The Last Samurai’s Castle: Nijojo

“I’ll tell you how he lived.”  ~Nathan Algren, The Last Samurai

A young Japanese Emperor Meiji is featured in The Last Samurai, surrounded by his court in an immense and minimally-appointed tatami-floored hall.  The palace is unquestionably Japanese, with sliding door panels adorned with gilded scenes of cranes in flight and tigers crouched for an attack never to come.  But his is no movie set; these scenes were filmed in the historic 400-year-old castle of Nijo, located in the heart of the ancient Japanese capital city of Kyoto.

The Last Samurai as filmed at Nijojo

The Last Samurai as filmed at Nijojo

Nijō Castle (二条城 Nijō-jō) is a low-profile castle built on the flatlands of Kyoto, Japan.  Although nothing like a castle in the Western classic sense of tall turreted guard towers and heavy drawbridges, it does boast two concentric rings of fortifications and thick stone walls, substantial palaces and several gardens.  The complex is sizeable covering about 70 acres, but with only about 85,000sqf of buildings to explore.  It is one of the seventeen Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto, all which have been designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Guard Tower Overlooking a Moat

Guard Tower Overlooking a Moat

In 1601, Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first of the Tokugawa Shogunates, ordered all the feudal lords in Western Japan to contribute to Nijō’s construction, which was completed in 1626 by his Grandson after the former’s death.  Although Edo (modern-day Tokyo) was considered the country’s capital, this castle served as the Kyoto residence and Court of the Tokugawa Shoguns (basically military dictators).  It continued in this role for 260 years until the Shoguns surrendered power to the Meiji Emperor in 1867, and today it remains an eloquent testimony to a bygone era of Shogun power and prestige.

Tokugawa Ieyasu, Founder of Nijojo

Tokugawa Ieyasu, Founder of Nijojo

Jody and I really enjoyed the expansive, well-kept grounds and gardens, and spent much of our timeat the castle wandering slowly through their various paths.  Groves of plum and cherry trees are found here among peaceful ponds and carefully-placed ornamental stones, and the castle serves as a prime blossom viewing spot in the spring when the time is right in late March and all of April.

Beautiful Japanese Gardens

Beautiful Japanese Gardens

Building as the Japanese did primarily out of wood and paper, though, has its drawbacks, as evidenced by a sad history of destructive fire at most old Japanese heritage sites.  Nijō’s original 5-story central Keep was struck by lightning and burned to the ground in 1750; the foundations can still be explored around the inner ring’s southwest corner.  In 1788, the “Inner Ward,” the area encompassed by the inner moat, was destroyed by a city-wide fire and remained empty, more or less, for the next 100 years.  After the fall of the Shogunate to Imperial rule, an Imperial residence was moved there where it remains today as the Honmaru Palace.

Chinese Kamon Gate

Chinese Kamon Gate

After entering the castle grounds from the outer east gate, visitors will soon find the Chinese style Karamon Gate, the entrance to the Ninomaru outer ward secondary circle of defense.  The castle’s main attraction, the Ninomaru Palace, is located here.  This Palace served as the residence and office of the Shogun.

Stylized Paintings in Nijojo

Stylized Paintings in Nijojo

Surviving in its original form, the architecture and artwork found at Nijojo are arguably among the best surviving examples of Japan’s feudal era.  The palace consists of a series of separate buildings that are connected by an interestingly clever defensive design, the castle’s famed “nightingale floors,” corridors with flooring specifically designed to squeak aloud when stepped upon, alerting guards and occupants to potential intruders.  The rooms are floored with tatami mats and feature elegantly decorated ceilings, elaborate wood carvings, and beautifully painted screens on sliding wooden-framed doors (fusuma), all intended to impress visitors with the power and wealth of the Shoguns.


These fusuma paintings, dating to 1626, include some of the most well-known masterpieces of original Japanese art, most notably the painted screens of the main chamber (as featured in The Last Samurai).  These depictions were painted by artists of the Kano tradition, which employed rich colors and large amounts of golden gilt to depict flowers, trees, birds and tigers.  The look and feel of this particular palace is routinely reproduced on Japanese movie and TV sets when there is a necessity to depict a wealthy Samurai, and were also replicated for our own Western-produced mini-series Shogun.


But there is some fact to The Last Samurai’s fiction.  In 1867, Ninomaru Palace, located in the castle’s “Outer Ward,” served as the site of handover of power in Japan from Shogun to the authority of the Imperial Court in early January 1868.  That year also saw the installation of the Imperial Cabinet at Nijojo, and the castle was declared a “detached” palace for the Emperor.  Honmaru Palace served as the location for the enthronement banquet of the Showa Emperor (Emperor Hirohito) in 1928, and is not normally open to the public.  A scamper up the stone foundation of the former castle keep located nearby provides fantastic views of the castle grounds.


In 1939, the palace was donated to the city of Kyoto and opened to the public the following year.


There is a reason why The Last Samurai was shot on location.  Visiting Nijojo, one is transported back to a different time and place, one when powerful Shoguns and revered Emperors ruled Japan in opulence.  One can imagine, indeed, “how one lived…”.



Address:  541 Nijo-jo-cho, Horikawa-nishi-iru, Nijo-dori, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto City

Phone: 075-841-0096

Access:  JR Kyoto Station/Hankyu Railway Karasuma Station, or Tozai Subway Line Nijo-jo-mae Station

Hours:  08:45-16:00 closing at 17:00

Closed:  12/26-1/4 and Tuesdays in July-August & December-January

Fees:  600 yen, discounts for school children

Infamous Infamy:  Prime Minister Hideki Tojo

“At the Imperial Conference on December 1 (1941), it was decided to make war against England and the United States.”  ~Hideki Tojo, General, Imperial Japanese Army

Tojo, it seems, was a little bit full of himself. Really? That many medals??

