Through the Karamon to the Shogun’s Palace

During the medieval era, entering the shogun’s palace was not as simple as approaching a gate and walking through–or even scaling a wall.

Most Japanese castles lay within multiple layers of fortifications, designed to keep intruders out and to impress the people granted entry. This was true regardless of whether the castle was located out in the country or within a city like Kyoto.

The outer ramparts of Kyoto’s Nijo Castle (in Japanese, Nijo-jo) feature high, roofed walls atop stone fortifications. Watchtowers at each corner provide an elevated platform for observation and defense:

15K22 Watchtower

A deep, wide moat surrounds the outer perimeter of the castle grounds–all 275,000 square meters. Giant carp (some almost a meter in length) inhabit the moat, though the fish don’t seem to be there for ornamental purposes, and probably weren’t there in the days when the Tokugawa shoguns called Nijo-jo home. 

15K22 Moat

The fish are doubtless a later addition, and not mentioned in nay of the official literature. (Personal observation: It’s difficult to find a significant body of water in Japan that doesn’t have fish in it.)

After passing through a gate in the outer walls (the gate was under construction, and covered by scaffolding during my visit, so I don’t have a good photograph of the entrance proper), visitors found themselves in a “chute” between the outer walls and the inner ones.

15K22 Nijo jo Map

As the diagram shows, the gates in the inner walls were offset, requiring visitors to enter the primary gates, turn right (or left, depending on the inner gate they were authorized to use) and walk along the space between the walls and around a corner to the inner gate. The entire time, the visitors were in full view–and in arrow range–of the samurai guards on the inner and outer watchtowers.   

To clarify: the outer gate is marked on the map above with the number (1).  (2) and (3) are the spaces between the walls, where people walked to get to the gate in the inner walls. Around the corner, at (4), visitors would enter the palace grounds through the karamon, or “noble gate.” (Note: the word “mon” means “gate,” so the English map’s use of “kara-mon gate” is actually redundant.)

Here’s the Karamon, as seen by a visitor coming around that corner:

15K22 Nijo-jo Karamon w people

The word  “karamon” applies to a specific type of gate which appears in Japanese architecture starting in the Heian period (794-1185)

karamon is recognizable because it utilizes a kara-hafu, a curved bargeboard or gable, often covered with tile or bark. The distinctive curved form of the kara-hafu originated in Japan, and is generally associated with Japanese architecture:

15K22 Nijo-jo Karamon

Like many others, the karamon at Nijo-jo is highly ornamental and covered in elaborate, colorful carvings. The golden color here is all gold leaf. (You can tell, in part, because gold does not dull or tarnish over time, the way paints and other metals do.)

15K22 Karamon detail

Even the gates themselves (which stood open or closed depending on the level of security the castle was under at any given time) were large, reinforced, and elaborate:

15K22 Nijo-jo Karamon gates

The karamon was a symbol of power and authority, which is reflected in both in the gate’s imposing size and in its design. In some places, only the shogun (or the emperor) had the rank to enter through the karamon, though in other places any person of noble birth could use it.

Now, the karamon at Nijo-jo serves as the public entrance to the castle grounds, but time and public access has done little (if anything) to diminish its impressive scale. Walking beneath it to enter the castle, a person feels small, and can’t help but admire the beauty and scale of the gate and its decorations–precisely as Tokugawa Ieyasu intended, when he ordered construction of the original karamon in the early 17th century.

Have you ever visited Nijo, or any other castle? What did you think about the size and scale of the entrance gates?