While there are many castles in Japan, only 5 of them are national treasures. In Kansai, Himeji Castle is of course national treasure, but so is Hikone Castle too. Though Hikone Castle is not as big as Himeji, it is still popular destination for Japanese people, as it is well preserved.
The History of Hikone Castle
The first lord of Hikone castle is Ii Naomasa [井伊直政], one of the “Four Guardians” of Tokugawa Ieyasu. Naomasa was a major player in the Seikigahara War. For his efforts, Tokugawa rewarded him with Sawayama Castle, the home of one of Tokugawa’s biggest enemies, Ishida Mitsunari.
However, it was around this time that Tokugawa began to perceive Toyotomi Hideyori, the son of the recently deceased Hideyoshi, as a threat. In order to provide additional assistance if his lord so needed, Ii Naomasa quickly order construction of so Hikone Casltle. Since it was built in a hurry, pieces from other castles near Hikone such as Otsu Castle and Nagahama Castle were used to build Hikone Castle.
Unfortunately, Ii Naomasa passed away from an injury he got during Sekigahara war before the completion of Hikone Castle, which took over 20 years due to the Siege of Osaka.
Since Ii Naomasa was such an important person in Tokugwa government, the Ii clan was appointed to a high rank position called tairo [大老] (almost like prime minister) many times throughout the Tokugawa Shogunate. The Ii clan also governed Hikone for 14 generations.
During the Meiji Period when many castles were sold or destroyed, Okumashi Shigenobu donated Hikone Castle to Emperor Meiji, ultimately preserving it.
Getting to Hikone Castle
The closest station to Hikone is Hikone off JR Tokaido Line. Hikone is roughly an hour and twenties minutes from Osaka and an hour from Kyoto via the Special Rapid Service. Make sure to use the Special Rapid Service on the Tokaido Line, as the service on the Kosei Line doesn’t go to Hikone.
If you have JR pass, you can just take the Shinkansen to Maibara and then take a local train to Hikone, which is right next to Maibara Station.
From Hikone Station, it is only a 10 minute walk from the station. The castle is a bit small however, so you can’t see it from the station.
Every time we visit a castle, I like to imagine I were trying to attack it. Doing so helps me better understand any interesting fortifications or traps the castle may have. Hikone Castle in particular, has many interesting such things all over the castle grounds.
Just as you enter the castle, look straight at the stone wall in front of you. You will see there is an additional stone wall on top of the outer castle wall. This unusual construction is called vertical stone wall or nobori ishigaki [登り石垣], a sort of fortification mean to make it difficult to scale the castle. There are only two castles in Japan that use the sort of fortification, so don’t miss it!
What is currently the Hikone Museum of History was once a small palace for the castle lord. The city renovated the palace in 1987 and in addition to a number of interesting artifacts, including the Ii clan’s famous bright red suit of armor.
The main keep is just up a couple flights of stairs.
Once you cross the bridge, you will see the main keep, but do pay attention the bridge too! This bridge is an essential part of the very symbol of Hikone Castle, which when viewed from a distance is said to resemble a set of scales. The bridge also severed a practical purpose as it allowed soldiers in the turrets to attack intruders from the both sides. Also, as a last ditch effort the soldiers could burn the bridge entirely, as to prevent anyone from entering. This type of entrance can only been in Hikone Castle.
The main keep is rather small. However, this castle is quite popular among Japanese people as it is one of the very few castles that is a Japanese National Treasure. Due to its size, only so many people can enter the castle at a time, so expect to wait, especially on weekends or holidays.
After the main keep, walk through Nishionamaru Bailey to the Genkyuen Garden. The garden is probably very beautiful in spring, as it contains quite a lot of sakura trees.
Points of Interest
For some people, the main purpose of coming to Hikone Castle is not to see the castle itself, but rather the kitty mascot, Hikonyan. Hikonyan is the one of the very first yurukyara (cute mascots) in Japan. Around the time he debuted, he was so popular that it took several hours just to enter the castle. Even now he has many very loyal fans and is especially popular with young children.
Hikonyan appears three times a day. Also, since he is one of the most popular mascots in Japan, he travels all over the country and sometimes even abroad! Despite all this traveling, he still makes appearances almost daily in and around Hikone Castle. Be sure to check the board where he plans to appear and on what day.
Genkyuen Garden [玄宮園]
After visiting the main keep, visit the castle’s Japanese garden, Genkyuen. Part of the design of Genkyuen comes from the Ii clan’s second house, called Rakurakuen palace.