Palace vs Palace
Trip Start Mar 12, 2010
35Trip End Nov 18, 2010
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The newly claimed Imperial Palace was also burned with an alarming frequency. However, all the palace incarnations at the present location in Kyoto remained the nominal seat of power Japan for over five hundred years, until the capital was officially moved to Tokyo in 1869
Visiting the Imperial Palace was free and easy. All we had to do as foreigners was show up a half-hour before an English-language tour was scheduled to begin and present our passports to the Imperial Household Agency to get tickets. (Japanese citizens had a different process, but you could get one Japanese per group in using your passport to be an "interpreter". Since the tour was in English, that idea seemed a little odd.) The ticket building was a bit hard to find since the grounds around the palace were large and there was construction next to the office, but it was close to the tourist entrance gate to the inner palace.
Just inside the inner palace gate, we were shown a short video about the palace while the tour group gathered. Our group was pretty large for a Wednesday in September. I expect we had at least thirty people. In a "what are the odds" moment, there was an Italian in our group I had met before maybe one time in Tokyo. He was in Kyoto on his Honeymoon. I have a horrible memory for people, and didn't recognize him at all, but he correctly named the only place we could have met, so I know he wasn't just picking out random people from the tour and pretending to know them. (That could be an amusing pastime if you ended up stuck on a boring tour, though.)
The visit was fantastic
With one palace down, we grabbed a quick bite at a nearby restaurant and hopped on the subway to head to Nijojo (二条城). The emperor wasn't the only bigwig with a palace in Kyoto (in fact, for most of Japanese history the emperor was just a figurehead), the shogun had his own palace a few minutes away. During the Edo period, the shogun or supreme general, was the actual power in the country. In 1603, the shogun had Nijojo built as his official residence in Kyoto.
While the Imperial Palace design was limited by traditional notions of what was considered proper Japanese art, i.e. less is more, the shogun had no such restrictions. The carvings and decorations were much more elaborate and colorful than those of the Imperial Palace, although personally I preferred the latter. I especially liked the style of the paintings at the Imperial Palace more than those of Nijojo.
That being said, Nijojo was no slouch and definitely worth a visit. For one thing, since it wasn't in use anymore, you could go just about everywhere. The elaborate carvings above the gates could have used a new coat of paint, but they were impressive nonetheless. Despite my preference for those at the Imperial Palace, the paintings at Nijojo were very good. It also had a "nightingale floor", designed to squeak to alert guards to the presence of intruders. It was fun to try to walk on it without making any noise.
Because tours were not required, there were more visitors at Nijojo than the Imperial Palace. There were several groups of schoolchildren being given educational tours of the grounds. For some reason, the guides kept directing the children to look under the palace decks at the foundations. Although it was difficult for an adult-sized person to fit, I went ahead and snuck a peak of my own, but didn't see anything apart from dirt and wooden pillars.
It was only late afternoon when we finished exploring the shogun's palace and grounds, so I decided we had time to get in one more sight. It was back on the trains to head south a bit and visit Fushimi Inari Taisha (伏見稲荷大社)
Fushimi Inari was the god of rice, agriculture, and by extension just in-general wealth and plenty, and a taisha was the head shrine of a deity. I don't know if the head shrines are always the most impressive, but this one certainly was. No doubt because of Inari's association with prosperity, it was a popular spirit to make donations to. The shrine was packed with miles and miles of large torii.
Because we got there at dusk, we didn't have enough time to walk the whole thing before the sun went down. I don't think the shrine closes, but we didn't need to be stumbling around in the dark. I made it to a lakeside shrine with a very cool candle-lit altar before turning around. At some point I will have to return to Kyoto and hike until the gates end.