“The world is always outside. And it is in the world that we must live.” ― Lian Hearn, Across the Nightingale Floor
It was years ago that I read Across Nightingale Floor and became fascinated by the idea of a nightingale floor. Learning that the Nijo Castle in Kyoto possessed one and was also one of the UNESCO seventeen Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto made it almost like fate. It was one of the first places to be added to our Kyoto bucket list.
Before I talk a little about our adventure to Nijo Castle, I should probably introduce you to the concept of a nightingale floor. You would be very aware that the Japanese are ingenious when it comes to technology. This isn’t just a modern phenomenon, they have been showing their genius for centuries. The uguisubari or Nightingale Floor was Japan’s earliest alarm system, and was essentially a floor that when stepped upon created a shrill chirping noise. Amazing, right? I found it fascinating and could’t wait to wander the floor of Nijo Castle and hear it for myself.
The history of Nijo Castle is fascinating. In 1601, Ieyasu Tokugawa the founder and first shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate of Japan ordered the construction of the castle. It was here, in 1868, that Tokugawa Yoshinobu succeeded the shogunate to the Emperor and Imperial Court. In effect, Nijo Castle is the exact place where the Tokugawa shogunate was born and concluded. The period of the Tokugawa shogunate, well over 260 years, oversaw the longest period of peace and stability in Japan’s history.
On our visit we learned that a castle in the sense of Nijo Castle is not one big building but a series of fortifications. It’s divided into three area: the main circle of defence called the Honiara, the secondary circle of defence called the Ninomaru and gardens that encircle both. They also have high stone walls and moats. I thought it would take around an hour to explore but it took us a lot longer as the site is quite large.
On arrival at Nijo Castle we headed to Ninomaru Palace which served as both the residence and office of the Shogun. It was here that we walked upon nightingale floors and heard them chirp. Ninomaru palace itself consists of multiple separate buildings, connected by corridors each featuring nightingale floors. Each palace room is tatami mat covered and features elegantly decorated ceilings and beautifully painted sliding doors. It’s quite beautiful really. You will need to take your shoes off before you go inside, but there are little shoe lockers to put them in.
Throughout the exploration of the palace, visitors can read large signs which details the importance of each room in both Japanese and English. This allowed us to identify the rooms where lower ranked visitors would have stayed and those rooms where only the shogun and his female attendants would have walked. You can’t help but note the lavish quantities of gold leaf and elaborate wood carvings. It is a palace afterall all.
The main circle of dance, the Honiara, is rarely open to the public although we were able to wander the gardens. Originally it featured a second palace complex and a five story castle keep, but these were destroyed by fire back in the 18th century and it was never rebuilt. We were lucky enough to snatch an opportunity to climb the stone foundation of the former castle keep. It provided a spectacular view over the castle complex.
Nijo Castle is a must see if you are visiting Kyoto. It is the birthplace of the shoguns, and boasts the amazing nightingale floors that you must walk upon at least once in your life time. It is easy to get to, with the subway only a 100 or so metres away. Add it to your list!
Location: 541, Nijojo-cho, Nijo-dori Horikawa Nishi iru, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto 604-8301
Opening Hours: Every Tuesday in January, July, August and December (or following day if Tuesday is a national holiday), 26 December to 4 January.
Current Ticket Price: 600 yen