Tojo, it seems, was a little bit full of himself. Really? That many medals??

I used to work at United States Southern Command in Miami with a fellow Naval Aviation whose flier callsign was “Tojo.”  He was a Navy Commander, an F-14 Tomcat Radar Intercept Officer, and of 100% Japanese descent and the first generation in his family to be born and raised in the United States.  While he is every bit as American as you or I, he bore a more than a casual resemblance to his namesake, especially when he touted a bushy mustache which is often did.  While I’m sure it was not a callsign of his choosing (they never are), he was rather good-natured about it, going so far as to hold his own “Pearl Harbor Atonement Day” every December 7th by catering in a huge lunch for the entire office.  But who was this man “Tojo,” and why don’t more Americans know about him and his role in Japan’s strike against Pearl Harbor and the expansion of the World War throughout the Pacific Basin?

FILE - In this Dec. 7, 1941 file photo, the destroyer USS Shaw explodes after being hit by bombs during the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Wednesday marks the 70th anniversary of the attack that brought the United States into World War II. (AP File Photo)

Pearl Harbor, December 7th, 1941

Hideki Tojo (1884 – 1948) was a General of the Imperial Japanese Army and the 40th Prime Minister of Japan during much of World War II, from October 17, 1941, to July 22, 1944.  As Prime Minister, he was responsible for ordering the attack on Pearl Harbor (with the Emperor Hirohito’s approval), which initiated war between Japan and the United States.  After the end of the war, Tojo was arrested, tried for war crimes, and sentenced to death by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (IMTFE).  He was hanged until dead on December 23, 1948.

Tojo as a Young Army Officer

Tojo as a Young Army Officer

Hideki Tojo was born in Tokyo in 1884 as the 3rd son of Hidenori Tojo, a Lieutenant General in the Imperial Japanese Army.  He graduated from the Japanese Military Academy in 1905 and was commissioned an Army Second Lieutenant.  In 1909, he married Katsuko Ito, with whom he would have three sons and four daughters.  He began to take an interest in militarist politics during his command of the 1st Infantry Regiment after promotion to colonel in the late 1920s.

Tojo with his Wife and Family

Tojo with his Wife and Family

In September 1935, Tojo assumed a command billet in the field in Manchuria (Northern China).  Politically by this time, he was fascist, nationalist, and militarist, and was nicknamed “Razor” for his reputation of having a sharp and quick mind.  In Manchuria, Tojo was responsible for the expansion of military operations and much wider attacks during the Second Sino-Japanese War.

The Leaders of the Axis Powers - note that Hirohito (who escaped execution) is pictures, not Tojo

The Leaders of the Axis Powers – note that Hirohito (who escaped execution) is pictures, not Tojo

By 1940 he strongly supported the newly signed Tripartite Pact between Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, and Fascist Italy, and as Army Minister, he expanded the war with China and French Indochina in July 1941.  This latest aggression precipitated a response by the United States who imposed significant economic sanctions in August, including a total embargo on oil and gasoline exports, and demanded Japan’s withdrawal from China and Indochina.  “The heart of the matter is the imposition on us (Japan) of withdrawal from Indochina and China,” Tojo said in a September cabinet meeting.  He continued, “If we yield to America’s demands, it will destroy the fruits of the China incident.  Manchukuo [Manchuria, present-day northeast China] will be endangered and our control of Korea undermined.”


On November 2, under the advisement of Tojo, the Emperor gave his consent to war.  The next day, Fleet Admiral Osami Nagano explained in detail the Pearl Harbor attack plan to Emperor Hirohito.  The eventual plan drawn up by Army and Navy Chiefs of Staff assumed a mauling of Western powers from which recovery would be impossible, leaving the Japanese planned defense perimeter incapable of breach.  On November 5, Hirohito approved the operations plan for a war against the West.  On December 1, another conference finally sanctioned the “war against the United States, England, and Holland” (Holland referring to Dutch control of the “East Indies,” present day Indonesia).

Tojo in 1942 as the Tide of War began to turn....

Tojo in 1942 as the Tide of War began to turn….

Tojo as depicted in Marvel Comics of the time

Tojo as depicted in Marvel Comics of the time

tojo-propaganda-1Tojo continued to hold the position of Army Minister during his term as Prime Minister, and as impossible and improbable as it seems, he also served concurrently as Home Minister, Foreign Minister, Education Minister, and Minister of Commerce and Industry, positions from which he could easily continue militaristic and nationalist indoctrination in the national education system, and totalitarian policies throughout the government.  While Tojo had popular support in the early, victory-filled years of the war, after the Battle of Midway (summer 1942), where the tide of war turned against Japan, Tojo faced increasing opposition from within the government and military.  U.S. wartime propaganda of the time caricatured Tojo as the face of the enemy.

Tojo Caricatured in a WWII Powers

Tojo Caricatured in a WWII Powers

After Japan’s unconditional surrender in 1945, U.S. general Douglas MacArthur issued orders for the arrest of alleged war criminals, including Tojo.  As authorities arrived at his residence to take him into custody, Tojo attempted suicide by shooting himself in the heart.  However, when American authorities surrounded his house on September 11, 1945, they found him alive but wounded, the bullet having missed his heart and penetrated his stomach instead.  Two Japanese reporters recorded his murmured words: “I am very sorry it is taking me so long to die.  The Greater East Asia War was justified and righteous.  I am very sorry for the nation and all the races of the Greater Asiatic powers.  I wait for the righteous judgment of history.”  Such righteous judgment was never to come.

Attempted Suicide and Aid by an American Medic

Attempted Suicide and Aid by an American Medic

After recovering from his injuries (after emergency surgery and extensive treatment in an American hospital), Tojo was moved to Sugamo Prison and tried by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East for war crimes and found guilty of waging wars of aggression, and war in violation of international law, as well as ordering, authorizing, and permitting inhumane treatment of Prisoners of War (POWs) and others.  In large part, he is directly responsible for many of Japan’s most egregious crimes of the 1930s and 1940s.

