“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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