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  • Shona McCarthy

Nijo-Jo Castle

Imagine yourself as an assassin in the Sengoku period of Japanese history. You want to creep into Nijo Castle unnoticed. You make it through one of the windows, but then you place your foot on the ground, and it lets out a very audible set of squeaking sounds, as though many little birds are calling out from under the floorboards. There is a delay, but then you hear footsteps rushing towards you. It is the men of Tokugawa Ieyasu, one of the must notorious samurai warlords of Japanese history. They capture you and you will probably be executed. What is this device beneath your feet that has felled you? I will explain below.

Of the castles and palaces I visited while I was in Japan, all of them were magnificent. But of them all, Nijo-Jo is probably the one I would recommend the most, particularly to those unfamiliar with Japanese architecture. For one thing, when I was loitering outside at the rent-able lockers with my now ex-boyfriend, we ran into a Japanese woman who offered to be our free tour guide in exchange for some free English practice with us. She was really knowledgeable, able to tell us a great deal about how old each part of the architecture was, and what part of the world it came from. It's worth noting that not all the architecture in Nijo castle is strictly Japanese, and the tour guide will tell you how and why. But if you aren't so lucky as we were, you can rent an English guide just inside the gate.

(In Ninomaru, some of the rooms contain mannequins carefully dressed in historically accurate clothing. This gives visitors a wonderful sense of what life must have been like in the times of Tokugawa Ieyasu. The above image is a free background from the Kyoto City Tourism Association. 15/5/2020.) The grounds of Nijo-Jo are divided into two buildings and full of beautiful gardens. The two buildings are called Ninomaru and Honmaru. Of those, Ninomaru is the most interesting and the most commonly seen. Really, if you are time poor, Homaru is miss-able. Technically, it was part of the Katsura Imperial Palace, so if you're going to see that, too, you might as well miss Honmaru. When you enter Ninomaru, there is a large area at the doorway, where everyone is expected to take off their shoes and put away their cameras. People are not permitted to take photos inside the castle, since the light would cause the architecture to deteriorate more quickly, and it is already incredibly old. But that isn't the main reason I loved it. What I really noticed, and what I believe you might not get to see anywhere else in Kyoto, was the nightingale floors. Hear what they sound like in this video I found on YouTube:

See how loud they are! The were the ultimate alarm system! And all that made them this way were some special springs below the floor boards. But they meant that no one could get in and out of the castle without everyone else knowing about it. And you get to experience them for yourself as you walk through the castle. Each step you take delivers those proprietary squeaks.

(The above image is a free background from the Kyoto City Tourism Association. 15/5/2020.)


But keep your eyes open as you walk around the inside of Ninomaru. The walls and ceilings are magnificent. I didn't even properly and fully explore everything when I went, because I was fearful of obstructing other visitors, and I arrived too late in the day. So my advice, as with all locations really, is to try to arrive early so you don't have to stress and miss things if you don't want to. Right now, due to Covid-19, The Kyoto City Tourism Association is running a program called "Stay Home, Feel Kyoto, and the images above are part of that. They are distributing these images free as backgrounds for when you do face chats. But I see no good reason you couldn't use them as wallpapers or other fun things. They've also released a set of Youtube videos where people in charge of some of Kyoto's most famous landmarks and activities have released special greetings to people around the world who miss travelling Kyoto as much as they do. Here is one of them:

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