February 16, 2017

Historic Hikone Castle

Situated on the northern bank of Lake Biwa, Hikone Castle is one of Japan's remaining original strongholds. It is also a defensive masterclass.

The main keep of Hikone Castle in Shiga Prefecture during the springtime cherry blossom season

Many travelers immediately think of either Osaka Castle or Himeji Castle when considering a historical visit to a castle in the Kansai region. Few are aware of another fortress that has served as a solemn guardian of important trade routes for centuries. Hikone Castle is located on the eastern shore of Shiga Prefecture’s Lake Biwa. Yet despite its relatively off the beaten path location, the castle is a hidden gem of immense cultural importance. Hikone Castle dates back to the early 1600’s and is one of only a handful of remaining original castles.

Hikone Castle provides visitors with a very accurate depiction of a feudal castle. The main keep was designated a National Treasure in 1952 and most of the inner moats, walls, and guard houses remain intact. In addition to these remnants, much of the surrounding living quarters have been reproduced with great accuracy. The castle grounds are also home to a wonderful museum showcasing many of the Ii family’s treasures as well as the stunning Genkyu-en Gardens.

Hikone Castle undoubtedly offers an authentic experience capturing everyday life within a traditional Japanese castle. Unfortunately for most other castles, many of the feudal defensive structures were destroyed at the start of the 20th century following Japan’s entry into modernity. However, a request from Emperor Meiji himself thankfully kept Hikone Castle from being dismantled.

Getting to Shiga Prefecture & Hikone Castle

A shinkansen bullet train departs towards the Kansai region where Hikone Castle is located

Hikone Castle is the central point around which the modern city of Hikone has sprung up. Getting there is simple enough from Osaka or Kyoto but it’s around an hour and some change by train. If you’re traveling to Hikone from the Kansai region you’ll be wanting to make your way to the JR Hikone Station via the Biwako Line. Those coming from Nagoya or Tokyo will likely use either express trains or the bullet train which both pull into the nearby Maibara hub. Remember to check Hyperdia or a similar service to see which train works best for you.

The castle is approximately 15 minutes on foot from the JR Hikone Station but there are also plenty of taxis nearby as well. Given the fortress’ size and central location, it should be easy enough to find but here’s a map just in case. Most of Hikone’s other attractions are within walking distance from the castle such as the numerous shops on Yume Kyobashi Castle Road that were created to resemble an authentic feudal castle town.

After accounting for walking time, exploring the castle, and round-trip transportation, a visit to Hikone Castle should be considered a full day’s excursion.

Exploring the Hikone Castle Grounds

The moat of Hikone Castle during the springtime cherry blossom season

While largely unknown to foreign visitors, Hikone Castle has played a vital role throughout Japan’s history. The keep itself is rather small but it is nestled atop a hill that overlooks a critical valley where the Nakasendo trade route funnels into a narrow choke point. Due to its strategic position, Hikone Castle controlled all traffic on this important lifeline to Kyoto and Osaka and the Tokugawa shogunate put one of their most loyal supporters, the Ii family, in charge of maintaining the castle.

The layout of Hikone Castle is also quite intriguing when compared to other complexes from a defensive perspective. The keep sports a spiral ramp that leads to a single wooden bridge that could easily be dismantled during an enemy siege. Additionally, there are also several massive turrets that overlook key entry points. One can easily imagine how hard it would have been to invade such a fortress during Japan’s feudal era.

While the main keep is situated atop the bluff, the castle’s remaining structures can be found at the base of the hill. Here you’ll find the Hikone Castle Museum which is housed within a partial reconstruction of the former living quarters. There are multiple tatami rooms, gardens, and corridors to explore which would have served as the backdrop to the bustling castle-town’s administrative work years ago.

Lastly, as with most castles, the grounds of Hikone Castle become a popular cherry blossom viewing spot in spring. I have some great memories of leisurely strolling through the Hikone Castle grounds during spring when I used to live in the city and definitely recommend it if the timing works out for you! If you want to time your visit accordingly, please note that Hikone’s cherry blossoms typically reach full bloom about a week later than Kyoto and Osaka due to the city’s northern location.

Meet Hikonyan, the Hikone Castle Mascot

Hikonyan, the loveable mascot of Hikone Castle

No visit to Hikone Castle would be complete without a short explanation about the area’s adorable yuru-kyara mascot, the famous Hikonyan. The loveable character was based on legends of the third lord of the Ii family who was saved from lightning by the beckoning of a white cat. Hikonyan’s helmet is styled much like the historical Ii family heirloom which can be seen in the aforementioned museum.

The adorable feline first appeared in 2007 while celebrating the castle’s 400th anniversary. Since that time, Hikonyan has been credited with helping to boost Hikone’s tourism industry by as many as 200,000 new visitors every year. Additionally, in the year following his initial debut, over USD 21 million worth of Hikoyan goods were sold throughout Japan. What’s more, in 2010, this mascot was voted the number one yuru-kyara in a nation-wide competition.

Those visiting the castle can actually get a chance to meet Hikonyan in person though be warned, everyone will be lining up for the same opportunity! The adorable mascot makes a daily appearance at Hikone Castle for three thirty-minute long performances. Be sure to check with the castle’s ticketing booth prior to entering for information about the timing of these shows as they do change often.

Attractions Near Hikone Castle

The picturesque Genkyu-en Gardens on the outskirts of Hikone Castle

Given that Hikone is a bit out of the way, I highly suggest you also check out the nearby attractions that the area has to offer. Unless you’re a long-term resident, this visit is likely to be your last so I encourage you make the most of your time there.

  • Genkyu-en Gardens
    These traditional gardens were built on the grounds of Hikone Castle in 1677 and are supposedly designed after a palace garden from the Tang Dynasty. The Genkyu-en Gardens have a large central pond around which winds a walking trail. There is also several buildings which in days gone by were used by the lords of Hikone to entertain guests but today offer the chance for visitors to enjoy a cup of tea.
  • Yume Kyobashi Castle Road
    This is a relatively new addition to the area but the road was revamped to look like a traditional feudal castle town. There are a lot of cafes and other shops lining the streets making this a pleasant stroll after exploring the castle. If you are looking for a souvenir to bring back, this is also likely your best bet to find something good.
  • Lake Biwa
    If you take about a 10 to 15 minute walk from the castle you’ll arrive on the shores of Lake Biwa, Japan’s biggest lake. Given the importance of large bodies of fresh water to their geography, Michigan and Shiga Prefecture have long had a close relationship and the two jointly own a language school that sits on the banks of the lake. I have many fond memories of learning useless Kanji there back in 2007–2008.
  • Chikubushima
    This small island is located in the northern part of Lake Biwa and can be reached via a ferry from the lake’s shore in Hikone. The island has long been considered sacred and is designated as one of the Eight Views of Omi. Though only 2 km in circumference, the island is home to Hogon-ji temple and Tsukubusuma Shrine, an earmark of a time when Buddhism and Shintoism were both intertwined. Along with Enoshima and Miyajima, Chikubushima is home to one of the Three Great Shrines of Benzaiten.
  • Nagahama
    If you’re going to hit up Chikubushima, then you also need to hit up Nagahama. Home to a truly eclectic selection of allures, this slice of Shiga Prefecture is the perfect add-on to a trip to Chikubushima. Just be sure to hit up the sacred island first and then do Nagahama after as the ferry schedules are otherwise difficult. For more information about this former castle town, check out my standalone guide linked above!

Until next time travelers…