September 30, 2021

Needing Nagahama

Found just to the north of Hikone, Shiga's former castle town of Nagahama is home to both samurai era vibes and the sacred isle of Chikubushima.

The main gate of Nagahama’s Daitsu-ji in Shiga Prefecture

Just recently, I had a harrowing realization while reviewing the locations that I’ve covered here on this blog thus far. Somehow, I had managed to skip featuring Shiga Prefecture’s charming town of Nagahama. Despite spending my most formative years nearby in Hikone and then also rolling through a number of times en route to Chikubushima, Nagahama somehow always got the shaft. Simply put, I wasn’t yet making content when I was living in the vicinity nor did I thereafter schedule enough time to properly explore the town. As a result, Nagahama was sorely lacking representation on this blog. It’s time to change that…

Never heard of Nagahama before? Well, I doubt you’re alone dear reader. You see, this port town rarely pops up on the radars of overseas visitors to Japan. Found on the northeastern side of Lake Biwa, Nagahama is the type of place that one ought to envision when they hear the words “hidden gem.” Home to an eclectic assortment of historical and cultural allures, Nagahama is exactly the sort of site that people looking to get off of the beaten path should be considering. Regardless of whether you’re a history buff or a connoisseur of the arts, there’s something for everyone in Nagahama.

The warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi who made Nagahama what it is

Historically speaking, Nagahama first developed as a coastal village on the banks of Lake Biwa many centuries ago. Originally a sleepy hamlet known as Imahama, the area initially started off taking as a castle town towards the tail end of Japan’s bloody Warring States period (1467–1603). The catalyst for this sudden change in trajectory was the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi moving his stronghold from the top of a nearby mountain to present-day Nagahama. By the way, here’s a bit of trivia; The name Nagahama is actually an homage to Hideyoshi’s master Oda Nobunaga. How cool is that?

Now, before we get too deep into the weeds of this treatise, allow me first to contradict myself a bit by saying that Nagahama is not compelling enough on its own to warrant a visit all things considered. Basically, there are only two reasons that you’d ever find yourself in this part of Shiga Prefecture; They are Hikone Castle and the aforementioned isle of Chikubushima. That said, Nagahama is everything that these two spots are not. As such, its vast wealth of attractions perfectly fills gaps left by Hikone Castle and Chikubushima.

Basically, to use the imagery of some savoury ramen, you can think of Nagahama as the ever-important soup that fills up the bowl. In this analogy, the amazing Hikone Castle and Chikubushima would be the delicious noodles and toppings but you can’t really call the dish ramen without the soup! And with that, I’ve now gone and made myself ravenously hungry now. So much for fasting today…

Getting to Shiga Prefecture & Nagahama

Assuming that you’re already in Kyoto or Osaka, Nagahama is actually quite easy to get to. All you need to do is board one of the limited express trains heading north on the JR Biwako Line. All in all, the journey should take no more than an hour and some change. As always though, refer to Hyperdia or a similar service for the train schedules. Note that a few of these limited express trains only go as far as Maibara Station so be on the lookout for a departure that doesn’t require you to transfer. Moreover, the rear cars often decouple at Maibara so try to be towards the front of the train.

Those coming from Tokyo will be glad to know that access from the capital is also quite convenient. Just hop on one of the Hikari bullet trains and take this all the way to Maibara Station. From there, you’ll need to transfer to a local line to complete the final leg of the trek to Nagahama. Should you opt to head directly from Tokyo, just be mindful that you don’t board one of the Nozomi Super Expresses as these skip Maibara Station entirely (meaning that you’ll need to backtrack from Kyoto). While the Hikari trains are indeed slower than their Nozomi counterparts, they’re far less efficient time wise in this case.

Most of the main allures in Nagahama are located comfortably within walking distance to the station. Thanks to this central clustering, you won’t really need to navigate any buses or make any further train connections once you’re in Nagahama. That said, as I’ll cover below in the subsequent section, getting to and from Chikubushima will require that you take a ferry out to the island. Since the departures to Chikubushima are infrequent, you’ll want to plan your time in Nagahama around your trip to the sacred isle.

Visiting Nagahama’s Island of Chikubushima

An aerial shot of Nagahama and Chikubushima in Shiga Prefecture

If you’re going to visit Nagahama, I absolutely implore you to also check out Chikubushima. Found in the center of Lake Biwa, this island has long been considered to be consecrated ground. Home to some truly ancient shrines and temples, Chikubushima has also been designated as both a Place of Scenic Beauty as well as a Historic Site by the Japanese government. While it is indeed a bit of a pain to get to, the odyssey is more than worth it. What’s more, the ferry ride out is in and of itself a bit of a fun activity too.

Seeing as I have already authored a standalone guide on Chikubushima, I don’t want to waste any space reinventing the wheel here. Instead, I’ll opt to cover some related logistics for those who want to get the most out of both Chikubushima and Nagahama. You see, the big limiting factor when it comes to Chikubushima is the ferries. These ships depart from one of Nagahama’s ports every 75 minutes or so. Seeing as the expedition to the island takes around a half an hour, this means you really need to be mindful of the timing.