Tojo on Trial as a War Criminal

Tojo on Trial as a War Criminal

Tojo embraced full responsibility in the end for his actions during the war, all-the-while diligently shielding the Emperor from any intimation of guilt, which some claim was the aim of his testimony, on both sides.  The former Prime Minister made this speech during the time of his trial:

Tojo on Trial

Tojo on Trial

“It is natural that I should bear entire responsibility for the war in general, and, needless to say, I am prepared to do so.  Consequently, now that the war has been lost, it is presumably necessary that I be judged so that the circumstances of the time can be clarified and the future peace of the world be assured.  Therefore, with respect to my trial, it is my intention to speak frankly, according to my recollection, even though when the vanquished stands before the victor, who has over him the power of life and death, he may be apt to toady and flatter.  I mean to pay considerable attention to this in my actions, and say to the end that what is true is true and what is false is false.  To shade one’s words in flattery to the point of untruthfulness would falsify the trial and do incalculable harm to the nation, and great care must be taken to avoid this.”

Hanging Tojo

Hanging Tojo

Tojo's Medals on Display (only photo I could find!)

Tojo’s Medals on Display (only photo I could find!)

Tojo was sentenced to death on November 12, 1948 and executed on December 23, 1948.  Before his execution, he gave his military ribbons to Private First Class Kincaid, one of his guards, and in an unusual Far East Fling connection, they are now on display in the National Museum for Naval Aviation in Pensacola, Florida, where Jody and I call home and I used to work.  See the National Flight Academy for the facility and amazing experience for young people that I helped to design, build and open.

Ultra-Right-Wing Nationalists, then and now; Tojo's Granddaughter

Ultra-Right-Wing Nationalists, then and now; Tojo’s Granddaughter Yuko

In his final statements before execution, he apologized for the atrocities committed by the Japanese military and urged the American military to show compassion toward the Japanese people.  Tojo is one of the controversial Class “A” War Criminals enshrined at Tokyo’s Yasukuni (see Yasukuni:  Enshrining Japan’s War Dead for more) Shrine.  His daughter, Yuko Tojo, a ultra-far-right-wing Nationalist who attempted to rehabilitate her Grandfather’s reputation and role in WWII, claims to have fulfilled a dying wish of the senior Tojo by visiting our Pearl Harbor Memorial in 1999.  “In my grandfather’s will, he said he wanted to hold a ceremony to honor all the war dead, regardless of which side they fought on,” she said. “On behalf of the Tojo family, I’m going to carry out my grandfather’s wish.”

Never Forget

Like my shipmate’s attempts at making amends, we should always strive to atone, but to Never Forget.

Explosive Find:  The Special Attack Tunnels of Miyakojima

“With back hunched, pushing forward the control stick, now comes an end to many countless hopes.”  ~Japanese Suicide Pilot’s last words

I’ve learned while exploring the world to stop and check out all those “historic markers” that most people blow past as they go haphazardly barreling through their lives and down the road.  Driving around Miyakojima, a Ryukyu island in the Okinawa Prefecture of Japan, Jody and I passed just such a monument.  Of course we stopped, and found a more remote but significant trace of war in jungled-covered coral mounds of the Far East.

Roadside Historic Marker

Roadside Historic Marker

After their defeats of 1943, Japan knew they were losing the war.  Looking to the hurried and desperate defense of their homeland, and in attempts to slow the steady but American advance, in March of 1944, Japan began the Shinyo (震洋 Shin’yō, “Sea Quake”) manned Explosive Motor-Boat (EMB) program.  The first models of these kamikaze craft were copied from existing Japanese 18-meter motor torpedo boats, themselves copies of American hulls from the late 1930s.  Initially built of steel and constructed at Yokosuka Naval Base, wood was ultimately selected because of availability of materials.  These boats were just one component of the wider Japanese “Special Attack Units: program which incorporated aircraft, divers, boats and torpedoes in suicide attacks.  Nothing much “special” about that.

Shinyo Suicide Boats

Shinyo Suicide Boats

In August of 1944, the first 400 future boat captains started training near Yokosuka.  The students, all would-be aircraft pilots with an average age of 17, were diverted from flight schools because of the lack of aircraft production throughout Japan, given the strangling American maritime blockade of that island-nation and the ongoing strategic fire-bombing campaign of their cities and industrial centers.

Braving the Banana Spiders at the Tunnel Entrance

Braving the Banana Spiders at the Tunnel Entrance

Initially there was a planned 3-month training period focusing on small-boat handling, mechanics and attack techniques, but the pressing needs to defend the Philippines, Okinawa, Formosa and Hainan Island required hasty deployments starting almost immediately.  In September 1944, the first Shinyo Squadrons were sent to the Bonin and Haha (islands about 600 miles south of Tokyo), and the Philippines.

Tunnel Entrance

Tunnel Entrance

The 41st Shinyo Squadron with 55 authorized EMBs and a compliment of over 100 men were deployed to Miyakojima in March 1945.  On this island, roughly halfway between Okinawa and Taiwan, the Japanese Imperial Navy 313 Construction Unit dug numerous tunnels to hide the unit’s Model 1 Shinyo EMBs at Karimata Inlet and various other locations.  The Squadron was there to defend the island from expected invasion because of the active airfields found there, but invasion never came.  The squadron never had a chance to engage in battle.

