The military might of Japan's great warlord generals, the Tokugawa shoguns, is amply demonstrated by the imposing stone walls and ramparts of their great castle, Nijō-jō, which dominates a large part of northwest Kyoto. Hidden behind these you will find a superb palace surrounded by beautiful gardens. Avoid crowds by visiting just after opening or shortly before closing.
This castle was built in 1603 as the official Kyoto residence of the first Tokugawa shogun, Ieyasu. The ostentatious style of its construction was intended as a demonstration of Ieyasu's prestige and also to signal the demise of the emperor's power. As a safeguard against treachery, Ieyasu had the interior fitted with 'nightingale' floors (that sing and squeak at every move, making it difficult for intruders to move about quietly), as well as concealed chambers where bodyguards could keep watch.
After passing through the grand Kara-mon gate, you enter Ninomaru Palace, which is divided into five buildings with numerous chambers. The Ōhiroma Yon-no-Ma (Fourth Chamber) has spectacular screen paintings. Don't miss the excellent Ninomaru Palace Garden, which was designed by the tea master and landscape architect Kobori Enshū.
Audio guides are available (¥500) and English guided tours run daily at 10.30am and 12.30pm (¥2000, not including entry price).