Japan is Hard to Photograph

…so you’ll just have to visit.

A corner turret on the outer castle wall

Nijo Castle was another must-not-miss destination on our tour of Kyoto.

Part of the inner castle wall, haphazard stones forming perfect lines where it matters

This castle was once the seat of a very powerful shogun, and the grounds are truly impressive. The tour leads you indoors, where rice-paper windows light impossibly old wooden carvings and gold leaf artwork.

The entrance to the shogun’s quarters

Low-ceilinged tatami mat rooms are shown with mannequins taking the place of the shogun and his lords, and Japanese-only recordings explain something about each room.

Amazing, bright detail. Notice the chrysanthemum; there were lots of details from older emperors as well, like hollyhock. Apparently this shogun was a bit nostalgic for the old regime, as it was customary to replace everything with the symbol of the current ruling family.

It helps to have a guide to understand what’s going on.

The interior corridors are lined with nightingale floors, chirping with every step so sneaky ninja assassins couldn’t sneak in at night. It sounded like violins in a horror film.

Exterior detail, again with the chrysanthemum

No pictures are allowed inside, but how would I capture that in a photo, anyway?


Outside, the buildings are arranged such that each has a good view of the surrounding gardens.


Back in the day, the enormous rocks featured here were given to the shogun by the local nobility as tokens of fealty.


Our guide mentioned that some of the rocks were valued at over a million yen at the time they were given.


They seem like very nice rocks, but I’m not sure how you place a value like that on them.

Most castles I’ve been to are large enough that I go into it knowing I won’t be able to capture it all in one photo. I tend to focus on the details then; some medieval artifact or view out a window that happens to catch my eye.

It would probably take a lot of photos like this to capture an entire castle

Nijo Castle was no different. There was no way to capture the utter Japan-ness of everything. The whole place is just so.

Interior gate to the compound

What do I do when the details have details? The artwork in Nijo castle is like a fractal; details continue unfolding as you look more closely.

Look at all the detail!

And then there’s the light. The golden hours that bookend the day (an hour after sunrise and an hour before sunset) are good no matter what the conditions are, but mid-day shooting is a tossup of overcast skies and impossible crowds. I guess it’s one of those things where, the more you improve at something, the more you recognize your deficiencies.

Or just revert to the old fallback of artsy-fartsy photos. This is a color photograph of a cool bamboo fence I found.

Looking at it objectively, I took hundreds of photos of Nijo Castle, and came away with fourteen that I felt I could share.

Some places practically take their own photos. Though Japan is very beautiful, it can be hard to capture.

Copper gutters with hollyhock emblem

Japan definitely makes you work for it.

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