After busy days visiting the historical areas and top shrines in Kyoto, followed by a day of total vegging, I needed a more relaxed kind of day. So I headed to the Nijo Castle and gardens near my Kyoto hostel. It was literally a five minute walk from my hostel, which was lovely. Nijo castle is perfect. The only downside is that you can’t take photos of the gorgeous interiors. I bought a few postcards just to show a peek at the stunning gold walls and sliding doors with colorful paintings of tigers, birds and all sorts of plants. But even before I got inside I was charmed. The castle is fabulous, (seriously guys, I’m running out of superlatives) white with black trimmings, with massive gates of gold and black.
It wasn’t even that crowded, except for when I went inside the castle which I could do at my own pace. The floors were fun: there was an information board somewhere that explained that the floors were called nightingale floors and they were well named! When the crowd of people walked over the floorboards, they squeaked and sounded just like a flock of birds. If only the people had thought to keep silent, but there were a few stretches were there were fewer people and I could marvel at the sound. Apparently it was all accidental and caused by the construction of the floors. I would wonder if other palaces hadn’t copied the floors to get their own nightingales to sing!
Fun fact: the tigers painted on the walls of the reception rooms were done based on older Chinese paintings, and tiger skins, as there were no tigers alive in Japan by then. So if they look a bit wonky, that would be why. Japanese at the time thought that leopards were just a bit different looking tigers, but part of the same species, so one tiger mom nurses a leopard cub. The more you learn!
I was not expecting there to still be cherry trees in bloom, at least two weeks after peak blooming in Kyoto, but so there were. Suddenly all the low bushes had also sprung huge flowers, ranging from white to blush to hot pink, not just at Nijo castle but also elsewhere the next few days. Add to that a few bright red Japanese maples, resplendent in their spring foliage.
Which brings me to a nice segue to the Imperial Palace grounds the next day. See, I had admired the red leaves of the maples the previous day, and happened on a photography exhibition at the palace the next day. The expo was of Japanese gardens by a French photographer Claude Lefevre, and the first photo I saw was of grey round rocks with a swirl design, set in a little stream, and flanked on one side by thousands of little red maple leaves.
As I was admiring the photo, the photographer himself came over to bring me a sheet with the photo locations. What a treat! I wasn’t going to take photos there, but he assured me it was just fine, so I snapped a few. In the photo on the right you see my favorite photo on the left side of the room.
The exhibition was in a historical building on the south east side of the palace grounds, which were free to enter. I had just thought to visit the lovely building, quietly elegant and minimalistic as the buildings were in the Edo period, so the photography exhibition was a lovely surprise. Another one was just around the corner, a little grove of blooming cherry trees tucked away on the west side of the park. There were some families and couples there, sitting on their green plastic squares, having a lovely hanami. I joined them for about an hour, just sitting there completely blissfully, looking at these lovely trees.
The internet had told me that I would need to apply beforehand to be able to go in the actual palace grounds. I had given up on the idea, content with just touring the lovely gardens, when I passed by the palace entrance and noticed that the entry was free at that point. I mean it didn’t cost anything and there was also no wait time or signing up necessary. Well of course I would go!
There was even an English speaking tour starting in a few minutes, so off I went with our guide. We got a completely free and very good tour of the palace grounds, but alas, there was no entry to the buildings. We could peak at the fabulous wall paintings from the outside though, as the many sliding doors were usually open to reveal part of the interiors. The palace had burned to the ground many times since it was built over 1300 years ago, with the current palace being less than 150 years old. Imagine, re-building the palace, in much the original design, over and over! That takes dedication!
That day ended with a short stroll along the Kamo river, just east of the imperial palace gardens. Nice stretch of river, with a lot of people taking a stroll in the early evening. The river had fun stepping stone “bridges” spanning it in a few spots, with swirling stone patterns on the river bed that reminded me of Kbal Spean in Angkor park. There were even some knobbly bits that might have been yoni, but I doubt these stone formations were as old. As evening wore on, eagles came to hunt for fish, I assume, along the river. They swooped in and out, following the air currents, coming really low at moments. What a thrill!
My final castle in this run of castles and palaces was the Osaka castle, which isn’t of course in Kyoto, but close enough for this post! I had gone to Osaka to apply for a Chinese visa, again, of which more later. As the visa application center was quite close to the castle, I spent the afternoon there. It was a sort of a consolation prize, as I had originally planned to visit Himeji Castle, but had decided against it due to the high cost of a return ticket from Kyoto (around 130 GBP!). At least to my untrained eye, the two castles look very similar, with several floors, white walls and triangle shaped roofs. Osaka castle, however, is a reproduction as the original was destroyed in 1868, while Himeji is an original.
But what Osaka castle has is eight floors of exhibitions about the castle’s history and the man who built it, Toyotomi Hideyoshi. One floor had marvelous sets of warlord armor. A few of them had fantastic head pieces, extending like the horns of a bull a full meter over the wearer’s head. I walked up all eight flights of stairs, as recommended, then took my time walking down, visiting each floor at a time. Afterwards, I made my way around the castle and exited the grounds at the north west corner, making my way to the nearest train station that would take me back to Kyoto. Alas, I had no time to explore the grounds more, which were quite extensive. But the moats and the sharp edged walls surrounding them were stunning, especially in the golden evening sun.
In sum, I would pick the Imperial Palace for the gardens, Osaka castle for the exterior, and Nijo castle for the interiors. Plus Osaka castle for the museum standard exhibits on feudal Japan.