Nijo castle

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The Ninomaru Palace at Nijô castle.

Nijô castle, located at the corner of Horikawa and Nijô-dôri in central Kyoto, was a shogunal residence and admnistrative center for the Tokugawa shogunate. Constructed in 1602-1603, it was used as a residence by Tokugawa shoguns on a number of occasions in the 1600s-1630s, and 1850s-1860s, but from the 1630s onwards served chiefly as the headquarters of the Kyoto shoshidai, the chief shogunal administrator in the city. The castle was a powerful symbol of the intrusion of warrior power - and its domination over - the Imperial capital, the city of courtier culture.[1]


While Nijô Castle can be classified as a hirajiro ("plains castle"), it is much more of a palace than other existing Japanese castles. Shortly after his victory over the forces of the West at the Battle of Sekigahara, Tokugawa Ieyasu began to make preparations for the construction of a castle at Nijô in 1601/5[2]. Actual construction began in 1602 and was completed in 1603. It was built on the site of Oda Nobunaga’s Nijô palace. The castle was later used as the headquarters of the Kyoto shoshidai, and also as the shogunal residence in Kyoto. The Shoshidai was responsible for administering the city of Kyoto on behalf of the shogunate, as machi bugyô (Town Magistrates) did in Osaka, Edo, and elsewhere, and also monitored the Imperial family and court aristocracy, keeping the Imperial family under control and preventing them from interfering in politics. Members of the court aristocracy were obliged to apply at Nijô castle for authorization to leave a certain central portion of Kyoto, to which they were otherwise restricted.

In 1611, Ieyasu was able to arrange a meeting at Nijô with Toyotomi Hideyori. Here Ieyasu discovered that Hideyori was not the fool that he had been led to believe, and likely finalized his decision to completely destroy the Toyotomi. The castle served as the Tokugawa headquarters for the Osaka Campaign of 1614-1615, during which Ieyasu succeeded in eradicating the Toyotomi line. A large victory celebration was held at the castle at the end of hostilities.

The castle was extensively renovated from 1624 to 1626. Additions included the replacement of the original 5 story tenshu (central tower), which was moved to Yodo castle, with the tenshu of Fushimi castle, along with other structures from Fushimi. Corner towers were added to the outside walls. This was done to accommodate the visit of Emperor Go-Mizunoo, more of a coerced audience in fact, orchestrated by Ieyasu’s grandson, Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu and Ieyasu’s son, former Shogun Tokugawa Hidetada. It served to solidify the power of the Tokugawa shogunate and signify the submission of the Imperial family by forcing the Emperor to come to the Tokugawa (the last time an Emperor had left his palace to ‘visit’ a member of the warrior class was in 1588 when Emperor Goyozei sojourned to the Jurakudai of Toyotomi Hideyoshi). The court remained for five days amid extremely elaborate entertainment and meals.

Iemitsu later returned to the castle in 1634 with 300,000 men as a show of force to the western provinces and also to reinforce his power over the Imperial Court. It was to be the last visit of any reigning shogun to the Imperial Court for 230 years.

The castle fell into disuse afterwards and saw many of its elaborate buildings and structures donated by Iemitsu to local temples, where they remain to the present day. Many of the palace buildings were damaged by an earthquake in 1663. The keep was destroyed by lightning in 1750 (although some sources have this as 1791) and the majority of the Honmaru compound buildings were lost in the Great Tenmei Fire of 1788.

