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Nijō Castle, Kyoto Residence of the Tokugawa Shōguns: Architecture and Interior Design Psywar

In 1600, Kyoto was the capital of Japan and the Kyoto Imperial Palace was the official residence of the imperial family. Tokugawa Ieyasu has just seized power and although he would not be named Shōgun by the emperor until two years later, he commenced building Nijō Castle in 1601 by ordering the daimyos to contribute to its construction. Nijō Castle was going to be the official Kyoto residence of the Shōgun.

Nijō Castle consists of at least two palaces, gardens and support buildings. It was Ninomaru Palace that intrigued me the most. I had already read that the architectural design of Ninomaru Palace as well as its interiors were meant to serve a practical political purpose — awe the nobles and intimidate the enemies. I was so intrigued that I made sure the camera’s battery was fully charged.

We took the train from Osaka to Kyoto early in the morning of the third day of our Japan trip. It was chilly. Hot food would have helped keep the body warm but we only had coffee and no breakfast. The tour guide picked us up at the lobby of Swissotel before 7.00 a.m. and we barely had time to shower after the obligatory cup of coffee.

Luckily, my companion for the trip, Kat, had packs of munchies in her oversized bag. Ever ready, she is. While waiting for the bus that would transport us from the Kyoto station to Nijō Castle, I was stuffing my face with rolled wafers.

Taking photos of the interiors of Ninomaru Palace is prohibited

We boarded the bus. The tour guide gave some background of Kyoto and Nijō Castle during the short trip. We were also informed that taking photos of the interiors was not allowed.

What the… I don’t know which fell first — my eyes that were rolling in their sockets or my jaw that must have gotten disengaged from my face in shock. To say I was disappointed would be an understatement. I was devastated. But, you know, we’re guests and guests follow the rules of the host.

The main gate to Ninomaru Palace. Nijo Castle. Kyoto, Japan
The main gate to Ninomaru Palace

When we arrived at Nijō Castle, I was taken aback by the amount of people queueing to get in. It was not even 8.00 a.m. yet. There were buses of tourists like ours and there were school buses too.

Beautiful details of the main gate to Ninomaru Palace. Nijo Castle. Kyoto, Japan
Beautiful details of the main gate to Ninomaru Palace

I thought that the crowds arrived much later in the day. I was hoping that I could take photos without need to consider Photoshopping them later to remove the human forms in the images. In the end, after downloading the photos to my iMac, I gave up on the Photoshopping. Spot healing just didn’t work because there were far too many people to remove.

The artwork on the gate is lovely and replete with symbolism. I couldn’t wait to get inside Ninomaru Palace.

Ninomaru Palace, Nijo Castle. Kyoto, Japan
At the Ninomaru Palace of Nijo Castle, the Shogun received visitors in various reception rooms that were designed either to awe or intimidate

“Nightingale floors” of Ninomaru Palace

We were led to an outer room and instructed to take off our shoes. Then, the tour guide led us inside.

The wooden floors squeaked as we walked on them. “Nightingale floors”, they are called. And they were especially designed to squeak like birds so that the presence of would-be assassins could be easily and immediately detected.

The paintings on the walls of every room in Ninomaru Palace

Paintings dominated the walls of each room. There were varying levels of nervous energy in the rooms painted with roaming tigers. There was a progressive sense of calmness in the rooms painted with serene gardens with cherry blossoms and birds on trees in the others.

The significance?

Low-ranking guests and rival daimyos were received in the rooms painted with tigers to wordlessly intimidate and remind them of the power of the Shōgun.

The rooms with the serene paintings were reserved for family and friends.

The living quarters of the Shōgun has paintings with the calmest images of all.

Over-the-top? The creation of a paranoid mind who feels threatened by shadows?

No, not at all. Not if you know the history of shōguns, samurais and ninjas.

Personally, I was dumbfounded. What genius could think of incorporating the essence of power in architecture and interior design? Whoever he is or whoever they are, I felt like lighting incense to show my respect.

Written By

I travel to eat, drink and learn new cuisines. Between trips, I write travel stories and share travel-inspired recipes. That is my idea of retirement with purpose.

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