Saturday, May 23, 2015

Nijo-jo and Daigo-ji -- 14 down and 3 to go on my Kyoto UNESCO World Heritage Site Bucket List

Last month's trip to Kyoto allowed me to strike two more UNESCO World Heritage Sites off my bucket list.  One was right in the middle of the city and one was a bit farther out in the mountains.
These two places coincidentally are also two very popular sakura viewing spots so it was a good time to visit.

Chieko san, our favourite Tours by Locals guide picked us up early at our hotel for our first stop, Nijo-jo.  The castle  is a popular tourist spot in Kyoto so to avoid the crowds,  an early start would be best.  The subway stop is right across the castle and this imposing and impressive sight greeted us as we crossed the road.

Nijo-jo was built by Tokugawa Ieyasu, one of Japan's "Big 3" shoguns (my irreverent description) in the 1600s.  It is a beautifully maintained historical and architectural marvel and definitely worth seeing.  This is the Karamon Gate, the entrance to the main grounds.

It seemed that the gate had just undergone refurbishment -- fittings gleamed gold in the sunlight and the carvings and ornaments were brightly and vividly colourful.

The Karamon Gate leads to the main structure -- a huge sprawling building called the Ninomaru Palace.  This was Tokugawa Ieyasu's actual residence and official place of business.
Visitors were received in the front areas of the palace while his personal living quarters were securely situated deep within.
The Ninomaru Palace features the famous "nightingale floors"  -- wooden floors that squeak as you walk on them, thus serving as a warning against intruders and would be assassins.
The Shogun was probably in constant danger even inside his own palace as he had guards and ninjas tucked away in closets, behind walls, even under the floors!
Chieko san provided us with this interesting fact and more insights into the history and culture of that period  as we walked through  the various rooms -- which really made us appreciate the palace even more.

Certain private rooms of Ninomaru Palace had floor to ceiling sliding screens that opened out to
the wonderfully landscaped Ninomaru Garden.
It is a traditional Japanese garden with the three most important elements -- rocks, water and trees.
I could imagine it must have looked like a serene and lovely painting to Tokugawa Ieyasu, as he relaxed in his private quarters -- it would have taken his mind off political intrigues, enemies and assassins.

The palace is strongly fortified by two moats, two walls, two gates and there is a castle keep where look-outs kept watch.   We climbed to the the top to catch this glorious view of the palace grounds and sacred Mount Hiei in the horizon.  Kyoto is such a well planned city -- no tall buildings mar the centuries-old views .  I can imagine Tokugawa Ieyasu's guards gazing out on scenery much like this one.

Nijo-jo is one of the city's prime viewing spots for sakura -- hundreds of various kinds of cherry blossoms are planted in the palace grounds.  On this particular stretch, shidarezakura or weeping cherry blossoms lined the path.

This mini garden is in front of a tea house -- unfortunately it was closed that morning but it would have been sweet to have had a cup of tea while viewing the bright pink blossoms of the sakura that bloomed right in front of it.

After Nijo-jo, our next destination was Daigo-ji,  on Mount Daigo, about thirty minutes away from the city on the Tozai subway line.  Like Nijo-jo, it is a famous sakura viewing spot so we were prepared to brave the crowds -- and true enough, it seemed everyone was in Daigo-ji on this spring day.

Daigo-ji is a Shingon Buddhist temple.  Built in the 1500s,  its most famous patron was Toyotomi Hideyoshi, another one of the "Big 3" shoguns.  
He expanded and enhanced the temple grounds for his famous sakura viewing party to which the elite of Kyoto were all invited -- it must have been their version of a red carpet event.  
The Sanboin or the head priest's residence is surrounded by one of the most delightful traditional Japanese gardens I had ever seen.  I couldn't understand why photos could not be taken in the garden so I can only offer you this photo of this graceful sakura tree in the forecourt.  
As I stood there under the branches, a breeze blew soft pink petals all over me -- a blessing from  Buddha -- and perhaps from Toyotomi Hideyoshi too.

The five story pagoda of Daigo-ji is Kyoto's oldest building, dating back from 951. It is a Japanese National Treasure.   The pagoda is the original structure and the only one in the entire complex that has stood through fire, earthquake and other natural disasters.  The other buildings have all been reconstructed and rebuilt.  What a survivor!

This is the Kon-do or the Main Hall of the temple grounds, also designated as one of Japan's National Treasures.  Daigo-ji is a vast complex that encompasses the entire Mount Daigo area.
For today, it is just too big and there are too many people to properly enjoy and explore so we take our leave.  But not before I make a silent promise to Toyotomi Hideyoshi that I would come back,
just not during sakura viewing season.

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