Welcome back to another installment of my in-depth area guide series. As always, we’ll be diving deep to ensure that you’re properly equipped to venture off the beaten path without incident. Today we’ll be looking at the rustic and rather remote Koka region (which is sometimes rendered as “Koga” in English). This southernmost section of Shiga Prefecture is rich with history and culture. Hell, Koka even briefly served as the imperial capital for several months in 745 before the palace was raised by a forest fire.
Without a doubt though, Koka’s primary historical claim to fame is that the area was home to one of Japan’s two legendary ninja clans. Along with neighboring Iga in Mie Prefecture, the Koka region was the very cradle that gave rise to the art of ninjutsu. Despite being relatively close to Kyoto as the crow flies, the area is fraught with mountains and valleys that make travel difficult even today. This rugged environment proved to be the perfect training grounds for the ninja of Koka to hone their skills.
As if this connection to the ninja weren’t already enough reason to be hyped for a visit, know that Koka also boasts a long history of expert craftsmanship. For centuries, it’s Shigaraki district has been famed across the country for its high quality ceramics. Sourced directly from the sandy clay bed of nearby Lake Biwa, the resulting pottery is extremely tough and resilient. What’s more, many of the historical kilns that were used throughout the ages remain intact for you to inspect.
Therefore, if you’re looking to add a bit of authenticity to your Kyoto itinerary, do consider at least including a day trip to Koka. Few places that I’ve visited in Japan have as tangible a historical legacy that you can partake in firsthand. What follows is a bit of a “choose-your-own-adventure” type smorgasbord of attractions. Just know that if you intend to do everything, you’re definitely going to need to overnight somewhere close by.
Getting to Shiga Prefecture & Koka
As remote as Koka is, it can be reached by train from central Kyoto in just under an hour. If you’re starting the journey from somewhere else though, you’ll first need to hop a bullet train to the former capital. Because of this, I’d wager that Koka is best thought of as an add-on to your time in Kyoto rather than a one-off destination in and of itself. After all, Japan has endless options for discovery but your time in the country as a visitor is quite limited.
The journey to Koka from Kyoto will require making a few transfers. You’ll want to start by taking the JR Tokaido Line from Kyoto to Kusatsu Station in Shiga Prefecture. From there, hop on the JR Kusatsu Line until you reach Kibukawa Station. This rural stop is the main point of convergence for Koka’s public transportation. The entire trip will run around 970 yen and will take about an hour or so depending on connections. As always, refer to Hyperdia or a similar service in advance to calculate the best schedule.
Most of Koka’s tourist attractions are dotted about the bucolic countryside. Of course, this means that the area’s train and bus network is not exactly what it could be. Without a doubt, a rental car is the most convenient means for exploring Koka. If this isn’t an option though, you’ll need to rely on the existing infrastructure. Though no means ideal, it will certainly get the job done in a pinch if you’re patient enough
Koka & Its Legendary Ninja
As one of my all-time favorite writers Sebastian Marshall points out in his brilliant “Vantages” series on Japanese history, modern conceptualizations of the ninja are deeply flawed. Though Hollywood loves to portray these stealthy warriors as elite killing machines, the actual historical ninja were far more concerned with covert espionage and information gathering. Sure they had some skill with weapons but they’d be cut down in mere seconds by a better trained samurai in one-on-one combat. As Marshal puts it,
“The ninja were adequate with weapons, of course, but their true talents lay in getting intelligence to assess weak points, and to bring the best possible remedy for driving at the weak point.”
Unfortunately for historians’ paltry attempts to chronicle the truth, little documentation of what the ninja actually did remains for them to pore over. On second analysis though, this makes a lot of sense. After all, unless caught, a ninja’s actions often simply left nothing for the records to document. Take for example a successful mission that resulted in a proper assessment of the enemy. After the ninja conveyed his report, perhaps all that history would remember is that a certain warlord knew exactly when and where to strike. While there are indeed some legendary examples of ninjutsu, the lion’s share of what the ninja did is lost to the ages.
Anyway, the Koka ninja owe much of their existence to their homeland’s remote location. Like with Iga to the south, the rough terrain made it historically very difficult to govern. Those who claimed authority over the region often did so only in name. This gave rise to a collection of villages that essentially governed themselves by democratic council. Though loose political ties to the Rokkaku clan did exist for Koka during the Warring States period (1467–1603), the lack of a direct governing force allowed the ninja to sell their services without fear of repercussion.