Shinyo Type 5

Shinyo Type 5

Type 1, one-man Shinyo EMBs were relatively slow and only capable of speeds up to about 18 knots when fully armed.  Typically, Navy EMBs were equipped with a bow-mounted explosive charge of 500-600 pounds that could either be fired by contact fuse (when ramming an enemy vessel), or manually from the craft’s cockpit.  Army EMBs carried depth charges at the stern and were not considered “true” suicide boats as the pilot was supposed to drop the depth charges, setting off a timed fuse, and run.  Very few pilots survived, however, given there was only 6-seconds to escape from an ensuing massive explosion.  Some boats were armed with anti-personnel rockets to help neutralize surface fires from the ships being attacked.

Type 1 and 5 Suicide Boats

Type 1 and 5 Suicide Boats

The slightly larger and faster two-man Type 5 Shinyo EMBs were powered by two Toyota 6-cylinder automobile engines, armed with a 13.2mm heavy machine gun (roughly equivalent to our 50 cal), and were designed to serve as command & control boats being equipped with radio.

Tunnel Interior Today

Tunnel Interior Today

Over 6,100 Shinyo EMBs were manufactured for the Imperial Japanese Navy, and roughly 3,000 somewhat similar Maru-ni EMBs were built for the Imperial Japanese Army.  Around 1,100 boats were transported to the Philippines, 400 to Okinawa and Formosa (modern-day Taiwan), and smaller numbers to Korea, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Hainan and Singapore.  The vast majority – some remaining 7,000 kamikaze boats – were stored along the shores of coastal Japan for defense against the expected invasion of the Home Islands.  The Naval General Staff expected a 10% success rate, or roughly ~900 successful attacks for the suicide boats.  This was not the case.


EMBs scored very limited successes in the Philippines and Okinawa.  Heavy gunfire from Allied ships and PT-boats (patrol boats referred to as “fly-catchers”), along with relentless attack from the air given allied air supremacy stopped most of boats before they could even be utilized.  In the Philippines in 1944, six smaller landing and patrol craft were sunk, while a few others were damaged.  In the 88 day campaign for Okinawa in 1945, about 700 suicide boats, supported by about 7,000 personnel, were employed against the Americans, sinking only two ships and damaging the same in massive waste of the youth of a country;.  Luckily the boats at Miyakojima were never employed, although many kamikaze pilots flying from that island’s airfields suffered the ultimate sacrifice.

Tunnel Exit Today

Tunnel Exit Today

On Miyakojima, a monument to the 41st Shinyo Special Attack Squadron was erected in 2006.  Plaques there in multiple languages (Japanese, English, Chinese, and German) explain the site’s significance, and the unit’s historic tunnels can be accessed immediately behind the monument.  Three entrances/exits can be found, all connected far inside the complex (~300m), but upon exploration, no other artifacts can be found in this far-flung trace of war, except for welcoming light at the end of the tunnel.


Traces of War: Ryukyu Islands Surrender Site

Japanese Delegation on the USS Missouri

Japanese Delegation on the USS Missouri

The Japanese in WWII surrendered on September 2nd, 1945, or so most people think. The surrenders of some of Japanese forces scattered across the Pacific occurred later, as it day here on Okinawa. Five days after the Japanese formally surrendered to the Allies aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo harbor, the last remnants of their Okinawa garrison officially capitulated on September 7th, 1945.

Japanese Surrender on Okinawa

Japanese Surrender on Okinawa

With General Doolittle in attendance, General Joseph Stilwell and commanding representatives of the Japanese Imperial Army and Navy signed a surrender document in a ceremony held at what is now the Stearley Heights area of Kadena Air Force Base.

Japanese Representative Flag Officers Arriving on Okinawa

Japanese Representative Flag Officers Arriving on Okinawa

f3eec8bc2bf66e672bb5bf2a482254f3General Toshiro Nomi, flown in since all Japanese Flag officers in the Ryukyus – including Ryukyu Commanding General Mitsuru Ushijima and his Chief of Staff Isamu Chō – had been killed or committed suicide, signed on behalf of the Imperial Japanese General Headquarters and the Japanese Government.


Signatures and Signatories

Signatures and Signatories

g344921g344919The ceremony was held at the then 10th Army Headquarters at what was known as Camp Kuwae. While victory on what was the bloodiest battle of the Pacific theater was declared much earlier on June 22nd by General Geiger, mopping up operations continued for many weeks. The capitulation was formal and befitting the end of hostilities on the Island, and remained marked by a flag pole and historical marker flanked by captured Japanese artillery pieces.

Surrender Site ~1946

Surrender Site ~1946

Surrender Site ~1960

Surrender Site ~1960

But through the years, some way and somehow, this site lost its place of importance, becoming overgrown and unkempt with each passing year.

Surrender Site ~1967

Surrender Site ~1967

Then, the area was repurposed as military housing to support the growing footprint of the American military presence on the island as the growing cold war turned hot in both Korea and Vietnam. Still, the site remained marked with a small granite stone in the center of a residential cul-de-sac, a marker less than befitting the site’s actual historical importance.

Surrender Site 2015

Surrender Site 2015

Okinawa Battlesites 2015, Ryukyu Surrender Site, Surrender WMOkinawa Battlesites 2015, Ryukyu Surrender Site, HQ Tenth Army Surrender of the RyukyusFinally, and only recently in 1997, the site was re-recognized for the pivotal point in history that it tangibly represents. A construction project was undertaken to transform the cul-de-sac into a “Peace Memorial Garden,” and more appropriate markers and plaques better tell the story of what transpired there.

Peace Memorial Park 2015

Peace Memorial Park 2015

Still, it’s odd that the location is flanked on three sides by nondescript cinderblock single family homes, where the garden doubles as a children’s playground for the immediate neighborhood.

