I spotted Nijo-Jo Castle on the map when I was visiting the Manga Museum. I decided it was worth a look and headed over that way.
From the outside, little was visible over the tall outer walls. They looked nice enough, very similar to those of the various other palaces and temples I’d visited in Japan and Kyoto in particular. The moat was impressive, though the effect was lost a little in rain which made the whole city feel like it was underwater.
The ticket price was cheap enough, so I decided to give it a go. What I found inside was beautiful.
The capital was built originally for the Shogun, the de facto ruler of Japan for centuries. When the capital moved to Edo, what is now Tokyo, the imperial family were housed here instead. The location is befitting of these high powers.
The gardens were expansive, and even in the terrible weather the beautiful arrangements of trees and rivers were lovely. Particularly lovely were the collection of plum trees, which were glorious in their spring bloom. Plum trees are considered the plant of February, and are famous for blossoming before the infamous cherry trees and being just as beautiful but far less beset by tourists.
As I walked around, the torrential rain and cloudy skies actually added to the atmosphere. The sounds and sights of the world outside the castle grounds were completely drowned out. It was easy to believe I really was 450 years in the past, that outside the walls and through the thick clouds any world might exist other than the one I’d left.
After a tour of the outer perimeter, I went through into the main courtyard. I was surprised to see an interior that I could enter (after removing my shoes and putting my umbrella in a rack, ‘natch) and walk around. Photography was forbidden within, but I followed the tour around and saw beautiful painted folding doors and great halls where centuries ago the great and powerful of Japan would have met, here represented by waxwork figures in classical kimono and topknots.
Not only did the first Shogun of the Edo era build this fortress, but in this place the final shogun restored the nation’s leadership to the emperor. In these very halls, the in turns great and terrible chain of events were set in motion for Japan to modernise rapidly, clash bloodily with the nations that had their colonial period a little earlier, and eventually denounce war and become the democratic nation in which I now write this blog.
Further through, I entered the raised section which was most recently occupied by the imperial palace. It is now another small garden, with an observation point at the corner of the highest wall, allowing me to see the whole grounds and my first glance of modern Kyoto beyond since arriving.
Much as I'm in love with modern Kyoto, a part of me did resent being pulled away from another time.