk takes about 1 hour, but you can spend as much time as you like inside the castle complex. You can choose between Japanese, English, Chinese, Korean, French, Spanish, and German language.
Night Illumination – Cherry Blossoms & Autumn Leaves
The gardens at Nijo Castle are illuminated in the evenings during the Cherry Blossom season (late March – Mid-April), and during autumn in November.
Walking Route Of Nijo Castle
Once you have bought tickets, I recommend this walking route of Nijo Castle (estimated time 2 hours):
The map above: Recommended walking route of Nijo Castle
The walking route above take you to these nine highlights of Nijo Castle:
1. Higashi Ote-mon Gate – East Gate
After having bought a ticket at the counter outside the outer moat, you walk through the big white Higashi Ote-mon – East Gate. And voila! You entered the Nijo Castle grounds.
The Higashi Ote-mon East Gate is the main gate of the castle, dating back to 1662. It is a beautiful gate, but the most impressive one lays ahead of you – the spectacular Kara-mon Gate. You will get to it in just a bit.
2. Tonan Sumi-Yagura – Southeast Watchtower
The first building you notice when approaching Nijo Castle is the beautiful bright white watchtower at the southeast corner of the outer moat. It is a famous landmark and so cute with its traditional Japanese roofs.
There used to be one watchtower at each of the four corners of the outer moat, but two of them burnt down in a fire in 1788. Today only the southeast and the southwest watchtowers stand.
The watchtowers were used as lookout points to spot enemies and visitors and as armories.
3. Kara-mon Gate
The grand and impressive Karamon Gate is the entrance gate to Ninomaru-Goten Palace.
The gate is massive and beautifully decorated with intricate golden carvings of cranes, pine, bamboo, and plum blossoms, all symbolizing longevity. You will also spot some lions which are there to protect the palace.
The gate is stunning and shows the high status of the Tokugawa family. It was fully restored and repainted in 2013 and now shines like ever before.
4. Ninomaru-goten Palace
After you have passed through the grand and golden decorated Karamon Gate, you enter Ninomaru Palace. The Japanese name is Ninomaru-Goten. Ninomaru is the main palace of the Nijo Castle, where the Shogun himself lived together with his family and guards.
Ninomaru Palace consists of six buildings that stand along a diagonal line, stretching from the southeast to the northwest.
The palace has a total of 33 rooms and chambers, and over 800 tatami mats cover the floors.
Three thousand six hundred beautiful traditional Japanese wall paintings decorate the walls of the palace. Pretty impressive! One thousand sixteen of these paintings are designated as Important Cultural Properties by the Japanese Government.
You will see stunning paintings of tigers, leopards, hawks, pine trees, lots of different flowers showing the four seasons, including cherry blossoms and autumn leaves.
Unfortunately, you are not allowed to take photos inside Ninomaru-goten Palace. So, unfortunately, we don’t have any pictures to show you the beautiful wall paintings. You just have to take my word for it – they are fantastic!
It is, however, still lovely to go for a stroll through these many rooms and admire the fantastic wall paintings with your own eyes and not only through a camera lens or your mobile phone. It also makes for are more peaceful atmosphere as the visitors and tourists are not fighting over getting the perfect shot.
5. Ninomaru Garden
The Ninomaru-Goten Palace has a lovely garden – the Ninonmaru Garden.
Ninomaru Garden is a classic Japanese Shoin-Zukuri Zen-style garden where you find a large Horai-Jima island in the middle of a lake, symbolizing paradise. A smaller crane island and tiny turtle islands, which represent longevity, surround the big island.
The garden was originally built at the same time as Ninomaru Palace, in 1603, to complement the palace. In 1626, before the important imperial visit, the garden was redesigned so that the Emperor could see the garden from the palace. The famous tea master and landscape architect Kobori Enshu designed the stunning Ninomaru Garden.
Ninomaru Garden is an excellent example of Japanese Zen Buddhism garden design and layout, and I love going for a stroll around the lake with its islands, small waterfalls, and stone bridges.
The lake in Ninomaru Garden has colorful carp fish, and you can buy carp food from this super cute vending machine (see below). The carp food cost 200 Yen = US$ 2. This is the first time I have seen a carp food capsule dispenser. It just shows that you can buy everything from vending machines in Japan!