Okinawa Battlesites 2015, Ryukyu Surrender Site, Surrender 2 September 1945 WM

Okinawa Battlesites 2015, Ryukyu Surrender Site, Surrender placards WMOkinawa Battlesites 2015, Ryukyu Surrender Site, HQ Tenth Army Surrender of the RyukyusBut given the blood, sweat and tears shed over Okinawa by all sides civil and military, perhaps there is no more fitting use of this sacred ground than that which can produce laughter and happiness. I was only too happy to see a couple of children giggle and scream as they give chase through the monuments. For it is peace that the site represents, and the innocence of those children are exactly what help to consecrate the grounds to just such ends.

Okinawa Battlesites 2015, Ryukyu Surrender Site, war monument and peace garden WM

See more modern photographs of Okinawa Battlesites here on my Flickr photostream.


Xi’an’s Fortified City: Another Brick in the Wall


“All alone, or in twos, The ones who really love you Walk up and down outside the wall. Some hand in hand And some gathered together in bands. The bleeding hearts and artists Make their stand. And when they’ve given you their all Some stagger and fall, after all it’s not easy Banging your heart against some mad bugger’s wall.” ~Pink Floyd, The Wall

“So is this fog, smog, or just outright pollution,” I asked our guide Jessie in Xi’an, China. “Yes,” he responded, smiling knowingly yet uncommitted.

The thick blanket of haze’s assault on our senses that windless morning initially obscured the majesty of Xian, as well as the sun. The pollution in urbanized China is at once offensive and inescapable. I will literally never complain about our Environmental Protection Agency ever again; clean air and water are worth the cost and bureaucratic oversight. It was that bad there….

China 2014, Xian, main gate of the old city wall illuminated at night WM

Although Xi’an is probably best known for the relatively recently discovered “Terracotta Army” on its outskirts, in my opinion it is the restored and refurbished ancient city wall and its surrounding City Park that are the premier attraction there.

China 2014, Xian, Jody riding the ancient city wall WM

China 2014,_2803China 2014, Xian, watchtower along the city wall at night WMRiding on a modern mountain bike over cobblestone roadway that’s hundreds and hundreds of years old, thoughts of what the wall has withstood cycled through my mind: war, famine, disease, earthquakes, political upheaval and the very rise and fall of numerous dynasties. Yet today, when you examine the wall’s surrounds, you realize that on both sides – inside and out – lies urbanization not too different from any other city that you’d see in Europe or America. The hustle and bustle of a city full of cars and commerce, and throngs of people rushing about in the chaos of their day. Of lovers and tourists walking hand-in-hand and camera-in-hand. And of tall apartment towers and swank condo buildings, but also of quiet residential areas and timeless temples of ages old.

China 2014, Xian, panoramic city wall from one corner WM

China 2014, Xian, Jody poses in front of the city wall nightThe fortifications of Xi’an (西安城墙), an ancient capital of China, represent one of the oldest and best preserved Chinese city walls, and one of the only centuries-old, large-scale complete walls left in the world. Construction of the first city wall there began in 194 BCE, and enclosed a large area of roughly 14 square miles. Although parts of the wall today date back to the 7th century Tang Dynasty, what we see today was started by the Ming Dynasty in 1370, and encircles a much smaller city area of just over 5 square miles. The wall measures about 8.5 miles in total length, averages about 39 feet in height, and between 49-59 feet in thickness at its base. It remains one of the largest ancient military defenses in the world.

China 2014, Xian, watchtower along the city wall illuminated WM

China 2014, Xian, Kevin biking the city wall WMEven after China’s capital was relocated, the city remained an important military stronghold until contemporary times. Just like the Great Wall attempting to encircle the entire country (see Heroes of the Great Wall for our adventures on that fortification), the Xi’an City Wall was originally built for defense, with watchtowers, a deep moat and drawbridges.

China 2014, Xian, Kevin exploring part of the massive old city wall WM

China 2014, Xian, Kevin and Jody in front of a wall watch towerChina 2014, Xian, flags decorating the old city wall WMEvery 120 meters or so there is a watchtower and rampart which extends out from the main wall, 98 in total. Each is designed with a sentry building to provide a sector defense from which soldiers could protect the city without exposing themselves to hostile forces. The distance between towers is critical; it is just about twice the distance of arrow flight back in the day of the wall, allowing soldiers from consecutive towers to completely cover the wall. On the outer side of the wall there are almost 6,000 crenellations, small holes from which troops could fire while remaining protected behind the cover of the wall. On the inner side, parapets provide fall protection. Corner ramparts and watch towers, higher and larger than the others, are located on each of the wall’s four corners due to their strategic importance in defending the salients of the fortification.

China 2014, Xian, Jody bikes the city wall early smoggy morning 2 WM

China 2014, Xian, Chinese latern on the old city wall WMWeapons 500 years ago lacked the power to break through such a wall. The only way to take such a fortified city was by attacking and entering through a wall gate. At Xian, the city wall includes four main gates: Changle (“eternal joy”) in the east, Anding (“harmony peace”) in the west, Yongning (“eternal peace”) in the south, and Anyuan (“forever harmony”) in the north.

China 2014, Xian, drawbridge illuminated at a city wall gate WM

China 2014, Xian, selfie in front of a city wall gateEach city gate has three gate towers called Zhenglou, Jianlou and Zhalou. The outer most is Zhalou, used to raise and lower drawbridges that would span the moat. Jianlou is next and serves as a robust defensive outpost of the wall with many windows for firing arrows. Zhenglou is the inner and most massive tower, and serves as main entrances to the city at each gate.

China 2014, Xian, Jody at a city wall gate smiling

China 2014, Xian, beautiful Jody at a city wall gate smilingChina 2014, Xian, Kevin biking the old city wall WMThe south gate, Yongning, is the most beautifully finished and the site of important greeting ceremonies and other traditional pomp and circumstance. It was also the only gate used when armies returned victoriously from their expeditions afar. The South Gate Square was only recently improved and opened in the fall of 2014. Our hotel was located immediately adjacent to the gate’s square and City Park grounds, and we enjoyed beautiful evening views from our hotel bar on the 10th floor as the entire city wall is trimmed with gold lights and illuminated red Chinese lanterns in a perfect a mix of grandeur and elegance. There are regularly scheduled shows and performances held here, from warrior parades to orchestra recitals. Viewing of these performances is included in your ticket fee. We, unfortunately, didn’t have the time available to enjoy any of these short but powerful 10-15 minute acts.

