Nijojo Mae (Castle) is a World Heritage Site in Kyoto. As it happened, it was walking distance from the place we were staying, so it was my first stop in my walking tour of Kyoto. I live in a country where people have been living for thousands and thousands of years. Yet they lived lightly on the land, and in ways that shared resources far more equally than the historical powers of Asia and Europe. So, to me, it is always amazing to be in a bus travelling along a big street in a modern city and encounter a massive monument dating back hundreds of years (in this case, to the 1600s). This watchtower (above) stands on one corner of the Nijojo Mae.
The Castle has a long and complex history both in terms of the flows of power that led to its creation and subsequent modifications, and of the nature of its buildings. It has two immense circles of fortification–two moats, two circles of earthen walls with supporting structures of wood and stone.
In addition, it has beautiful and extensive gardens, some of which would have been for practical use–cherry groves and other fruiting trees–as well as pleasure- and beauty-gardens.
Even the gates were astonishing and beautiful. I spent hours wandering around the outer area of the mae and then more time inside, and being a little lost at times. As usual, I founds myself fascinated by the scenery and the buildings but also focused on the very small things. Trees sprouting with other plants. Gingko trees hundreds of years old–and vast in size, much bigger than an I had ever seen. Roof end-tiles. Staking and rope-typing strategies for coaxing wisteria into becoming tree-shaped. Moss and lichens and fungi.
Even buildings with apparently everyday uses were beautiful to my eye–this is an earthen rice storehouse.
How important it must have been to keep rice safe in any year, let alone one in which a siege was possible.
The inner moat had a sloping wall and there were koi (carp) swimming in the moat. Carp are a pest species in Australia. It was so interesting to see them where they belong, have profound cultural and aesthetic meaning and are venerated.
Eventually I decided I needed some downtime and found a teahouse in one of the very splendid formal gardens, where I had an extraordinary dish of fruit with ice cream and bean paste and saw other people eating ‘snow mountain’, which seemed to be shaved ice with syrup poured over it, served in a bowl with a bamboo grate in the bottom, to prevent the whole thing descending into a puddle. There were at least fans in the tea house on this 39C day!
While I was wandering, to my surprise my phone rang, and it was my sister-out-law. I’d posted her a bag I made before we left Australia and it had arrived on her birthday (which I have to admit was a complete accident, and had I tried to arrange it, surely it would have arrived a day before or a day after!)
I was entirely struck, looking at these gardens–by their beauty and by the care that had been lavished on them, in some cases over hundreds of years. There were explanatory signs about specific trees and their lineages. There were accounts of the restoration of buildings and gardens after natural disaster, fire or conflict. But I was also struck by the evidence that they were organised by principles that I have read about but do not understand in any deep way. That they arise from a different attitude to nature and plants, to history and scenery, than any I have ever inhabited. So–a place of mystery in the company of others’ cultures and traditions.
I kept finding myself checking my own assumptions about the cultures from which I’ve arisen. In a place that is so fully fortified it speaks to an expectation of conflict and even war everywhere you turn, there were carvings of peacocks and butterflies that seemed to me so different to anything that might have been associated with warriors in Anglo Australian history. That had me remembering the Wars of the Roses and the association of warring families or tribes in English history with plants and even with flowers.
Near the end of my journey around Nijojo Mae, after I spent a lot of time watching an eagle or hawk gliding over the castle right in the heart of Kyoto, I came upon a tree that had descended from those exposed to the atom bomb, planted here so that it might be remembered in hope of peace.