Nijo Castle#7 in Best Things To Do in Kyoto
After years of bitter strife, the aging samurai lord Tokugawa Ieyasu finally wrested power from Japan's many warring clans and unified them at the turn of the 17th century. Upon being proclaimed Shogun (feudal military dictator) of Japan in 1603, Ieyasu constructed a palace that would reflect his supreme power. Nijo Castle in central Kyoto was certainly ostentatious enough to fit the bill. Unlike other noble homes of the day, Tokugawa's gleaming white structure – decorated with ornate wood carvings – was built for show, not for defense. Even the palace's moat and inner wall stood not as defensive structures, but rather as examples of the shogun's exclusivity; only Japan's highest-ranking officials were allowed into the castle's inner sanctum.
That is not to say that Nijo lacked in protective properties entirely. Decades of war had instilled in Tokugawa Ieyasu a deep-seated paranoia, so he had "nightingale floors" installed in his palace. Designed to creak under even the lightest footstep, these floors prohibited anyone from walking through the Nijo Castle unnoticed. Travelers today can tread upon these fabled floorboards as they tour the inside of the castle, but visitors suggest wearing socks, as you'll have to remove your shoes to enter the building. Outside the palace is the lovely Ninomaru Palace Garden designed by famed landscaper and tea master Kobori Enshu. Recent visitors applaud the site’s excellent guided tours in English and say the castle and surrounding gardens are quite beautiful. However, because it is on every tourist's "must-see" list, the castle can get quite crowded. To enjoy your visit in peace, stop by just after opening or right before closing.
You can tour Nijo Castle at your leisure – with the help of an audio guide – from 8:45 a.m. until 5 p.m. (last entry at 4 p.m.), with extended hours from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. in July and August. The castle is open every day throughout the year except Tuesdays in January, July and August and December, and costs 600 yen (or about $5.25) to enter. Nijo Castle is located in central Kyoto's Nakagyo Ward, about 2½ miles north of Kyoto Station; the best way to get there is to either take the subway to the Nijo-jo-mae stop on the Tozai line, or to take bus No. 9, 12, 50 or 101. You can learn more about Nijo Castle here.
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#1 Fushimi Inari Shrine
As far as Shinto shrines go (there are about 400 in Kyoto), this one is pretty special. Perched on a wooded hillside in southern Kyoto, Fushimi Inari is a 1,300-year-old temple dedicated to Inari, the Shinto deity of rice and sake (Japanese rice wine). The shrine complex dates back to the eighth century, but it's not the star of the show. Most visitors come for the close to 10,000 red and orange lacquered torii gates that line the 2 ½-mile-long path up Mount Inari, where the shrine sits. Sometimes in dense rows and other times more staggered, the gates are all engraved with the names of Shinto devotees who donated them.
It takes about three hours to make the trek up the mountain, and some recent visitors say that the hike is mildly strenuous, but almost all agree this is a must-see spot in Kyoto, especially for first-time visitors. Plus, travelers report that there are plenty of places to stop and rest along the way. Peer at the dozens of stone and bronze foxes that line the paths along with the gates (foxes are thought to be Inari's sacred messengers). Or stop in to one of the tea houses or restaurants situated on the path, which serve udon noodle soup and sushi. Because crowds are drawn to their picturesque beauty, Fushimi Inari's trails can get quite congested during the day. To avoid the multitudes, opt for an evening stroll up the mountain – recent visitors say the pervading quiet coupled with the fading light filtering through the trees and torii gates makes for an eerie and spiritual experience. Early morning is another optimal time to experience the shrine sans the crowds.
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