China 2014, Xian, Chinese decorations along the city's ancient inner wall WM

China 2014, Xian, Jody and Kevin at an old city wall gate selfieChina 2014, Xian, Kevin biking the old city wall WMThe City Wall has been rebuilt three times: in 1568 with bricks, in 1781 with today’s gate towers, and restored more recently in the 1980s. The impressive City Wall Park has been built between the high wall and deep moat. Beautifully landscaped and well-appointed with classical Chinese architecture accents the majesty of the wall, a stroll through the park is a must, both in the day and at night. The park has become a favorite spot for locals, and we enjoyed seeing the elderly doing their traditional Chinese exercises and meditation early in the morning, and then groups of people spontaneously dancing in the evening in what can only be described as some sort of folk-based jazzercise! Couples here walk hand-in-hand, and street vendors sell snacks and sweets at night, while the area is bordered with high-end cafes, coffee shops and tea houses open during the day. This park is really a great place to see the nature of local life in today’s Xi’an.

China 2014, Xian, illuminated old city wall WM

One of the best ways to experience the wall is by bicycle. Bicycles can be found for rent at the main gates, and perhaps is the most popular way to take in the entire length of this fortification, which takes 1½ to 2 hours at a reasonable pace (we double such guidelines since we stop and take photos so often). A cash deposit is required to rent a bike, and rentals are for 100 minutes, although you can ride longer by paying more for each additional 10 minutes spent riding. Both single and tandem rides are available to rent. Bicycles should be returned at the South Gate before 20:00; the other gate rental sites close at 1800.

China 2014, Xian, early morning bikes on the old city wall WM

While you will be cycling on relatively flat ground, as a centuries-old structure built without the assistance of modern equipment, the ride can get quite bumpy where the wall’s cobblestone surface is somewhat uneven. The wall also has a changing pitch depending on your location, although this is hardly noticeable. If you do have issues providing your own power or have small children in tow, wall sightseeing is also available by electric golf cart.

China 2014, Xian, early morning stroll along the old city walls WM

The Wall can be ascended from any of the gates, and once on the wall you can tour the whole rectangle it forms. Here is a hiking itinerary around the wall starting from the South Gate as a basic reference.

China 2014, Xian, illuminated city park along the old city wall WM

After visiting the wall by day and at night, and while enjoying an almost private bicycle ride with Jody along its wide elevated avenue, I was struck by how this fortification, designed and built as a physical barrier to obstruct those wishing the city harm, now serves as a symbolic connection between not just China’s past and present, but between the historically isolated China and the outside world.

China 2014, Xian, city wall gate at night WM

While this blog’s opening lyrics by Pink Floyd concern more personal struggles with intangible metaphorical walls, the moral of their rock-opera no less applies: though there will always be personal and social barriers erected out of fear, oppression, pain, and isolation, it’s the job of every socially conscious individual and community to never rest in their efforts to tear down the walls that separate us.

China 2014, Xian, Kevin and Jody in the city's wall park

Visit the City Wall at Xi’an. Although still a physically imposing barricade, you’ll find that it now does more to bind us together…than split us apart as it historically has done.

Heroes of the Great Wall of China

“If we fail to reach the Great Wall we are not men.” ~Mao Zedong and his quote which inspires millions of tourists visiting the Great Wall each year

Heroes of the Great Wall - China's label for us, not our own!

Heroes of the Great Wall – China’s label for us, not our own!


Finding our Chinese tour guide Allen upon coming down off the Wall, I corner him with a dose of ornery attitude and personal-space invading sassy body language.

“Allen, you can’t see Tower 13 from here, can you,” I emphatically inquire, hoping that my accusatory tone was coming through loud and clear.

“No-no-no, of course not,” came his dismissive reply slathered in an overly coy smile. “It is much higher and much deeper into the pass than that up there,” he continued, pointing to the highest tower visible from our base camp of sorts.

We were almost the last down the wall well past the given meeting time for our tour group. Having been filled with wall-scaling propaganda on the hour-long journey, filled with Mao quotes and talk of the herculean efforts in becoming a hero of the Great Wall, we were thoroughly indoctrinated upon our arrival and were fixated on summiting the pass “Tower 13” at all costs. We did. But boy-oh-boy what a climb!


Known in Mandarin as chang cheng, literally “long fortress,” the Great Wall of China dates back as far as the 5th century BCE. Several sections of the Great Wall are located within close proximity to Beijing, so trekking small portions of the long fortress is not difficult, logistically speaking at least.

China 2014, Great Wall, signage along the way WM

The Great Wall of China is a series of fortifications made of stone, brick, tamped earth, wood, and other materials, generally built along an east-to-west arc that very roughly delineates the southern edge of Mongolia, equating to the historical northern borders of China. It was envisioned as protection against nomadic intrusions and full-scale military incursions by various warlike peoples from the north. Several permanent walls were being built as early as the 7th century BCE, but most were later joined and strengthened by the 14th century resulting in what we see today. Most of the existing wall dates from the Ming Dynasty in China (14th-17th centuries).

China 2014, Great Wall, ridge-top wall at a mountain pass

Upon our arrival at the Great Wall, where we were one of the early buses for the day, we had to, of course, walk through a wholly atypical capitalistic Chinese “ancient village” where every vestige of originality has been removed and replaced with perfect, cartoonish copies Disney-style, and where any and all structures house souvenir shops. The weather, well, was not what we wanted: cold temperatures and a forlorn hazy overcast which we were repeatedly told was fog. “Fog” in China is more than synonymous with “smog;” it’s actually PC-speak for downright pollution! Unfortunately the weather was to shed all of our views that day, and result in the somewhat bleak set of pictures found here.

