The early Nijo Castle buildings were built in 1603 by Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Tokugawa reign, as his villa in Kyoto. The third shogun Iemitsu expanded it by integrating the structures moved from Fushimi Castle, once properties of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and completed the enhancement in 1626.
With the Fushimi Castle remains incorporated, Nijo Castle presents itself as a panoramic showcase of glamorous styles of the Momoyama period (1573 - 1614), manifesting a sophisticated blend of tastes and styles of the three rulers of the time: Hideyoshi,Ieyasu, and Iemitsu. The third added painting and sculpture decorations to the castle.
When Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the fifteenth and the last shogun of the shogunate returned the reign to the emperor in 1867, the castle was offered to the imperial family. It changed the name to Nijo Detached Palace in 1884. In 1939 the properties were donated to Kyoto city and renamed Nijo Castle. It has been opened to the public since then.
Passing through the Eastern Main Gate (Higashi Ote Mon), there is a long (19.6 m) and narrow building with some mannequins (posing as guards) sitting or standing upright. Called Bansho in Japanese, the building functioned as a guardhouse where stationed staff regulated and welcomed the visitors to the castle.
The guards were called Nijo Zaiban or "Nijo Guards," and dispatched from Edo (presently Tokyo). A hundred of them in total were assigned for the job by splitting into two group units each of which consisted of 50. The units worked on yearly shifts: one replacing another every April.
Once there were many such guard stations throughout the castle, but the one near the Eastern Main Gate is the only one remaining today. For its rarity, the house serves as an important historical reference.
The Ninomaru (outer fortress) Palace features a typical warrior Shoin style in the Momoyama period. The Shoin style takes its origin from Buddhist abbot's house structures.
Measuring 3300 square meters, the palace proper consists of five building units: the Entrance, Waiting Area, Reception, Inner Audience Chamber and Shogun's Quarters. In total, the palace has 33 rooms or 800 tatami mats.
Japanese cypress wood, considered as a building material of finest quality for Japanese houses, is abundantly used for almost every part of the buildings. The paintings on the sliding doors (Fusuma doors) and walls of each room are masterpieces by great contemporary artists of the famous Kano School. The rooms are decorated with a sophisticated set of Shoin style decoration items including beautifully-carved transoms, chic tokonoma alcoves, decorative doors, and even nail head covers using an auspicious flower design.
The palace buildings are listed as a National Treasure by the Japanese Government.
The Ninomaru Garden uses the "Chisen-Kaiyushiki-Teien" (garden built around the pond) style, popular Japanese garden style in Edo Period. The style represents a cosmic Buddhist world with the pond at the center surrounded by stones in various sizes as well as trees. Viewers of the garden can stroll around the pond to enjoy natural beauty of the season.
In the center of the pond are three islands; Horai-jima (Island of Eternal Happiness), Tsuru-jima (Crane Island), and Kame-jima (Turtle Island).
The design of the garden is attributed to a renown tea master and garden architect named Kobori Enshu.
Unfortunately, the original Honmaru (the inner fortress) Palace doesn't exist today. The present structures used to be a palace for Prince Katsura, an imperial member, initially built within the Kyoto Imperial Palace premises and moved to the present location to serve as Honmaru in 1893. Equally valuable and prestigious as the original palace, the present building is also placed on the Important Cultural Property list. The palace is open to the public only for special occasions.
Once located in the current Honmaru area was a magnificent five-tier donjon, which was struck by lightning and destroyed in 1750. In 1788, a big fire broke out in the neighborhood, consuming all the original palace structures.
To the south of the palace there is a garden created in the Meiji Period (1868 - 1912), and to the southwest lies the location where the five-tier donjon once stood.
The burned original palace was built by the third shogun Iemitsu in 1626, and used as a residence for himself and his retainers. The Momoyama style structures transferred from Fushimi Castle were part of the original structures.
The garden complex containing the two tea houses; Kaun-tei (Fragrant-Clouds House) and Waraku-an (Harmony-Comfort Hut) are mainly used for tea ceremonies held by the city and reception events for government guests.
800 out of the 1,100 stones decorating the area have been moved from the nearby residence of Ryoi Suminokura, a rich merchant in the beginning of the Edo Period (1603 - 1867). The remaining 300 stones were collected from throughout Japan. Also, one of the tea houses was originally a part of the above merchant's residence.
The entire garden complex, designed to represent "maginificence, brightness and elegance" completed in 1965. Within its 16,500 square-meter area, there are a traditional Around-the-Pond garden and a western lawn field.