A Nightingale Sings in Nijo-jo

Kyoto, Japan

June 28, 2009

Enter the Edo Era: Nijo Castle

A nightingale sings in Nijo-jo (Nijo Castle) – with every step you take. Centuries before the Twitter age, the Tokugawa shogunate already used tweets. This castle, built in the 17th century in Kyoto, is famous for its wooden floors that tweet – the uguisu bari (nightingale floor). When I got to Kyoto, it was the first place to wanted to see – and hear.

Kara Mon Ceiling in Nijo Castle

A row of ticket-spewing vending machines concealed the castle’s gabled gate – the Karamon (Chinese Gate). It was different from other such gates I had seen in Japan. I found Himeji-jo’s gates to be formidable and spartan and Tokyo’s Kaminarimon typical with its hanging chochin. Karamon was unique with its intricate carvings and ornate gilded designs on the ceiling and lintel. Images of flowing bird plumage and radial flowers were carved down to minute details. Clearly, it signified the magnificence of the Tokugawa shogun, so much so that centuries after the fall of the shogunate, the gate still inspired awe.

Ninomaru, Nijo Castle

From the Karamon, a wide pebbled clearing opened up. Across it stood the castle’s secondary palace, the Ninomaru. From this distance, the palace seemed diminutive despite several pitched roofs that defined it. The donjons of Himeji-jo and Osaka-jo were imposing landmarks; Nijo-jo was a low-rise structure. What it lacked in height, it made up in area. The castle complex was sprawling and consisted of a number of structures and enclosures.

Japanese cypress was used to build Ninomaru and the main palace, Honmaru (open only a few times a year), for its resistance to rotting. Since all kinds of footwear were not allowed inside, the light brown wooden floor could be quite slippery, especially with your socks on.

Nijo-jo in Blue

Walking on it confirmed what it was famous for – the nightingale tweet. Each footstep, no matter how light, made the floorboards squeak. The chirping sound was actually a high-pitched creak produced by the friction between the suspended floor and its fixing nails when stepped on. The sound alerted the shogun and his samurai bodyguards of approaching ninja assassins, who were so stealthy that they could allegedly walk on water. During the time of the Tokugawa, the tinny squeak must have been magnified in the deep quiet of night or the muffled sounds of winter.

Now, with the throng of tourists filling its corridors, the squeak sounded more like the chatter of nightingales. On a sour note, I was completely put off by some Westerners who were stomping on the floor. A potentially meditative stroll through history was rudely interrupted by mindless, inconsiderate tourists.

Honmaru (Inner Palace)

The florid artwork in Karamon provided a striking contrast to the rather subdued paintings that covered entire walls of Ninomaru. There was a decidedly understated opulence in the artworks and lay-out of the palace. Neither majestic nor grand, but more modest in scale, spare and conveniently functional. This Zen style featured the use of sliding doors and tatami mats.

There were many rooms within Ninomaru (the brochure says 33): receiving rooms for visiting lords, entertainment rooms with koto-playing women, and the living quarters of the shogun. Some halls could be made larger by pushing back the sliding doors. Life-size dioramas, seated on tatami mats, showed how the feudal lords paid their respects to the shogun. Although the shogun may seem vulnerable in the sparsely-adorned and unprotected room, easy access of samurai retainers who could emerge from any of the sliding doors and false walls probably thwarted assassination attempts. It was said that this set-up was integral in the psychological manipulations of the shogun of his subjects.

Murals covered the walls. They usually depicted nature scenes – bonsai and topiary trees partly concealing snow-capped mountain peaks and clouds in the distance, and tigers and eagles in hunting stances – all conveying the authority and power of the shogun. The designs were minimalist – the backdrop was usually an expanse of carrot-orange emptiness with the foreground images relegated to the edges. These were works of artists, notably Tanyu, from the Kano School of Japanese painting, founded in the mid-15th century. The influences though were obviously Chinese, especially in the use of ink-brush technique. Photography was disallowed within the palace as camera flash can fade the paintings. To avoid any issues, even no-flash photography was prohibited.

Stone Garden in Nijo Castle
Ninomaru Garden Rocks!

Venture out of the palaces and the scene would be no less inspiring. The splendidly lovely Ninomaru Garden was originally designed by a famous artist and aristocrat named Kobori Enshu. It used to be a rock garden – no trees were planted – so as not to show the passing of the seasons, said to imbue a sense of immortality to the shogun. I could only hope those floor stomping tourists did not kick the stones out of arrangement.

Eventually trees and flowering plants were added, turning the garden into a sight to behold in any season. It made me want to live in Kyoto for, at least, a year, so I could see this garden in its four-season variations. I was there in the summer and the heat was punishing. Much as I wanted to enjoy the garden, the beating sun chased me off to retreat under the shade.

Horai-jima (Island of Eternal Happiness) in Nijo Castle

Still, it was enough for me to appreciate the elements of Japanese gardens. There was a big tranquil pond. One of three islands was called Horai-jima, the Island of Eternal Happiness. It did evoke a deep sense of joy with its topiary trees and rock arrangements. The island seemed to be a giant centerpiece bonsai arrangement. Elsewhere in the Zen surroundings, there were also tea pavilions, stone lanterns, and stepping stones – all elements of typical Japanese gardens. I belatedly learned that there was a special technique in viewing rock arrangements that would reveal its layers of mood – from intense to serene.

I kept a mental note of it when the nightingale tweet would call me back to Nijo-jo, preferably in a colder season.

Nijo-jo Exit

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