"Allen."  Not his real name.

“Allen.” Not his real name.

Allen, our tour guide, casually briefed us at a map of the Wall. Pointing out our goal – “Tower 13” – he casually waved his hand at the top of the ridgeline above where we could see a tower. “That’s not too bad,” I optimistically thought to myself. I remember thinking it didn’t seem to be that much of a climb. But then again we were only given about two hours to make our trek.

Well maybe he was point to Tower 13....

Well maybe he was point to Tower 13….

My first clue of what lay ahead? “Tower 13.” Ah, of course, it’s has to be unlucky 13. Only in Italy does it seem that the number 13 is considered anything but wickedly sinister.

juyongguan_mapChina 2014, Great Wall, find Jody along the wall! WMDue out limited time, our tour took us to Juyongguan Pass. Also written as Juyong Pass (居庸关 or 居庸關), this 11 mile long valley through a ridge of mountains lies just 31 miles outside of central Beijing. Here a large portion of The Great Wall of China passes through and has been fully restored. Juyongguan historically is one of the three greatest mountain passes of the Great Wall of China. It includes two sub-passes, one at the valley’s south (“Nan”) and the other at the north (“Badaling”). Although fortifications here date much earlier, the pass we see today is the site that was built in the 14th century under the supervision of Xu Da, a general of Zhu Yuanzhang, the First Emperor of the Ming Dynasty. It served as the northwestern gate of ancient Beijing City, and most certainly an important defensive ring for empire’s capital. However, like any good massive public undertaking, there were other uses for the wall as well. The tax man loved the barrier it proved, using it to place duties on goods traveling the historic Silk Road. Oh, and it was an effective barrier to both illegal immigration, and at times undesirable emigration. Makes one think it might be a good idea to have a “Great Wall of American.” And it wouldn’t be along our Canadian border….


There is debate about the actual linear measure of the wall, since it includes many branches, trenches, and other natural barriers, but the measure lies somewhere between 8,850 km (5,500 mi) and 21,196 km (13,171 mi). Even at the low-end of the measures, it’s still over twice as far as the Miami to Seattle drive I’ve done…four times…which takes a minimum of 4 “reasonable” days averaging 60 mph for 12 hours per!

I couldn't resist....

I couldn’t resist….

great-wall-construction-smallgreat-wall-battle-illustrationThe cliché goes that “many hands make light work.” Although it’s tempting to take the original length of the Great Wall (say 3,100 miles), assume that it was built over 10 years by over 1,000,000 unlucky souls, and run the math to figure that each worker was “only” responsible for about 1.65 feet of wall per year. of MASSIVE wall running across IMPOSSIBLE terrain. Which includes everything needed to complete that 1.65 feet: quarrying, transporting, cutting, lifting, fitting, tamping, and finishing. No, any way you slice this construction project, it was hell to be in its employ. In actuality, if we take that 1.65 linear feet and multiply that by the average height of the Ming wall of 33 feet, and then multiply that by the average width of about 15 feet, converting to cubic yards we find that each poor soul was actually responsible for almost 30 cubic yards of construction. To put this in better perspective, realize that a full-sized cement truck carries only 8 cubic yards of mix; standard dump trucks carry between 5 and 10 cubic yards of earth. Oh, and the Empire paid you only in food…. In actuality, the network of smaller projects was built well over the course of 2,000 years, or 100 generations, and most likely involved many millions of people.

China 2014, Great Wall, private pausing on the way up

China 2014, Great Wall, Kevin happily on the way down!Yes, we dressed appropriately for the weather, forecast to only be in the 40s that day. And luckily we were forewarned to dress in layers. It may seem chilly at first on the Wall (and it is when that dry wind blows right through you), but I guarantee you’ll be breaking a sweat once you reach the second beacon tower along your journey. What we lacked, and could have used, was some water! It’s not like climbing Mount Fuji, but it’s much more of a climb than you think.

China 2014, Great Wall, Jody just starting the climb WM

rsz_screen_shot_2014-04-08_at_45452_pmAnd although it’s also been referred to as the “longest cemetery on earth,” confirmations of mass graves or deaths on the wall are hard to come by online. I have, although, seen estimates that put the death toll of construction at over 300,000, but I cannot find one credible instance online that states people were actually buried in the wall. Our tour guide claimed that during restoration of the pass we enjoyed over 5,000 sets of human remains were found in the vicinity.

Me with a Watch or Beacon Tower

Me with a Watch or Beacon Tower

Progress on the climb is measured by Watch or Beacon Towers: each is numbered. Although without a portable map, and thinking that the visible tower on top of the ridge was our goal, I didn’t pay much attention to the tower numbering when we first set out. I believe we started at Tower 6…. The visible one I mistook for 13 was actually only tower…EIGHT!!

China 2014, Great Wall, Jody thinks it's lonely near the top

smoke-great-wall-watchtowers-smallgreat_wall_of_china_12The Ming watchtowers were critical components of the Great Wall. Used primarily for observation, they are also called “Beacon Towers,” where their elevated roofs served as platforms for signaling. In fact, it seems that each beacon tower had a ready bunker of firewood, hay and sulphur for making quick, bright and smoky fires. Built no more than twice an arrow’s flight (about 100 yards) apart, the towers provided full defensive coverage; the more elaborate towers stood over 40 feet tall and offered unobstructed views and fields of fire. Observation posts were located on the top floor of the tower; lower floors were used to store supplies and equipment and house soldiers.