Personally, I suggest that those looking to get in both Chikubushima and Nagahama stay overnight nearby. This way, you can get an early start and take the first ferry out to the isle. Since all of Chikubushima can be easily enjoyed within an hour or two, this will leave ample time to explore Nagahama after. As far as I can tell, doing the reverse is not ideal though as you’ll have the final ferry departure to worry about. Rather than be rushed for time, you should instead leave Nagahama until after Chikubushima.

Finally I also suggest those planning on visiting both Chikubushima and Nagahama follow in my footsteps. During the first day of my stint in the area, a friend and I checked out the historic Hikone Castle. Thereafter we headed up to Nagahama where we stayed the night. When it comes to accomodations, I couldn’t more highly recommend lodging at Hotel & Resorts Nagahama as it’s conveniently located right by the port. Seeing as the facility has its own onsen and is relatively affordable, it’s your best bet in town.

What to See in Downtown Nagahama

Nagahama’s iconic Kurokabe Square in Shiga Prefecture

Getting back to our bowl of ramen metaphor (yup, still hungry…), know that Nagahama has an extremely diverse array of attractions to enjoy. Regardless of whether you’re a history buff or a fan of arts and crafts, there’s something for everyone in Nagahama. Take a look at the following list of allures in Nagahama and see if anything happens to tickle your fancy. As always, I include links to help you learn more…

  • Nagahama Castle
    Originally erected in 1575 by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, this fortress was later dismantled after the Warring States period (1467–1603) came to a close. The site lay in ruins until 1983 when the main keep was reconstructed out of concrete. The modern reproduction now houses a museum that details the long history of Nagahama.
  • Kurokabe Square
    Possibly one of the best attractions in all of Nagahama, this century-old collection of buildings used to be a bank. These days though, the facilities are used as a gallery for all sorts of crafts such as glass accessories and music boxes. Those interested can also try their hand at making glass at the workshop found at Kurokabe Square.
  • The Kaiyodo Figure Museum
    Along with Kurokabe Square, this is one of my favorite places in all of Nagahama. It’s the first museum ever in Japan to be devoted solely to figurines. In addition to the museum, there’s also a shop where you can buy all sorts of figures from your favorite series. There’s even a workshop for kids to make their own!
  • Nagahama Tetsudo Square
    Spread over a trio of buildings, this museum showcases what early rail travel would have been like. Moreover, one of the three structures is also the original Nagahama Station building that dates from 1882. It is the oldest surviving station in Japan, making it a must-see for any and all railway aficionados.
  • Hokkoku Gama
    If you speak Japanese or have access to someone who will interpret for you, this kiln allows people to participate in making their own pottery. Especially for the bard-like readers out there who are itching to get creative, this is a great add-on to your time in Nagahama!
  • Daitsu-ji
    This massive temple complex is the primary Buddhist establishment in Nagahama. Those that venture inside Daitsu-ji will be whisked back to the 16th century. Moreover, many of the temple buildings are also designated as Important Cultural Properties.
  • Nagahama Hachimangu
    While by no means a must-visit, this quaint Hachiman shrine is a nice add-on for those who venture as far as Daitsu-ji. You’ll find it a few minutes walk from the temple grounds.
  • The Kunitomo Matchlock Museum
    Though a bit out of the way, this exhibition showcases a number of historical guns that were produced in Nagahama during the latter half of the 1500s. All in all, there were more than 70 blacksmiths and 500 assistant craftsmen working to produce these matchlock muskets during Nagahama’s wartime prime.
  • Nagahama Biwako Daibutsu
    Found south of central Nagahama along the coast of Lake Biwa, this 28 meter-tall statue was completed in 1994 and is easily visible from the ferry ride out to Chikubushima. Be sure to keep your eyes out for it!
  • Yanmar Museum
    This is an interactive children’s museum with exhibits on green practices, farm machinery and rice planting. Personally, I opted to skip the Yanmar Museum so I can’t comment much further on it…

All in all, it’s hard to fathom how much depth Nagahama has for a city that has yet to gain any recognition overseas!

Attractions Near Nagahama

Shiga Prefecture’s Hikone Castle and Genkyu-en garden which are both near Nagahama

As I’ve mentioned this several times throughout this article, if you’re going to venture to Nagahama you really ought to also visit Hikone Castle. Frankly, you’d be a fool to pass up experiencing one of the most impressive of the twelve remaining original strongholds in Japan. Though the fortress never saw combat during Japan’s 16th century civil war, the structure is a defensive masterclass that will leave you feeling glad you aren’t tasked with assaulting it. Of course, Hikone’s adorable Hikonyan mascot is also not to be missed either.

If you’d like to continue your adventures in this neck of the woods, know that I also have a few more suggestions for you. For starters, Fukui Prefecture is located not too far to the north of Nagahama and therefore makes a logistically sound next destination. Alternatively, the site of the climactic battle of Sekigahara is also but a mere stone’s throw from Nagahama. Finally, those who enjoy a good hike should check out Mt. Ibuki, a peak that is often hailed as the “Mt. Fuji of Omi” (Omi being the old name for Shiga Prefecture).

Until next time travelers...