Commonly known as Nijo Castle, it was the seat of the Tokugawa Shoguns from the 17th until the 19th centuries. The Shogun, Ieyasu, commissioned the finest artists in designing and decorating the Ni-no-maru Palace extensively with gold and precious metals, depicting the best of secular design in the shoin style with Zen architectural elements. The Castle was never meant to be a military fortress but used principally for court purposes during his reign. Fires had destroyed different parts of the castle over the years and the current structure reflects the restoration in 1855.

Nijo-jo covers about 70 acres, that includes 7,722 sqm of buildings. On our last visit a few years ago, we toured the inside of the Ni-no-maru Palace Complex, consisting of 5 buildings adjoining each other. On this occasion, we walked the castle grounds, exploring the various gardens and the Katsura Palace (Hon-maru), which took around 2.5 hours. Traditional Japanese roof tiles, introduced in the 6th century from China and Korea, are characteristically symbolic and defined a craftsmanship that is elegant with an element of spiritual significance. Different eras of history produced differing family seals (kamon), at times represented by botanical and other motifs on the gataou (disks on the ends of eaves) and nokihiragawa (semi-circular tile configurations). Onigawara or a gargoyle tile are often mistaken as demonically-oriented. Quite the contrary, they are meant to scare off maligned spirits and misfortunes from the household. Their fierce looks belie their cultural intent in inviting wealth, longevity and purity into the home.

Apart from Nijo-jo, the other nearby sites that we covered included Nijo Jinya (an ancient inn for feudal lords as they await their call to the shogun’s court at Nijo-jo); Shinsen-en Garden (Sacred Spring Garden that is under the Toji Temple management); the Museum of Kyoto (a graphical and archeological exploration of the history of Kyoto, limited English explanations); the National Museum of Modern Art (a collection of Japanese and contemporary art); Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts (a collection of 77 different Japanese crafts, a must-visit stop); and Sanjo-dori (a covered shopping arcade, not as busy as the Nishiki-koji Food Market).