China 2014, Great Wall, crowded lower reaches of the wall WM

Note the "Watchful" Cameras

Note the “Watchful” Cameras

Of course there are the ubiquitous cameras on each of the “watch” towers; c’mon, what else would you expect to be going on there! Security cameras are literally everywhere in modern China, and lends credence to the premise of the show Person of Interest. If a machine is tracking your every move, you are most certainly in China. Are you being watched? Yes. In streets, classrooms, stores, mass transit and tourist destinations. Everywhere. If you want to visit China, get used to it.

China 2014, Great Wall, vespa treatment for the mountainous wall WM

China 2014, Great Wall, walking the lonely mountain wall WMChina 2014, Great Wall, the long climb up to Tower 13 WMWe press on with our climb. And make no mistake: trekking this section of the Great Wall is a climb. Like setting the stair-stepper at the gym on the hardest setting and then going for a full 60 minute workout! For the love of god, watch your step! When wet, the stone pathways and stairs are super slick; even when dry and on restored stairs, the footing can be questionable. The steps are never the same height two stairs in a row (modern building code is a wonderful thing), and some are so steep and high that it becomes more like scaling a ladder than even climbing steep stairs. Steps higher than their width are not uncommon. It’s not until you turn around and look back at the rising, snaking path that you really appreciate the steepness of those steps. It’s hard to find firm information on the vertical ascent to tower 13. At the low-end it seems to be about 630 meters, or about 2,100 feet. At the high-end, the round number 3,000 feet is often quote. My own estimates on the wall, using my trained skydiver and pilot’s eye, was about (but not quite) 3 grand.

China 2014, Great Wall, Jody on the climb into the heavens

China 2014, Great Wall, misty wall in a mountain pass WMBattlements are obvious all along the wall. Naturally, the crenellations (and holes for firing) faced the enemy, but drainage is all to the Empire’s side, helping to prevent vegetation which could provide concealment to an enemy. At one point I mentioned to Jody about how low the Wall was in one section. I didn’t realize I was looking onto the “friendly” side; Jody motioned me to the opposite wall where the wall connected to the crest of the ridge, which dropped precipitously a few hundred feet.

There are not many facilities along the way....

There are not many facilities along the way….

The Wall worked, but only marginally, and only for a short period of time. Manchu tribes from the northeast finally surmounted the Wall in 1644 and promptly took over Beijing, then all of China, and established their Qing dynasty, ending the Ming era. Can’t you just see about a million soldiers, slaves, and peasants turning over in the graves sighing, “All that work for nothing!!!”

China 2014, Great Wall, ridge-line wall trace (low key)

Once we realized the tower numbering system, we knew a bit more what we were in for. There was no turning back; climbing ahead of us was an older Marine Colonel Nancy who moved out like this was something she did everyday back on Okinawa. Climbing with us was a Marine Major, who you expect to be in good shape, but who was hauling up his 4-year-old daughter on his back, back-pack style! And behind them was a pregnant woman. We all made it up, but only after reaching a point where the pathway actually descended for a couple of hundred yards, before a steep final push to Tower 13.

China 2014, Great Wall, locks of love explanation placard WM

China 2014, Great Wall, kisses atop Towe 13!! WMChina 2014, Great Wall, locking our love together on the Great Wall of China WMAlong the way we noticed locks attacked to various points along the wall. Jody and I had seen this idea of “Love Locks” in our other worldly travels. Sad that we most likely missed our opportunity to pick one up at the base of the wall, we both longingly looked at this missed opportunity. Thankfully, up at Tower 10 or so, the locks were being sold! Writing down our names and date, the Chinese gent immediately engraved our Lock of Love, and off we went in search of “the spot” to leave our romantic impact on China. We found it in the vicinity of Tower 13.

China 2014, Great Wall, Jody happy about our locked love on top of the Great Wall WM

China 2014, Great Wall, we were there placard on Beacon Tower 13 WMChina 2014, Great Wall, Jody and tea after our arduous climbFinally, retracing our steps back down – there is not cable car or slide down at this spot on the wall – we decided to have a nice hot tea while waiting for our “Heroes of the Great Wall” certificate to be finished. We all were led to believe, again, by propaganda – or maybe just a really bad assumption – that we needed some type of stamp or document from Tower 13 to be a “hero.” This is not the case! Even so, for our own proof, we took a photo of the placard at the top tower in the pass.

Celebrating becoming a Chinese Hero at Tower 13!

Celebrating becoming a Chinese Hero at Tower 13!

Jody and I reached the Great Wall, and affirmed the true and heroic nature of not just this wonder of the world, but of the true and heroic nature of mankind in the world. Come to the Great Wall and set your own goal. No matter where you trek or how high you ascend, the Wall will leave on your soul the indelible mark of greatness.

China 2014, Great Wall, curving ridgeline mountainous wall WM

Just remember, like mounting Tower 13 of the Great Wall at Juyongguan Pass, most worthy goals involve an unexpected and challenging journey, one not visible at the outset. Persevere, and you too can become a Hero in your own right.


China 2014, Great Wall, Heroes of the Great wall and their bamboo medal

For more photos of our Far Eastern Flings among the Great Wall of China, see my Flickr Album The Great Wall of China at Juyongguan Pass.


As an aside, there is often confusion surrounding Mao’s quote about the Wall and the nature of being a man, true or heroic. The quote is taken from the poem “Mount Liupan,” written in late 1935 after the Red Army almost finished the famous Long March. Mount Liupan is a mountain in northwestern China. For context, the poem is included here:

The sky is high, the clouds are pale,

We watch the wild geese vanish southward.

If we fail to reach the Great Wall we are not men

We who have already measured twenty thousand li

High on the crest of Mount Liupan

Red banners wave freely in the west wind.

Today we hold the long cord in our hands,

When shall we bind fast the Grey Dragon?