Inside view of Nijô castle, 1867

The final Tokugawa shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, made the decision to transfer power back to the Emperor here. Nijô castle was given to the Imperial Household in the first year of Meiji (1868). Emperor Meiji made it the temporary seat of government and from here issued an edict abolishing the shogunate. He transferred Nijô to the Kyoto city government in 1871. The castle’s paintings and furnishings suffered significant damage during the time it was controlled by the city. Nijô was transferred back to the Imperial Household in 1884 and it became a detached Imperial Palace. Yamataka Nobuakira, who played a prominent role in the design of the Tokyo Imperial Palace, also headed the restoration and redecoration of Nijô Castle at that time. The Imperial family sponsored much needed repairs from 1885-1886, and the majority of fittings featuring the Tokugawa family crest were replaced with the chrysanthemum crest of the Imperial family. "Imperial" designs inspired by Shôsôin objects, the Heike Nôkyô, and other Nara and Heian period objects associated with the Imperial family were employed in the redecoration.[3] The empty Honmaru area became the new home of the former palace of Prince Katsura in 1893-1894 (it had been originally built at the Imperial Palace in 1847), and it remains there to the present day. Despite these improvements, several of the buildings on the grounds were dismantled by the Imperial Household. The castle remained as a summer home for the Imperial family and also as a locale for enthronement banquets for the early 20th century Emperors. In 1939, the castle was donated back to the city of Kyoto. 1965 saw the construction of the extensive Seiryûen Garden north of the Ninomaru palace, which is used as a reception area by city officials.

The castle is a major tourist draw in Kyoto and one of the best preserved castles in Japan with by far the most impressive interiors. The architecture of the castle itself merits further elaboration. Nijô castle consists of two main areas, the Ninomaru Palace and the Honmaru Palace.


The Ninomaru Palace began as a small building in 1603 but was greatly expanded and brought to its present status in the construction projects of 1624-26. It was the compound used by the shogun while in Kyoto to receive guests and also as his living quarters. The five connected buildings are arranged along a diagonal axis from the southeast to the northwest. The first building is entered through a go-kurumayose (carriage house entrance) and genkan (entrance foyer) and is known as the Tôzamurai. It consists of several chambers such as the Imperial Messenger’s Chamber (chokushi no ma), the Willow Room (Yanagi-no-ma), and Young Pine Room (Wakamatsu-no-ma), as well as the chief waiting room for visitors, known as the Tiger Room, or Tora-no-ma. Descriptive labels visible at the castle today explain that the "grandeur of these rooms and magnificent paintings of ferocious tigers were designed to impress the authority of the Tokugawa Shogun on the visitor,” and "to intimidate visitors as symbols of the [shogun's] power."[3] As in the other buildings, sliding screen doors (fusuma) allow the rooms to be connected or condensed as needed.

The second building is the Shikidai and contains three chambers for rôjû and other shogunal ministers to meet with one another, and to receive guests. When daimyô visited Nijô castle, it was here that they met with the rôjû and presented gifts to be given to the shogun. Some of these rooms were decorated with images of pine trees, their evergreen branches symbolic of the longevity of the shogunate, both in the past and into the future.[3]

The third building consists primarily of the Ôhiroma (the shogun's grand audience chamber), along with several secondary rooms attached to it. The Kuroshoin and Shiroshoin, private spaces for the shogun's everyday life and work which doubled as smaller, less impressive, but more exclusive audience chambers, are located in this section of the palace as well. The Ôhiroma at Nijô is somewhat smaller than the one which once existed in the Honmaru Palace of Edo castle; originally consisting of three stepped sections, it was later reduced to two, with the shogun sitting in the ichi-no-ma ("first room"), the floor of which was elevated somewhat above that of the ni-no-ma ("second room") where daimyô and others would gather to receive audience with the shogun. A section of the ceiling directly above the shogun's seat was similarly elevated, creating a canopy effect which amplified the sense of the shogun's grandeur or power. It was in this room that Tokugawa Ieyasu formally declared to his retainers in 1603 that he had been named Shogun, and that Tokugawa Yoshinobu, more than 260 years later in 1867, declared that he was abdicating power.

The Honmaru Palace grounds were originally used for the five-story tenshu. During the 1624-26 renovations, this tenshu was moved and the one from Fushimi Castle was installed. In addition, the compound was greatly expanded with many buildings for guests added, including the Imperial Quarters, and a moat built around it. One can still tell the original dimensions of the Honmaru compound by observing the styles of the ishigaki surrounding it; the original walls are rough hewn while the newer set features smooth finished stone. As mentioned earlier, this area bore the brunt of earthquakes, lightning strikes, fire, and donations of its buildings until it became virtually empty. To rectify this, the Imperial family moved the present Honmaru Palace from the grounds of the Imperial Palace in 1893. The former residence of Prince Katsura is rarely open to the public for viewing of the interior.

