One place that really stroke me when I first went to Kyoto in 2012 was Nijo Castle. Perhaps it has a little something to do with the fact it was my first destination when I miraculously managed to withdraw some cash from the only Post Office ATMS in town that open on a weekend. If you haven't been to this city before, the Post Office is right next to the JR Kyoto station and Nijo Castle is a merely 8 blocks north from here. Technically it isn't even a castle to begin with despite the protecting outer walls. The main complex is only one level with a confusing array of narrow dark wood hallways with various meeting and visitor rooms. Visiting rooms have lateral sliding doors for samurai to eavesdrop on visitors whereas the private dormitories have wider open spaces. All of the rooms of this mega residential complex have views of perfectly pruned gardens.
This is where the Ieyasu Tokugawa shogunate lived in during a good portion of the restless Edo war era and gave me a lot of inspiration in my books.
When I first arrived to Nijo in 2012 the main entrance was being repainted and the finished project was clearly worth the wait. The photo above is the recently restored entrance when I came back in 2014. Intricate gold artwork to the point of ostentatiousness adorns the door with the ever familiar Chrysanthemum shogun emblem.
Nijo Castle unfortunately has two huge letdowns: The first is that you are staunchly forbidden to take photos inside and security personnel standing guard make sure nobody even takes a cellphone picture. It is indeed a huge letdown because the gorgeous artwork inside was something that left me literally speechless. Gorgeous ancient masterpieces of pheasants, storks and carp adorn the rooms. I probably spent a good three hours admiring the castle's inner artwork that complimented with the spaciousness of the otherwise bare rooms.
Before you purchase your ticket to Japan hold it right there. The second letdown is that in 2014 the castle has begun a huge remodeling overhaul that is long overdue. The wooden supporting beams are riddled with cobwebs and dust; some wooden beams are fully cracked. In 2014 all of the castle's precious paintings were removed to be fully restored and copies that don't even remotely replicate the beauty of the palace were placed instead. I am not sure if that part of the restoration project has been completed but I'm certain they will close specific sections of the castle to fully restore it. Chances are the castle won't be returned to its full splendor until the 2020 Olympics.
Is Nijo Castle worth it despite the remodeling project?
A lot would depend on how many days you plan of staying in Kyoto and if huge sections of the palace end up being closed to be repaired. The gardens are lush and mind bogglingly beautiful. When I visited the castle in 2014 the gardens lost some of their splendor from a recent hurricane and the gingko tress had become prematurely bare. What a huge letdown when I paced across a flurry of golden leaves in 2012!
One thing that I really enjoyed about this particular castle that I didn't explore in my books was the floors. What is so special about varnished wooden beam floors? Well, basically they squeak... a lot. The castle was designed on purpose to thwart surprise attacks from ninja and back in those days making your hallways obnoxiously noisy on purpose was just as well as a camera security system. I managed to pace across the designated path without making a lot of noise. I don't know if it's because I only weigh 44 kg or because I have innate hidden talent to be a ninja.