Kyoto, Japan, October 2011 travel blog

Entrance to Nijo Castle

Ninomaru Garden at Nijo Castle. Notice the very large, heavy, "masculine" rocks...

Another lecture by Douglas prior to having tea.

Four generations of women in one family enjoy tea together.

Seiryu-en Garden, outside the teahouse at Nijo-jo

Garden at Kokusai Hotel

Only swan we saw in any garden in Kyoto.

Wonderful pruning of the pine branch extending over the water.

This young lady was having formal photos taken, and we were lucky...


We started the day by walking along the Horikawa River Walk. The City of Kyoto had made a contemporary riverwalk below street grade so that you could walk for many blocks without having to deal with traffic.

Our first cultural and garden experiences were at the large and impressive Nijo Castle's Ninomaru Palace. Nijo Castle (二条城, Nijōjō) was built in 1603 as the Kyoto residence of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Edo Period (1603-1867). His grandson Iemitsu completed the castle's palace buildings 23 years later and further expanded the castle by adding a five story castle keep.

After the Tokugawa Shogunate fell in 1867, Nijo Castle was used as an imperial palace for a while before being donated to the city and opened up to the public as a historic site. Its palace buildings are arguably the best surviving examples of castle palace architecture of Japan's feudal era, and the castle was designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 1994.

Of course, no castle would be complete without a spectacular garden. This garden in the Chisen-kaiyushiki style (a style dating back to ancient times with wandering ponds following the natural flow of the land). It is representative of the Shoin-zukuri type of garden (residential gardens of the samurai class).

The garden features a pond with a single room constructed on the pond itself. There are also two islands in the pond and four bridges. The graceful rocks, flowering plants and trees create an inner courtyard garden that can be enjoyed in all four seasons. The garden was designed to represent the Chinese tradition of Horaishisenshiso, the mythical Island of Eternal Happiness said to be populated by wizards capable of performing miracles. The garden is also known as Hachijin-no-niwa (the garden of the eight natural elements [in the Chinese tradition]), representing the Heavens, Earth, Wind, Clouds, Dragons, Tigers, Birds and Snakes). There are many large and imposing rocks. Douglas pointed out that many of the castle gardens feature rocks which might be seen as “powerful,” showing off the power of the shogun who had the garden built.

The garden was reconstructed in 1626 in preparation for a visit by the Emperor Gomizuno-o by Kobori Enshu (1579 - 1647), a famous tea ceremony expert, architect and gardener who held the post of Fushinbugyo (the government official in charge of construction). The garden was redesigned so that it was visible from the Shogun's seat in the Ohiroma and Kuro-shoin rooms and, of course, from the Emperor's seat. The garden was specified as a place of scenic beauty in 1939, and again as a national special place of scenic beauty in 1953.

The Seiryu-en Garden, employing the stone walls and turret gates of the Honmaru Palace to the south as part of its natural scenery, is located where the Tenshukaku Tower Site and the inner castle passageways were located when the castle was being constructed. In addition, Ogawa Jihei (1860 - 1933), considered the pioneer of modern Japanese gardens, was involved in the construction of the present form of the garden.

Completed in 1965 in its present form, the Seiryu- en Garden combines Western and Japanese styles as it has a Western style section with grass on the east side and a Japanese style section on the west side with a two-story building. A part of the residence of the wealthy Edo Period merchant Suminokura Ryoi and about 800 garden stones were donated to the garden. About 300 other high-quality stones were gathered from all over the country to complete the construction.

After the morning filled with history and beauty, we had lunch across the street from Nijo Castle at the Kokusai Hotel, which, of course, has a lovely garden. It was the only garden we visited where swans swam gracefully on the pond.

We had an added treat, as right after lunch, a young woman wearing a beautiful kimono entered the garden with a professional photographer. She may have been having publicity photos taken, or perhaps her engagement photos. The photographer’s assistant posed her against the backdrop of the garden. Little did she know that she would have 13 other photographers thrilled with the opportunity to take her picture.

After lunch, we walked back past our hotel to the grounds of the Imperial Palace. There is a famous garden surrounding the Katsura Imperial Villa, located in the northwest part of Kyoto. It is imperative to have reservations to visit this Villa, and they have to be made a week ahead, so we went to the Imperial Household Agency to make our reservations. We could not all go at once, and we had a specific time for a specific tour. Something to look forward to next week!

One of the other women and I visited the Gallery of Kyoto Traditional Arts and Crafts, impressed by the use of ancient techniques to create graceful and lovely contemporary arts, including pottery, jewelry, baskets, and furniture.

In the evening, I was lucky to have dinner with Barbara and Tom Oliver. Barbara and I have been friends since junior high school in Evanston, Illinois. We don't see each other often because she lives in Washington, DC. She and Tom were on a Roads Scholar tour of Japan and happened to be in Kyoto, so we had dinner at a buffet and shared our experiences in Japan. It was great to see her again!

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