Field Report:  The Honmaru Palace of Nagoya Castle, Japan (28 November 2018)

I’ve long had a keen interest in the ambitious project to resurrect the lost Honmaru Palace of Nagoya Castle: quite possibly one of the most magnificent examples of 17th-century Japanese architecture to have survived from the Edo Period. (Well, up until it was reduced to cinders by Allied bombing in 1945.) Over the course of multiple visits, I’ve been privileged to witness the rebirth of this grand architectural treasure as it rose from the ground in stages, gradually reversing its complete destruction near the end of the Second World War. This past November, I returned to the palace and was delighted to see the wraps finally come off from its last major sections – their grandeur revealed for a new generation to behold.

Even though I’ve already described large parts of the palace complex through previous field reports – click here to read more – I’d like to walk ourselves through the building yet again, from start to finish, taking time to fully appreciate even those areas we’ve already seen in my past posts.

To keep this post’s length within reasonable limits, I’ve decided not to include the usual brief historical background, whether of the castle as a whole or the palace in particular. Instead, I’ll supply a set of links at the end that will lead to other websites with further details.

Finally, in order to help flesh out the experience as fully as possible, I shall occasionally make use of pictures taken during my previous visits to the Honmaru Palace – this accounts for differences in lighting or other elements that you might notice below. To document the current visit, I relied on a mobile phone camera, which was up to the task in most respects but not as well suited to taking wide-angle shots as the standalone cameras I’d previously employed. The name of each image file incorporates the date on which it was taken, in case that’s of interest.


Now then, a reminder of our present whereabouts.

The city of Nagoya (名古屋), capital of Japan’s Aichi Prefecture…

…at the heart of which stands Nagoya Castle (名古屋城, Nagoya-jō), seat of the Lords of Owari Domain – a branch of the ruling Tokugawa house – during the Edo Period…

…within whose walls, secure at the centre of the innermost enceinte, stands the newly rebuilt Honmaru Palace (本丸御殿, Honmaru Goten).

To keep ourselves correctly orientated, let’s have a look at a floor map of the Honmaru Palace.

Our tour begins in front of the Honmaru Palace’s ceremonial entryway, the kurumayose (“carriage porch”)…

…although we’re not going to enter the building through that hallowed portal. As mere commoners, unworthy to pollute those noble steps which are reserved for daimyō and other esteemed visitors, we must scurry towards the side entrance.

Shoes safely tucked away in lockers, we proceed down a set of interior passageways in our socks…

…eventually emerging into the Genkan (玄関), a suite of rooms making up the entrance hall of the Honmaru Palace.

Here’s a shot of the kurumayose fron within the palace, looking towards the outside.

The two waiting rooms of the Genkan – with the ichi-no-ma on the left ranked higher than the ni-no-ma on the right – feature screen paintings of tigers and leopards set against a background of shimmering gold leaf.

Luxurious, but a mere foretaste of the splendour that awaits. To get there, we proceed down the ō-rōka (“grand corridor”)…

…and enter the Omote Shoin (表書院), originally completed in 1615 as the first of the Honmaru Palace’s three major halls. This section (together with the Genkan) was also the first to be reconstructed, opening to visitors in 2013.

Here we find a set of four rooms (not counting a storage room in the rear), rising progressively in rank as we move closer to the part where the Lord of Owari Domain himself – master of the Edo Period han that was centred on Nagoya – sat in gilded splendour. Naturally, the social status of the visitor would determine which room he will be invited to sit in.

The largest chamber in terms of area, the san-no-ma (“third room”), is the lowest ranked…

…followed by the smaller but more senior ni-no-ma (“second room”)…

…which leads into the higher-status ichi-no-ma (“first room”)…

…which is itself directly before the jōdan-no-ma (“upper room”), whose raised floor – visible from the ichi-no-ma – provides an appropriately elevated position from which the master of the house might conduct a formal audience.

After turning right and following another corridor, we’ll soon find ourselves in the palace’s second major hall: the Taimenjo (対面所), rebuilt in 2016.

Like those of the Omote Shoin, the rooms of the Taimenjo are ranked for visitors of varying status, but there’s a noticeable dissimilarity between the decorative schemes of the two wings. Here, the painted screens – whilst also lavishly decorated – are more subtly grounded against backgrounds of white, cream, and yellow, rather than the blinding gold of the Omote Shoin. This reflects a key difference in the use of the two halls: the public Omote Shoin, for hosting formal audiences and official functions; and the comparatively intimate Taimenjo, which offers a more secluded and relaxed setting for banquets, receptions, and confidential meetings between the castle lord and his vassals.

Next, we proceed down the Sagi-no-rōka (鷺之廊下), here viewed from the other end (looking back towards the Taimenjo).

