Into the Shogun’s Palace (Part 2): The Honmaru Garden

Last Monday, we traveled (virtually) across the moat and onto the island that housed the Honmaru Palace, which served as the Tokugawa Shoguns’ personal residence in Kyoto. (Here’s the link to that post, if you want to catch up.)

15K30 Honmaru Goten from entry

This morning, we continue that journey, starting from the courtyard just beyond the bridge:

15K30 Entering Yaguramon

From the courtyard, visitors climb a set of stairs (constructed during the early 17th century, along with the rest of Nijo Castle’s grounds) to reach the elevated level of the Honmaru Palace and the lovely gardens that surround it. The palace and gardens were elevated primarily for defensive purposes, though their height also ensures good drainage–and no flooding–when it rained.

The view from the top of the stairs, back toward the moat and eastern gate:

15K30 Yaguramon gate

Originally, the design of the Honmaru Palace mimicked that of the outer Ninomaru Palace, where the Shogun received visitors and conducted official business. 

The current version of the Honmaru Palace was originally known as Katsura Palace, and served as one of the homes of the Japanese Imperial family. The palace was moved to the Nijo Castle grounds (specifically, to the island where the Honmaru Palace formerly stood) in 1893, at which time the building was renamed the “Honmaru Palace.”

15K30 Honmaru Palace

The building itself is not generally open to the public (the Imperial family still uses the Honmaru Palace as a residence when visiting Kyoto) but visitors are able to walk around the outside of the palace and view the gardens.

15L04 Honmaru garden

The carved stone lanterns decorating the grounds are original, from the 17th century:

15L04 Honmaru lantern

A large stone overlook in the southwestern corner of the island on which the Honmaru Palace sits is all that remains of the elevated donjon, or castle keep, which Tokugawa Ieyasu built as a last line of defense for Nijo Castle. It’s open to the public, and the climb, though steep (up somewhat uneven, 17th century stone block stairs) is worth the effort.

From the top, you can see not only the Honmaru Palace:

15L04 Honmaru

But also the man-made moat surrounding the island upon which the palace sits:

15L04 Honmaru Moat

(Note the modern buildings of Kyoto in the distance, beyond the outer walls of Nijo-jo)

Herons, ducks, and a large variety of native birds inhabit the grounds. The moat, no longer a deterrent to invaders, now houses a number of carp, though not the decorative painted koi so common in ponds. These are the darker, naturally colored carp that live in many Japanese rivers and streams. (A note: the painted koi maintains its color largely through selective breeding. After a couple of generations, even the painted koi will return to its historically-natural colors: grey, brown, and orange, and–occasionally–white.)

Visitors normally leave the Honmaru Palace grounds across the western bridge.

15L05 Honmaru Moat (Leaving)

Its gate and wooden upper defenses burned over a century ago, and were not replaced, but the original walls remain:

15L05 Honmaru West Wall

The lovely views and tranquility of the Honmaru Palace island make it easy to forget that Nijo Castle sits near the center of Kyoto–a modern and densely populated city. From the donjon, you can see the modern buildings just beyond the walls, but only the sounds of flowing water, rustling leaves, and birdsong fill the air. It’s easy to imagine the sense of peace the Tokugawa Shoguns (and, later, the Japanese emperors) must have felt while living there, and to see why even now the Honmaru gardens remain a popular place to visit, for its beauty as well as its historical significance.

Have you visited the Honmaru Palace? What’s your favorite tranquil place?