When Tokugawa Ieyasu set up his shogunate in Edo (present-day Tokyo) and built his magnificent Edo Castle there, Kyoto was relegated the official capital in name only, home to the imperial family. So that he would have a place to stay in Kyoto, Tokugawa built Nijo Castle as his residence in 1603, which to this day is considered a fine example of Momoyama (1624-1643) architecture and is one of the more than a dozen structures that make up the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto UNESCO World Heritage Site.
There’s no other castle in Japan quite like this one, a magnificent structure constructed almost entirely of Japanese cypress and blessed with transom woodcarvings and painted sliding doors. The main building, called the Ninomaru Palace, contains 33 rooms and is otherwise simply decorated. Like all traditional residences at the time, futons and other bedding were rolled out at night and stored in closets during the day, giving rooms an empty appearance compared to the grandiose furnishings in European palaces at the time. Sliding doors around the perimeter could be removed in summer to take advantage of breezes, but for the shogun’s protection there was also a moat, stone walls, corridors with so-called nightingale floors that creaked when trod upon and hidden alcoves for bodyguards. Unfortunately, photos are not allowed inside the palace.
Be sure to see the Ninomaru Garden, considered one of Japan’s finest gardens and attributed to Kobori Enshu, the Edo era’s most famous and prolific landscape architect.
Subway: Nijojo-mae Station. Bus: 9, 12, 50 or 101 to Nijojo-mae stop.