Hikone is a city in eastern Shiga Prefecture with a population just over 100,000, lies on the eastern shore of Lake Biwa. The city’s symbol and main attraction is Hikone Castle, one of the most popular castles in Japan and along with the castles of Himeji, Inuyama, and Matsumoto, one of only four castles designated as national treasures. The city is also a launching point for beautiful Lake Biwa and the destinations within it such as Chikubu Island.
The Hikone region was first inhabited during the Jomon Period (8000 years ago) and the city was first mentioned in the Manyoshu, a collection of poems from the 7th and 8th centuries. During the constant civil warfare of the 16th century, Hikone and the surrounding areas became key strategic ground, with a fortress called Sawayama Castle situated close to Hikone dominating the terrain. In the aftermath of Tokugawa Ieyasu’s comprehensive victory at Sekigahara, Sawayama and the feudal fief of Omi was taken from his adversary Ishida Mitsunari and given to Ii Naomasa, a loyal and important general of the Tokugawa forces, was awarded Hikone for his role in the battle.
Hikone Castle was built by Ii Naomasa’s son Ii Naotaka, who petitioned the Tokugawa Shogunate to move his base from Sawayama mountain down to its current location on a hilltop directing adjacent to Lake Biwa. During the long 250 year peace that followed, Hikone city developed into an important castle town prospering though the major roads (in particular the Nakasendo linking Edo with Kyoto) connecting it to the rest of Omi province and the surrounding regions, and becoming an important port of Lake Biwa for the transhipment of rice and other goods to other major ports on the lake, and via the canal system linking Lake Biwa to Osaka to markets far beyond. The head of the Ii family continued to rule the city and the province as daimyo, and also acted as the Chief Ministers of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Prosperous and powerful, they built the beautiful Genkyu-en Garden adjacent to the castle, as well as a beautiful garden for the Ii family mansion in Edo (now Tokyo – the latter garden still existing as the “Japanese garden” of Tokyo’s New Otani Hotel, albeit significantly modified and not as impressive as Genkyu-en). 250 years later, one of the last of the Ii daimyo was Ii Naosuke, who as Chief Minister of the Tokugawa Shogunate was given the unfortunate duty of negotiating in 1858 the treaties that re-opened Japan to foreign trade, and for his trouble was assassinated by Arimura Jizaemon outside the Sakuramon gate of the Tokugawa’s Edo Castle (now Tokyo Imperial Palace) in the snows of March 1860.
The city has excellent transportation links including the Meishin expressway and close proximity to the Shinkansen line (Maibara station). Traditionally the economy of the city relied upon the mainstays of agriculture and light industry, although these days education (University of Shiga) and tourism is increasingly important, with tourism gradually diversifying away from a sole focus on Hikone Castle and Genkyu-en to include extensive outdoor recreation centered on Lake Biwa, pilgrimages to Chikubu island etc, skiing/snowboarding in the nearby mountains and so on.
Apart from the Castle, garden and the castle museum, the town itself is worth spending some time strolling in. Particularly interesting are the revitalized areas around “Yume-Kyobashi Castle Road” where the streetscape has gradually returned to a more traditional form through the efforts of the local chamber of commerce and government – the result being many good restaurants (try some Omi Beef!), cafes and souvenir shops in an atmosphere described fairly accurately as “Old-New Town style”.
The tragic figure of Ii Naosuke also attracts a fair number of Japanese visitors to Hikone, as they empathize with his character and sense of duty portrayed to them over the years through historical dramas, poetry and theater. The main attractions are “Umoreginoya”, the home where Ii Naosuke lived and trained as a young man, and nearby Ryotanji Temple – a Zen temple closely associated with the Ii family that has some beautiful artwork by Morikawa Kyoroku and a tea ceremony room once used by Ii Naosuke.
How to get there – The closest shinkansen stop to Hikone is at Maibara. From there, it takes a five minute train ride on the JR Biwako line to reach Hikone.
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