One kilometre southwest of the Imperial Park, the swaggering opulence of Nijō-jō (二条城) provides a complete contrast to imperial understatement. Built as the Kyoto residence of Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu (1603–16), the castle’s double moats, massive walls and watchtowers demonstrate the supreme confidence of his new, Tokyo-based military government. Inside, the finest artists of the day filled the palace with sumptuous gilded screens and carvings, the epitome of Momoyama style, leaving the increasingly impoverished emperor in no doubt as to where power really lay. The castle took 23 years to complete, paid for by local daimyō, but Nijō-jō was never used in defence and was rarely visited by a shogun after the mid-1600s.

The main entrance to Nijō-jō is the East Gate on Horikawa-dōri, near the Nijō-jō-mae subway station and bus stop. After entering here head to the Ninomaru Palace, whose five buildings face onto a lake-garden and run in a staggered line connected by covered corridors. Each room is lavishly decorated with screen paintings by the brilliant Kanō school of artists, notably Kanō Tanyū and Naonobu.

Ieyasu built Nijō-jō in the grounds of the original Heian-era Imperial Palace, of which only a tiny fragment today remains – a pond-garden, Shinsen-en – trapped between two roads immediately south of the castle walls. Walk through the garden, continuing south down Ōmiya-dōri, to find the mysterious Nijō-jin’ya (二条陣屋) behind a fence on the right-hand side. It was built in the early seventeenth century as an inn for feudal lords who came to pay homage to the emperor. As these were days of intrigue and high skulduggery, it is riddled with trap doors, false walls and ceilings, “nightingale” floors (floors that squeak when trodden on), escape hatches, disguised staircases and confusing dead ends to trap intruders. Since this is a private house, tours are strictly by appointment only and must be booked by phone, in Japanese, a day before; they also ask that non-Japanese-speakers bring an interpreter. Nijō-jin’ya has been closed for renovations since mid-2009 and is not due to reopen till sometime in 2012.

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