As we progress deeper into the palace, even the ceilings themselves begin to reflect a change in status – no longer just of individual rooms, but of entire sections. Note, for example, the relatively simple panels above a hallway in the Taimenjo…

…which develop into a more elaborate grid of black lacquered bars with gilded metal fittings, as seen in the Sagi-no-rōka.

The ceiling is further transformed as we exit the Sagi-no-rōka and enter the third major hall of the Honmaru Palace: the spaces now neatly painted, and the golden joint covers extending further as they wrap around the chamfered edges of the crossed beams. Observe also the crest of the ruling Tokugawa house set within each ornament, which offers a clue to our present whereabouts…

…the glorious Jōrakuden (上洛殿). Its magnificently decorated rooms, unparalleled in splendour by any other in the palace, were constructed in 1634 for the exclusive use of the ruling shōgun and his entourage whenever they happened to be visiting Nagoya Castle. This wing was the last to be rebuilt, opening just shortly before I visited in the autumn of 2018.

The original paintings – here meticulously recreated from the actual panels (many of which survived the Second World War in secure storage) as well as detailed archival plans and photographs – were executed by none other than Kanō Tan’yū, a prominent member of the highly esteemed Kanō artist lineage.

From the lofty heights of shōgunal power, we begin our descent back to earth as our feet carry us towards the exit. Along the way, we pass the simple setting – well, “simple” in comparison to the lavish rooms we’ve just seen – of the Ume-no-ma (梅之間), a large chamber used by the visiting shōgun‘s retainers.

A little further on is the Kamigozensho (上御膳所), the “upper” (上) kitchen attached to the Jōrakuden. Note the vent built into the ceiling above the hearth – the Edo Period equivalent, one might say, of a range hood.

Some distance away down a narrow back corridor is the Shimogozensho (下御膳所), the “lower” (下) kitchen serving the more junior Taimenjo and Omote Shoin wings.

I should point out that there is a third, larger kitchen a bit further away, where one presumes most of the rougher and dirtier aspects of food preparation were taken care of (not so proximate to the palace’s ceremonial rooms). Part of this kitchen is used as the main souvenir shop, accessible from outside the palace.

Back to the visitors’ entrance hall to retrieve our shoes, and then out of the building – but we’re not quite finished yet!

Let’s return to the area of the kurumayose and carry past the grand ceremonial entrance, admiring the palace’s exterior…

…as we make our way to the small outbuilding on the left side of the following photograph.

This is where visitors currently enter to view two auxiliary wings of the Honmaru Palace, both attached to the Jōrakuden (although for the moment, not accessible from within the palace itself). Here we find the Yudono Shoin (湯殿書院), where the visiting shōgun took his baths; and the Kuroki Shoin (黒木書院), a suite of private reception rooms. The comparatively sparse decorative scheme reflects this area’s use as a space where the shōgun might relax in a less ornate, less public setting…

…as well as the fact that the Honmaru Palace reconstruction project, whilst very nearly finished, isn’t quite finished yet. A staff member informed me that some of the panel paintings in these sections have yet to be completed.

Here’s the room where the actual bathing took place: not in a tub or shower, but in a wooden closet rather like a sauna. Water was heated in an adjoining room until it turned into steam, which would then fill the “sauna” through narrow gaps in the wooden floorboards (visible in the second picture below).

Thus ends our tour of the Honmaru Palace. A separate, related post will follow documenting the rest of this day’s visit to Nagoya Castle.

It’s not often that buildings lost to war or to the march of time are rebuilt to such an incredible degree of accuracy and authenticity. Many destroyed Edo Period castles, for example, were rebuilt in the post-war era using cheap ferro-concrete. To this history buff, the recent trend of resurrecting Japan’s lost architectural heritage using traditional materials and techniques is very encouraging indeed, and one hopes that the bar set by Nagoya will continue to be aimed for, met, and perhaps exceeded by similar projects elsewhere.

Until the next post, cheerio.


Now for the promised links.

The official website of Nagoya Castle is a useful starting point for further study. That same website has a separate section covering the Honmaru Palace.

The Nagoya Castle entry on Wikipedia is informative, though – as is the case with any publicly editable resource – one should use it with a little caution.

And of course, the Nagoya Castle entry on Japan Guide deserves a mention for its helpful summary of access options and other practical information.

4 responses to “Field Report:  The Honmaru Palace of Nagoya Castle, Japan (28 November 2018)

  1. Pingback: Field Report:  A walk through the grounds of Nagoya Castle, Japan (28 November 2018) | Within striking distance·

  2. Pingback: Field Snapshot: The Honmaru Palace of Nagoya Castle, Japan (06 June 2016) | Within striking distance·

  3. Pingback: Field Snapshot: Yet Another Peek at the Honmaru Palace of Nagoya Castle, Japan (24 November 2016) | Within striking distance·

  4. Pingback: Field Report: Nagoya, Japan (13 February 2014) – Part 1/2 | Within striking distance·

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