Fast forward to the present; these days Koka has exerted great effort to preserve whatever parts of its ninja legacy stand. While only fragments remain, the region has done a superb job conserving what it can. One of the best spots for experiencing Koka’s ninja culture is the aptly named “Ninja Village.” Located deep within the forested hills, this slightly rundown hamlet is comprised of the actual remains of one of Koka’s former villages. Much like “Ninja-dera” in Kanazawa, many of the dwellings here are equipped with numerous tricky traps and secret doors.
For those of you who are traveling with small children, I have some great news. The Ninja Village can be a lot of fun for both families and groups of adults alike. Here, you’ll also find historically accurate obstacle courses to try as well a as a shuriken throwing range. There’s also a small museum that curates a fine collection of ninja-related artifacts from Koka’s past. Unfortunately, the museum is entirely in Japanese yet you can still get the gist of how many of the tools were used just by looking at them.
Sadly, getting to the Ninja Village can be quite the task if you don’t have a rental car. There’s a free shuttle bus from Koka Station on the Kusatsu Line but in many cases it won’t just be there waiting for you. If you have a Japanese speaker in your group (or are courageous enough to try in English), you can call 07-4888-5000 to request to be picked up. Alternatively, if you’re feeling impatient, you can simply hoof it to the Ninja Village in under 30 minutes. Entry will run you 1,030 yen.
Hungry for more ninja action? Why not check out the historical residence that’s pictured above? This 300 year old house is perfectly preserved and equipped with ingenious traps that were crafted to both prevent intrusion and to provide a discreet means of escape. For a mere 650 yen, visitors can explore the domicile and inspect its wide array of secrets. Once inside, you’ll have a chance to learn even more about the ninja’s remaining historical legacy. Like with the aforementioned Ninja Village, access isn’t all that great. Your best bet is to just walk the 20 minutes it takes form Konan Station.
Oh, before ending this section, I have one final morsel for the history buffs out there. Did you know that the Koka is famous for its medicine and that this too has ties to the ninja? You see, when traversing the country, the ninja had to know how to deal with all sorts of ailments. What’s more, a humble medicine salesman proved to be the perfect guise for covertly collecting information. After all, no one doubts a doctor! Because of this, the men of Koka were well versed in all sorts of cures. Even today, the area continues to be a major player in the pharmaceutical industry.
Koka’s Shigaraki & Ceramics
Though not quite as flashy as the ninja, Koka’s lineage of craftsmen is just as impressive. As mentioned in the introduction to this guide, the Shigaraki area of Koka has been famous for its ceramics for centuries. Even now, the district continues to be a major producer of much of Japan’s pottery. The name Shigaraki is said to be derived from the word “shigeru ki” meaning woody, dense mountain. The town sits 300 meters above sea level on one of Koka’s many highlands.
Shigaraki’s history of producing wares is said to date back to the year 742 when construction of the Shigaraki-no-Miya Imperial Palace began. Were it not for a tragic forest fire, this area would have been made the capital in place of Nara. I’ve even heard that there were talks of creating the Great Buddha of Todai-ji here before the Japanese court was forced to relocate. I don’t know about you but I find that uncovering hidden histories like this add entirely new levels of appreciation to places.
Without a doubt, Shigaraki owes much of its great success to its proximity to the beautiful Lake Biwa. Similar in size to the Great Lakes of North America, Lake Biwa is host to a special type of sandy clay. Though Shigaraki is one of the only sections of Shiga Prefecture that doesn’t touch the lake’s shores, it was nevertheless close enough for workers to collect what they needed from the lake bed. This ease of access allowed the area to produce resilient goods that were able to withstand the test of time.
Shigaraki is also famous for its so-called “nobori-gama” kiln that are built directly into the hillside. These multi-chambered contraptions allowed for more efficient firings than their single-chambered predecessors. Nobori-gama kilns were typically built into naturally occurring slopes that gave them a step like design. Craftsmen would ignite the lowest chamber and allow the fire to spread from one compartment to the other. The entire kiln would usually be kept alight for a several days at a time.
Today, there are many surviving examples of historic nobori-gama kilns throughout the Shigaraki area. While none of the kilns are active, they are nevertheless a sight to behold as can be seen above. The largest of these kilns is located at Shigaraki’s Soto-en. It has eleven chambers in total and is more than 15 meters wide and 30 meters long. Don’t think that this is the only nobori-gama in town though. There are plenty more of these kilns scattered all around the area.