6. Honmaru-goten Palace & Garden
After having walked through the Ninomaru Garden, you come to the inner moat of Nijo Castle. The area within the inner moat and center of Nijo Castle is called Honmaru.
Honmaru Yagura-mon Gate
Walk across the inner moat over the Honmaru East Bridge and through the broad bright white Honmaru Yagura-mon Gate.
The Honmaru Yagura-mon Gate was built around 1626 but was sadly destroyed by fire in 1788. The gate’s primary function was to protect the Honmaru Palace, and its wooden bridge could easily be collapse when attacked in wars to stop the enemy crossing the bridge.
The gate has beautiful copper doors that would survive attacked by firearms. I love how the tall copper doors have turned greenish over the years. You can see holes in the walls of the gate used for firing rifles.
Once you step through the Honmaru Yagura-mon Gate, you will see the wooden Honmaru-Goten Palace surrounded by a vast garden – Honmaru Garden. Honmaru Goten means “the palace in the inner-most circle of defense.”
The original Honmaru-Goten Palace was built in 1626 by the third Shogun, Tokugawa Iemitsu, but sadly burnt down in a fire. The last Shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, rebuilt the palace. It was, however, demolished in 1881.
The Honmaru-Goten Palace that you see here today once stood on the grounds of the Kyoto Imperial Palace and was called Katsuranomiya Palace, initially built in 1847. It was moved inside the inner moat of Nijo Castle in 1893 and called Honmaru-Goten Palace. After it was moved to Nijo-jo, the palace served as an imperial villa for the Emperor Taisho (1879–26) and his family when he was still a prince.
The palace has a unique and rare architectural style, nothing like any other palace in Japan, and has therefore been designated as an Important Cultural Property by the Japanese Government. Here you get a unique glimpse into the living quarters of the royal Emperor family. The Honmaru-Goten Palace consists of four buildings of offices and living rooms.
Inside Honmaru-goten Palace, the walls and sliding doors have some beautiful wall paintings by famous Japanese artists, all in bright colors and lots of gold leaves. Here you will see paintings of seasonal flora, different types of landscapes, and annual events. You will also see animals like big white cranes and geese.
The most famous and impressive of all the wall paintings inside Honmaru-goten Palace is the painting “Shokaku-zu” by the artist Kano Eigaku. It shows white cranes and dark green pine trees next to a blue lake, all painted on a golden background.
Honmaru-goten Palace is, however, not open to the public as it is under renovation from 2017 to 2021. Hopefully, Honmaru Place will reopen to the public in 2021.
In front of the Honmarugoten Palace, you find the beautiful Honmaru Garden, created for the visit of Emperor Meiji in 1896. The Emperor had a full overview of the garden from the top floor of the Honmaru-Goten Palace. He involved himself in the building and the layout of the garden, supervising the building process, deciding what trees and plants to be planted and where.
Walking along the garden’s pathways that wind their way through the vast lawns and small hills, is lovely, especially during autumn when the leaves are in vivid fall colors!
Honmaru Garden also has a plum grove which is in bloom from late February to early March.
Make sure that you walk to the southwest of Honmaru Garden, where you will find the base of the keep tower for some excellent views of Kyoto and Nijo Castle (see below, number 7).
7. The Base Of The Keep Tower
At the northwest of the Nijo Castle grounds, inside the inner moat, you find what remains of the keep tower, or donjon, of Nijo-jo Castle. Today, only the base of the once tall and grand keep tower remains as its wood structure burnt down after being struck by lightning in 1750.
The base of the tower is huge, covering an area of about 427 m², and sitting on top of an 18 meter high stone foundation. It is not that much to see of the keep tower itself but. you can climb up onto the base, and enjoy a fantastic view of Kyoto and Nijo Castle.
The keep tower must have been a stunning sight back in 1626 when it was moved from Fushimi-jo Castle in the south of Kyoto to Nijo Castle. It had five stories and one basement underground. Solid copper plates shaped as roof tiles covered its five roofs.
The story of the Imperial Visit by Emperor Go-Mizuno-o in 1626 tells that the Emperor walked over to the keep tower on two occasions, making this keep tower the only Japanese castle donjon to be visited by an emperor. It must have been such an honor! 🙂
Scientists think, however, that this tower originates from a castle in today’s Nara prefecture, the Yamato Koriyama-jo Castle. Reuse of towers and buildings were common in those days.