Other interesting features on the grounds include many original structures dating from 1603 and 1626 such as the East and North Ôtemmon, the Kara-mon from Fushimi Castle (the gate fronting the carriage house courtyard), the buildings housing the two kitchens for the Ninomaru palace, many gateways on the grounds with impressive studded doors, and two corner towers. The castle also features two impressive Japanese gardens, the Ninomaru Garden and the Seiryûen Garden. The Ninomaru Palace also features in spots the famous nightingale floors, which are virtually impossible to tread on without producing a sound said to be not unlike the song of the nightingale. Though often said to have been designed to give advance warning to the room inhabitants of anyone approaching, explanatory plaques at Nijô castle itself state that this noise was simply a side-effect of the construction methods, and was not intentional.[3]

The main attraction of both the Ninomaru and Honmaru Palaces are the opulent decorations within. These were designed to showcase the wealth of the Tokugawa. Elaborate carvings overhanging doorways, themed painted ceiling panels, and beautiful fusuma and cedar door paintings certainly accomplish that end. The Ninomaru Palace features paintings done by Kanô School painters. While the original paintings from 1603 were removed in 1626 (with no records of subject or artist), the present works of art date from that year. They feature heavy use of gilt and bright colors. The Tozamurai features a series of three chambers filled with paintings of tigers in a bamboo forest (done by Domi and Shinsetsu). You’ll see these routinely reproduced on Japanese movie and TV sets when they want to show the lodgings of a wealthy samurai, and were also replicated for the American mini-series Shogun. The Shikidai and Ohiroma are filled with works of massive pine trees and willows (by Uneme) filled with birds such as hawks, herons, and ducks. The Kuro-shoin has the better cedar door paintings (by Shume) along with flowers and blossoms. The shogunal living quarters in the Shiro-shoin features landscapes, lakes, and mountains (by Koi).

Unfortunately, paintings done by Kanô Tan'yu, Naonobu, Koi, and Sanraku were lost when the Imperial Quarters were moved from the Honmaru to the retired Emperor’s palace in 1629 (neither the building or the paintings survived). All of the paintings done by this group were also lost when most of the structures of the Honmaru burned in 1788.

The paintings in the present Honmaru palace, Prince Katsura’s, were done around 1847 and feature many famous Edo period artists. These include works by Kano Eigaku, Nakajima Raisho, Nakajima Kayo, Nagano Sukechika, Yagi Kiho, Maruyama Oryu, Tamura Kyoshu, Kishi Chikudo, Hara Zaisho, Nagasawa Roshu, and others including the noted Reizei Tamechika. These generally feature landscapes and birds.

The paintings in the Ninomaru Palace have been undergoing restoration for many years, but Nijô castle is still one of the best locales in Japan for visiting a well preserved castle that displays the wealth and power of its owners.

In July of 2007, certain buildings on the castle grounds were found by the Kyoto Institute Of Technology to be leaning and at risk of collapse if an earthquake were to strike. The Honmaru Palace gate along with the Go-shoin reading room were found to be in particularly poor shape. The plaster wall at the eastern main gate (Higashi-Otemon) is also subject to collapse during a quake. Many of the buildings became damaged over the years when their original shingled roofs were replaced with tile, putting substantially more weight and greater stress on the walls. Much of the existing damage is also attributed to an earthquake in 1995. The ciy of Kyoto announced that they will work with Kyoto Prefecture and the Cultural Affairs Agency to repair the castle. Beginning in fall of 2007, the castle is scheduled to be closed to the general public for five years or more.


  • Kodama Kota & Tsuboi Kiyotari, editors Nihon Joukaku Taikei-20 Volumes Tokyo:Shinjimbutsu oraisha, 1981
  • Hinago Motoo Nihon No Bijutsu #54:Shiro Tokyo:Shibundo, 1970
  • Schmorleitz, Morton S Castles In Japan Tokyo:Charles E Tuttle Company Inc, 1974
  • Yoshinobu Exhibition catalog 1998
  • The Japan Times: Wednesday, July 11, 2007
  1. Morgan Pitelka, Spectacular Accumulation, University of Hawaii Press (2016), 86.
  2. Pitelka, 84.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Gallery labels, Nijô castle. Visited July 2018.