Hikone Castle, A Japanese National Treasure

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. Thought Hikone Castle is not as big as Himeji, it is still popular destination for Japanese people, as it is well preserved. However, one of attractions is not the castle, but rather the nationally famous character of Hikone Castle Hikonyan.

 

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.

View of former site of Sawayama Castle from Hikone Castle. It’s uhh, rather small…

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.

statue of Ii Naomasa in front of Hikone Station.

statue of Ii Naomasa in front of Hikone Station.

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.

Statue of Ii Naosuke surrounded by plum blossoms at Hikone Castle

Ii Naosuke: the great lord of Hikone. Ii Naomasa was responsible for opening up Japan after its period of isolationism.

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.

 

Hikone Castle

Entrance of Hikone Castle surrounded by moat

Entrance of Hikone Castle

entrance to the castle grounds of hikone castle

Entrance to the castle grounds.

former stables of hikone castle.

Stable: Hikone Castle is the only castle in Japan to still have a well preserved stable.

Fortifications

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!

Nobori Ishigaki style outer walls at hikone castle

Nobori ishigaki

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.

castle museum former Omote goten palace of hikone castle

Omote goten/ Castle Museum

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.

Bridge and stone wall of Tenbin-yagyra Turret: This stone wall dosen’t look like anything special, it’s actually and example of the gobo zumi or ”Burdock Root wall” method.

Tenbin-yagura Turret at hikone castle

Tenbin-yagura Turret: Originally from Nagahama Castle.

From the bridge, you can see Mt. Ibuki, the tallest mountain in the Kansai region.

Taiko-mon bailey the last gate guarding hikone castle

Taiko-mon Bailey: This is the last gate

Main Keep

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.

main keep of hikone castle with plum blossoms blooming in front of it

Main keep: though it is small, its roof is quite gorgeous. Also, the window above the second floor is bell shaped window, something commonly seen in zen temples.

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.

Three story turret: Three story turrets are extremely rare in Japan.

 

Points of Interest

Hikonyan

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.

cut out of Hikonyan the character of Hikone Castle

Hikonyan

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.

Rakurakuen: Ii Naosuke was born in this small villa near the garden.

 

4 Bancho Square [四番街スクエア]

The main street near Hikone Station and those leading to the castle do not have so many souvenir shops or restaurants, but don’t worry! Most of the restaurants and souvenir shops are in 4 Bancho Square. To get there, exit from the Kyobachiguchi entrance and go straight.

While in 4 Bancho Square, definitely try some Omi beef! Along with Matsusaka beef and Tanba beef, Omi beef is the top three best kinds of beef in Japan. Thre are also many other local food shops and food stands.

Omi beef croquette

While the castle itself is on the smaller side, a trip to Hikone Castle can be an entire day trip! Around Hikone City are several famous other famous destination in Shiga such as Nagahama Castle, Chukubu Island and Omi-hachiman Shrine.

 

Hikone Castle

Address1-1 Konkicho, Hikone City, Shiga Prefecture 〒 522-0061
Websitehttps://visit.hikoneshi.com/en/
Hours of OperationMon-Sun:
8:30-17:00
Admission FeeGeneral Admission:

Castle and garden: 800 yen (adults) 200 yen (children)

Castle, garden, and museum: 1,200 yen (adults) 350 yen (children)

Coming next time,

Getting mythical at Taga Shrine

The adventure continues…

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