On that note, know that Shigaraki is a town that is best explored at your own pace on foot. During a leisurely stroll through its rustic streets, you’ll encounter many a local pottery artisan. Nowadays, most of the masters have studios or galleries for your to peruse. There’s definitely an “old country” vibe in the air here that is all but lacking in bigger cities like Tokyo or Kyoto. Don’t be surprised to encounter some curious locals who will proudly tell you all about their craft!
Though by no means exhaustive, here are some favorites that I stumbled upon during my visit including the previously mentioned Soto-en…
Address: Shigaraki-shi, Shiga Prefecture Nagano 1423–1
Address: Shigaraki-shi, Shiga Prefecture Nagano 788
Address: Shigaraki-shi, Shiga Prefecture Nagano 947
Those who like getting their hands dirty will be please to know that Shigaraki has ample opportunities to actually partake in crafting some ceramics. While there are several places where you can enjoy such an experience, I am going to go ahead and recommend learning from the master potter, Ogawa Kenzo or his son Ogawa Norikazu . For both the reservation process and the class itself, you’ll need to rope a Japanese companion into helping you overcome the language barrier. Though this may be a bit of a hurdle, it’s more than worth the effort.
The picturesque Ogawa Workshop is located deep in the hills of Shigaraki. Visitors are immersed in a surreal atmosphere that seems to transcend the modern world and even time itself. It’s a feeling that can only be evoked in the presence of a skilled master craftsman. For a price, you’ll have the rare opportunity to produce your own pottery through to the final stages. Following the hour-long workshop, you’ll even have the opportunity to ship your work home if it comes out well.
Anyway, if you’re interested in making a visit, know that Shigaraki can be reached from Kibukawa Station in about 25 minutes via the Shigaraki Kogen Railway. The trip will cost you 460 yen each way.
Koka’s Epic Miho Museum
Before ending this article, there’s one final attraction that I’d like to introduce, the Miho Museum. Though neither related to the ninja nor ceramics, this stunning facility is not to be missed if you’re in the area. The museum resides deep within the forested hills of Shigaraki. It was designed to be a “real world Shangri-La” by the architect, I. M. Pei, whose renowned works include creations such as the glass pyramid at the Louvre in Paris.
One of the most intriguing features about the Miho Museum is that its very architecture is integrated into Shigaraki’s rugged nature. This design was inspired by an ethereal utopia that was taken directly from the pages of an ancient Chinese work. The ingenious design of the Miho Museum consists of a well-balanced blend of manmade and natural elements. The interior continues this theme by employing the use of steel immersed within glass which contrasts against the panoramic views of the surrounding valley.
The Miho Museum is named after its founder Koyama Mihoko, who was one of Japan’s most wealthy women. Many of the works that you’ll find on display are culled from her own private collection. On permanent exhibit, you’ll find an array of works representing ancient civilizations such as Egypt and Rome as well as various Asian cultural compositions. The Miho Museum also sponsors a temporary curation that changes every year or so. When I visited, the current exhibition showcased the stunning Noh masks pictured above.
Although the Miho Museum is located close to Shigaraki, there is no public transportation between the two. As such, a rental car is by far your best option, especially if you’re considering a visit to the ninja attractions too. If you must rely on the trains, you’ll need to head all the way back to Ishiyama Station on the JR Tokaido Line. From there, you’ll need to hop a bus to the museum. Keep your eyes peeled for number 150. It departs from bus stop number three and clearly says “Miho Museum” in English. The journey will take 50 minutes and run you 820 yen each way.
Once you arrive at the Miho Museum, the bus will take you to the museum’s main reception building. Here you’ll have to purchase your tickets. The main building is a five to ten minutes walk away from here. While there’s a shuttle that will transport you there in about a minute, I suggest opting for the walk as it’s quite picturesque. The whole facility was designed to blend directly into the surrounding natural landscape. If you are lucky enough to visit during spring, know that you’re in for a real treat; the whole approach to the Miho Museum is lined with cherry blossoms.
Oh, and if you’re wondering why such a lovely museum is way out in the rural countryside, rest easy. There’s a logical reason for the Miho Museum’s hard-to-reach location. You see, it’s founder, Koyama Mihoko, chartered a quasi religious group known as Shinji Shumeikai. One of the tenets held by adherents of this sect is that in building architectural masterpieces in remote areas, they are restoring balance to the Earth.
Until next time travelers…