Although Himeiji Castle reconstruction has been finished, Hikone remains a great town to visit to enjoy feudal Japan’s architecture and atmosphere. The castle town has a long history revolving around its most iconic symbol, Hikone Castle. And bonus: just around the corner of the castle, another amazing treat awaits for you, a chance to try one of Japan’s three most famous beefs, Omi beef.
Hikone Castle, one of only twelve
As just one of the twelve castles in Japan which have their original keep intact, Hikone Castle has survived natural disasters, fires and wars since 1622. Using materials from the destroyed Nagahama Castle, the castle was built for the Ii family (one of the most formidable samurai families). Shizuoka native Ii Naomasa was a loyal ally to the Tokugawa family during the warring states period and his samurai were renowned for their loyalty and fighting spirit. Such distinction earned them to privilege of dressing in blood-red armor and perform prominent roles in Tokugawa’s campaign across Japan. When Commodore Perry arrived in Edo to force open Japan’s gates, Ii Naosuke was a chief minister under Tokugawa assigned to negotiate with the Americans and was later assassinated by other samurai disgruntled with him supporting the Harris Treaty, opening some of Japan’s ports for trade. The Ii family reigned in Hikone for over 200 years until the end of the feudal era in 1868. As mentioned before the keep is still its original and so are most of the broad inner moats, ornate black and white walls with massive wooden beams and openings for firing guns and arrows down upon attackers. Unfortunately some of the side buildings were lost and had to be reconstructed, which has contributed to making any visit to Hikone being the most complete visit to a feudal Japanese castle.
Lastly, who could forget about Hikonyan, the local mascot, that appears at the castle once every day according to the schedule you can find here. The legend behind Hikonyan is when the third lord of the castle, lord Li Naotaka, practiced falconry near Gotokuji in Tokyo a cat beckoned him to enter the temple for a short rest. While resting a thunderstorm erupted and struck a tree where the lord was standing.
Tranquility within the keep
Within the castle precinct lies Genkyuen garden hosting a large late-17th-century-style pond based upon the Chinese palace garden in Tang with four islets and bridges connecting them up with a path to walk along. It was built in 1677 for the castle lord to entertain his guests and the Hosho-dai tea house in the garden today serves as a great place for visitors to enjoy green tea or as a photography scene for showing off your kimono or yukata. The villa with its large wooden structures is currently being reconstructed, but no need to worry it hardly affects your visit to Genkyuen garden.
Tasting the local specialty beef, Omi beef
Yume Kyobashi Castle Road is just outside Hikone castle and although it is a modern reconstruction of Edo-period-style buildings, it combines the comfort of a modern shopping street in a fitting atmosphere. The town houses with typical white walls and lattice doors house dozens of boutiques, cafes and restaurants for you to explore. While you are there why not try a local specialty, which also happens to be one of Japan’s three most famous kinds of beef, Omi beef. Often served as a steak or hotpot dish, Omi beef is preserved in miso, soy-bean paste, and comes from cross-bred Japanese and non-Japanese cows to make a delicious dish with a rich flavor and soft texture.
Access and admission fees
From Kyoto Station, Hikone is easily accessed by taking the JR Special Rapid Service or JR Biwako Line heading to north-eastern Shiga, i.e. Nagahama and Bairu, for just under 1,140 yen in about 45 minutes. If you are coming from Osaka the easiest route is to go to Kyoto first and from Nagoya there is also the option to go to Maibara and follow these lines heading in the opposite direction, to Kyoto. From Hikone Station the castle, garden and castle road can easily be walked to within 20 minutes. There is a combined ticket for the castle and the garden for just 700 yen or 500 yen for the castle alone.