Located on the northeastern shore of Lake Biwa north of Hikone, Nagahama is best known as the town where Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the second of the three great military rulers who united the country in the late 16th/early 17th century, built his first castle between 1575 and 1576. As a rising general who led successful campaigns in the early 1570’s in the Omi region (now Shiga-ken) on behalf of Oda Nobunaga, he was awarded three provinces in the northern area and was initially based at Odani, a mountaintop castle near the northern end of Lake Biwa. Finding it difficult for him to govern his lands from Odani, Toyotomi Hideyoshi moved to Kunitomo village which he renamed ‘Nagahama’ after Oda Nobunaga and proceeded to build Nagahama Castle.
With a population of about 60,000, Nagahama today enjoys a strong reputation as the largest producer of silk in Japan and is also known for its glass ware. Many of the city’s attractions are tied to its association with Toyotomi Hideyashi. Nagahama Castle, rebuilt in 1983, is a huge tourist draw and the city also possesses the country’s oldest existing railroad station.
Another example is one of the city’s highlight events, the Nagahama Hikiyama Festival each April, which originated when Toyotomi Hideyoshi presented gold dust to the people of the castle town to celebrate the long-awaited birth of his son and intended heir. The townspeople used the dust to create festival floats which they used in processions to the Nagahama Hachinmangu shrine. Today, in addition to the procession of floats, the festival also features the performances of children’s kabuki theater put on by boys aged from 5 to 12.
One way of exploring the city is the Mu-Byotan Meguri (six gourd tour) which involves visiting the temples and shrines that are closely related to Toyotomi Hideyoshi – Nagahama Hachiman-gu Shrine, Hokoku-jinja Shrine, Chizen-in Temple, Soji-ji Temple, Shana-in Temple and Jinsho-ji Temple. Collecting a gourd at each temple or shrine is extensively popular among the people of Nagahama as a religious event to pray for health, peace, good luck and wealth. Daitsuji is also another well-known temple in Nagahama that has a Toyotomi Hideyoshi connection, though in an indirect way.
While Toyotomi Hideyoshi built the original castle between 1575 and 1576 and drew on the wealth of his feudal estate, his stay in Nagahama was brief as he often was called upon to campaign for Oda Nobunaga, then on his own behalf on his way to becoming the dictator of Japan himself.
In 1583, the castle was taken over by Yamanouchi Kazutoyo and then Naito Nobunari in 1600 after the Battle of Sekigahara. After Tokugawa Ieyasu decreed that only castle would be permitted to stand in each province, Nagahama castle was demolished in 1615, with some of it’s structures and the stones from the moat walls being used to construct nearby Hikone Castle. The castle’s destruction was also likely due to Tokugawa Ieyasu’s desire to erase remaining traces of Toyotomi’s reign.
The present castle was rebuilt in 1983. The main tower, which has three levels but actually contains five floors, also houses the City Historical Museum. The castle is a 10 minute walk from JR Nagahama Station.
Kurokabe (“Black Wall”) Square contains houses dating back to the Edo Period (1603-1868) and Meiji Era (1868-1911) along the Hokkoku Kaido Road. A bustling tourist precinct, it is also the center of Nagahama’s glass making industry, with many glass-craft galleries and artisans’ workshops as well as other shops offering local specialties and delicacies. The centrally located Kurokabe Glass Building is a century-old structure and displays over 30,000 pieces of glass craft for sale. Two other places of note are the Narita Art Museum with a collection of the works of Rene Larique, a French glasswork creator who was active from the 19th century to early in the 20th century, and the Kurokabe Glass Kansho Kan, a glass art museum.
The Hondo (main hall) of the Daitsuji Temple of the Jodo Shinshu sect is said to originally been part of Fushimi Momoyama Castle in Kyoto. Fushimi Momoyama was built by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1594 but fell victim to an earthquake in 1596 and the Battle of Sekigahara campaign four years later. Despite rebuilding the castle, Tokugawa Ieyasu eventually chose to tear it down. From the ruins, Daitsuji arose in 1639 as Nagahama temple of the Shinsu Outani sect.
In addition to the Hondo, the temple also features a beautifully carved temple gate and a garden, designated a place of scenic beauty by the national government. Daitsuji is a 10 minute walk from JR Nagahama Station. On clear days, especially during the winter months, you can get incredible views of the nearby snow-capped Mount Ibuki.
Nagahama Station Museum
The former red-brick Western style railroad station in Nagahama is the oldest one still standing in Japan. It is a short stroll from the new station. Today, the original building is a museum that houses Meiji Era (1868 – 1912) Western influenced artifacts – everything from ticket booths to station name plates. Adjacent to it stands the Nagahama Railway Culture Hall.
Kunitomo Teppo no Sato Museum
From JR Nagahama Station, take the Omi bus destined for Yogogakko and get off at Kunitomoguchi. During the Sengoku Jidai, or Warring States period, of the 16th century, Kunitomo, the city which was later renamed Nagahama, was renown for making muskets and cannon. Back then, the city produced and supplied guns to Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu, amongst others. In the museum, the craft of the blacksmith is explained as well as changes in the history and culture in the Kunimoto/Nagahama region.