After visiting the base of the keep tower, walk out of the Homaru area by Honmaru West Bridge, which takes you across the inner moat. Turn right, and you will enter the beautiful Seiryu-en Garden with its two teahouses.
8. Seiryu-en Garden
The Seiryu-en Garden, located at the east side of the Nijo Castle grounds, is not that old and was built in 1965.
Seiryu-en Garden is a mix of eastern and western styles. The west part of the garden is a Japanese-style garden with two teahouses, while the east part is a more Western-style with huge green lawns.
The garden and its buildings were made of materials, trees, and stones taken from the garden of a wealthy merchant family in Kyoto, the mansion of the Suminokura family.
Seiryu-en is particularly famous for its Weeping Pagoda Trees. They have a unique curling shape with their twisting branches. If you visit the garden in July and August, you will get to enjoy the fantastic white butterfly-shaped flowers on these trees.
Over 400 Cherry trees are planted in two lines at Seiryu-en Garden. When they are in bloom during the Cherry Blossom season in spring (March/ April), they form a tunnel of beautiful pink cherry blossoms that you can walk through.
Inside the Seiryu-en Garden, you will find two lovely Japanese teahouses – Waraku-an and Koun-tei.
Waraku-an teahouse is the only one open to the public and has a nice cafe inside. Koun-tei teahouse can be booked for weddings, as Nijo Castle is a popular place to arrange Japanese wedding ceremonies.
We visited the Waraku-an teahouse and had some lovely Japanese sweets with green Match tea. A well-deserved break. Highly recommended!
The Japanese sweets are so cute and taste delicious. They change according to the season. So since we visited during autumn in November, the Japanese sweets were in the shape and color of red and orange maple leaves. During the cherry blossoms season, the Japanese sweets have a cherry blossom theme.
Waraku-an Teahouse’s opening hours are 09:30 – 16:30. We paid 1200 Yen = US$ 11 for a Match tea & Japanese sweet set (per person). They do have other things on the menu too, like coffee, hot chocolate, sake, beer, different cakes and desserts, and soups.
9. Nijo-jo Castle Painting Gallery
After having walked through the Seiryu-en Garden, walk south following the outer moat, and you will reach the Painting Gallery of Nijo Castle.
Here you find the original wall paintings from the Ninomaru-Goten Palace. The ones that you saw earlier at the palace are only replicas. So if you want to see the originals of these magnificent paintings up close, you have to head over to this Painting Gallery. The exhibitions at the gallery change quarterly.
Shopping At Nijo Castle
Right before you get to the exit of Nijo Castle, you walk through a small shopping street full of cozy stalls selling souvenirs, snacks, ice cream, street food, and drinks. This is a great place to shop for souvenirs and gifts to bring back home.
Opening Hours & Ticket Prices Nijo Castle
- How to get to Nijo Castle:
Take the Tozai Line to Nijo-jo-mae Station, or the JR line to Nijo Station. It is just a 10-min walk from Nijo-jo-mae or Nijo Station to the castle.
- Opening hours:
08:45 am – 17:00/ 5 pm (last entry at 16:00/ 4 pm). Closed on Tuesdays in the winter months December and January, and the summer months July and August.
- Ticket prices:
1030 Yen = US$ 10 for an adult, 200 Yen = US$ 2,5 for a child
- Audio Guide Rental:
Available between 08:45 am – 15:45/ 3:45 pm. 520 Yen = US$ 5. Languages: Japanese, English, Chinese, Korean, French, Spanish, German
- Guided Tour of Nijo Castle: Nijo Castle Tour (1 hour)
- Nijo Castle’s Official Webpage
There you have it, our guide to visiting Nijo Castle – one of the highlights of Kyoto.
In my opinion, Nijo Castle is well worth a visit if you are planning to go to Kyoto. You can find Nijo Castle on our recommended 3-day Kyoto Itinerary.
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After reading this, will you put Nijo Castle on your Kyoto itinerary? If you have already been to Nijo Castle, what do you think of it? We would love to hear from you in the comment area below! Thanks!
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