Put Nijo Castle on your list of the top 10 things to do and see in Kyoto. (While trip Advisor lists it as #40 of things to do, I’d say the evening viewings during the Sakura (Cherry Blossom) Festival in the spring are well worth the visit.)
Visiting the Kyoto residence of Japan’s first shogun circa the Edo Period, you will be transported to another time and palace. Built in 1603, the castle was completed twenty-three years later by his grandson. The castle and its grounds (including picturesque cherry and plum tree orchards) are surrounded by stone walls and moats.
When the Tokugawa Shogunate fell in 1867, Nijo Castle was used as an imperial palace. Eventually, it was donated to the city as a historical site and opened to the public.
Designated an UNESCO world heritage site, the castle’s buildings are some of the best surviving examples of the Japan’s feudal era palace architecture.
The 36,000-square-foot Ninomaru Palace consists of five buildings and is built almost entirely of Hinoki cypress, much of which is adorned with gold leaf and elaborate wood carvings.
Interesting fact: The nightingale wood floors of the palace were constructed to squeak as a way of announcing intruders.
During the Sakura Festival in the spring, the castle offers special evening viewings. It mesmerizing to walk under the dozens of cherry trees with their bountiful blossoms dancing in the breeze against the night sky. And the castle, with its moat and fortified walls, is much more impressive glimmering in the moonlight. It’s quite a magical experience.
Another attraction to put on your top 10 things to do in Kyoto list. The Fushimi Inari Shinto Shrine in Kyoto dates back to the seventh century (~711 AD) when the Hata family built it and dedicated it to Inari, the god of rice and sake. Today, it remains the head shrine for over 30 000 Inari shrines across Japan and is one of Japan’s most visited shrines and a top sight-seeing destination. (TripAdvisor rates it as the #1 thing to do in Kyoto – not sure I agree. I was far more impressed with their #3 Kiyomizudera temple, but I was fortunate to experience a special night viewing there.)
The Fushimi Inari Shrine may look vaguely familiar to you if you’ve seen the movie Memoir of a Geisha, some of which was filmed here. But the shrine itself is not the main attraction―it’s the iconic orange torii gates (10,000 and counting) that crown the 2.5 mile pathway up Mount Inari (764 feet). While it’s a relatively short “hike” on a concrete path that winds its way up the hill past multitudes of mini-shrines, it can take a while given the crowds. The “summit” is a bit anti-climatic, city and mountain views were smudged with smog when I was there.
Instead of returning the way you came, you can hike down the other side of the mount on forest trails into either Yamashina or Tofukuji, another temple area that’s especially popular when the leaves are turning. Really, you can’t go wrong walking anywhere in Kyoto. Kyoto is all about having a scenic, cultural and beautiful experience, but it is Japan so you’ll most likely be sharing that experience with the masses.
What’s with the gates?
Torii gates symbolize the division between the physical world and the spiritual world. The oldest Torri gates here date back to the 8th century, but new gates are still being added, “donated” by Japanese businesses in hopes of obtaining prosperity and good luck. Today, the price for good luck if you go with a big gate is around 10k; 4k for smaller gates.
What’s with the foxes?
You’ll also encounter many stone statues of foxes, messengers of the god Inari. The foxes often carry symbolic objects, such as a key to the granary (as in the fox in the picture with me at the entrance), a sheaf of rice or a scroll. You may see some fox statues wearing red scarves, which are thought to expel demons and illness. Some fox statues may be equipped multiple tails to symbolize older, wiser and more powerful foxes.
Hours: Open 24/7, best times – early morning or evenings, otherwise expect a crowd.
Getting there: The shrine is located just outside JR Inari Station, two stops South from Kyoto Station (main station) along the JR Nara Line and takes 5 minutes one way. It is also a short walk from Fushimi Inari Station along the Keihan Main Line.
Notes: There’s a street market and shops and restaurants near the shrine’s entrance and also there are a couple of little food shops near the “top”.