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March, 2016

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Although our three-week trip to Japan was mainly self guided, as with Tokyo, we had a guide, Chiaki Kobayashi, for a one-day city tour of Kyoto.

“Nijo Castle”: was the first stop. It was built by the founder of the Edo Shogunate as his Kyoto residence and was completed in 1603. The buildings are said to be the best surviving examples of castle palace architecture in Japan’s feudal era, and were designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1994.

Unfortunately,as with a number of the places we visited in Japan, much of it was shrouded due to renovation work. After entering through the large, ornate Karamon Gate, we took off our shoes and put on the tan leather slippers provided observing Chiaki’s mantra – ‘no shoes, no photos’. We walked through the Ninomaru Palace along a wooden floor known as the ‘nightingale floor’ because the squeaks created by walking on it, are said to resemble a nightingale’s song. The purpose was said to be to a security measure.

The nightingale floor took us around a set of 4 greeting rooms, all with tatami mats, and used by visitors wanting to see the Shogun with status determining which room you were greeted in. A final room had a series of models representing the Shogun, the feudal lords on their knees and a boy, sitting near the Shogun and in front of two doors – apparently at the first sign of trouble, the boy would clap his hands twice to summon guards who would immediately enter through the doors.

Each room had painted screens on sliding doors called fusama – these were only replicas as the originals are stored elsewhere. One, with tigers, had only been refurbished last year and another had been completed a month ago. Chiaki told us that when the original drawings of the tigers had been done, the artists had never seen the real animals and consequently the proportion of the bodies was wrong. The scenes in the rooms as you got nearer the Shogun, and used by higher ranking visitors, had more restful and calming scenes.

Where nails had been used in the building of the building, they were all covered with large ornate golden nail covers said to be cost around $4000 each – there were a lot of them.

The Shogun relinquished power in 1867 when his hollyhock crest was replaced with the Imperial chrysanthemum. We saw a carved wooden screen high above a door which was carved from a single piece of wood but which had different scenes on each side.

Outside we went into beautiful gardens on what was turning out to be an equally beautiful day with the sun shining. There was a large pond, surrounded by carefully placed stones, elaborate pine trees and a bamboo tree thatched to protect it from the winter’s weather. It was very artistic and a photographic display outlined the process, which took place in a series of stages.

Helen Jackson

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