Hikone and Nagahama areas, not far off from Kyoto and Osaka
Shiga Prefecture is located to the east of Kyoto Prefecture, with vast Lake Biwa spreading out in its center. The serene natural environment, with the lake and surrounding mountains, is simply breathtaking. The historical townscapes and castles of Hikone City and Nagahama City, located northeast of Lake Biwa, still remain today. Here, you can see classic Japanese scenery with your own eyes. These are convenient areas to visit, as you can easily make a day-trip there from Kyoto or Osaka.
When heading toward Shiga from Osaka and Kyoto, use the Special Rapid Train (Shin-kaisoku) on the JR Tokaido Main Line, which runs frequently. From Osaka Station, it takes about 80 minutes to Hikone Station, and about 90 minutes to Nagahama Station. From Kyoto Station, it takes about 45 minutes to Hikone Station and about one hour to Nagahama Station.
From Tokyo and Nagoya, Maibara Station on the Tokaido Shinkansen is the gateway. The “Nozomi” does not stop at Maibara Station, so it is best to use the “Hikari” or “Kodama”. From Maibara Station, it takes about five minutes on the JR Tokaido Main Line to Hikone Station, and about ten minutes on the JR Hokuriku Main Line to Nagahama Station. From Hakata and Hiroshima areas, you can use the Shinkansen to Maibara Station, or you can change trains at Kyoto Station from the Shinkansen to the Tokaido Main Line.
Visit Hikone, a castle town where the main keep remains as it was at the time of construction
Hikone developed as a castle town during the 17th – 19th centuries. Standing atop a low hill, about a ten minute walk from JR Hikone Station is Hikone Castle, a national treasure.
It took approximately 20 years from 1604 onwards to build Hikone Castle. The three-layer main keep perched atop a stone wall is characterized by its unique roof, designed with a variety of styles. There are countless other highlights to see, including the turret (castle gate), an important cultural property, and Genkyu-en Garden, where you can enjoy the beautiful ever-changing scenery in all seasons. For the most part, Hikone Castle remains as it was about 400 years ago, making it an invaluable landmark.
As winter draws to a close, everyone looks forward to Hanami (cherry blossom viewing). The Hikone Castle Cherry Blossom Festival is held around April 1-20 every year at Hikone Castle, which is colorfully decorated with about 1200 cherry trees. You can also enjoy cherry blossoms at night, as the trees are illuminated.
After walking across the middle moat, “Yumekyobashi Castle Road” stretches out before you, characterized by its buildings with tiled roofs and black lattice. The castle town of 400 years past is recreated on this street. Restaurants and souvenir shops line the avenue, selling Japanese goods and “Maneki-neko”, a beckoning cat that is linked to Hikone’s history. According to legend, a cat sitting in front of a temple gate beckoned to Ii Naotaka, the feudal lord of Hikone at the time, thus saving him from a thunderstorm. Yumekyobashi Castle Road is a perfect place for a stroll.
If you travel a little further south of Hikone City to Higashi-Omi City, you can stop by “Koto Sanzan”, or the three mountains on the east bank of Biwa Lake (Mt. Ryuo, Mt. Shobu, Mt. Shaka). Koto Sanzan is on one of the best spots for viewing autumn foliage in the Kansai region. Eigenji Temple lies south of the three mountains, where about 3,000 Japanese maple trees turn a deep crimson toward the end of November every year, making the picturesque scenery very enjoyable.
Walk around Nagahama, a nostalgic and modern town
There is another place where the scenery of old Japanese towns remains: Nagahama, reachable in 15 minutes from Hikone by train. A highway connecting the Japan Sea to Kyoto and Osaka runs through the heart of Nagahama, which has been bustling with people and products for over 400 years. In the surrounding area, many traditional buildings remain, such as old merchant houses and warehouses from that time period. In an area now called the “Kurokabe Square”, they have been remodeled into restaurants that serve local cuisine, souvenir shops, and glass art galleries. The view of the town with its black-colored and wooden walls at every turn is filled with the atmosphere of old Japan, a world away from the country it is today.
An event people look forward to in Nagahama in the new year is the Nagahama Bonbai Exhibition, where a huge collection of beautiful plum bonsai trees are brought together. It has been held from mid-January to mid-March every year since 1952, and is the biggest exhibition of its kind in Japan in terms of history and scale. Among the trees, there are some so tall you must gaze upward, and others that over 400 years old. You can feel the power of these trees, making it difficult to believe they are potted plants.
Nagahama Hikiyama Festival is held in the spring. The festival, held from April 13 to 16 every year, has over 400 years of history, and is expected to be registered as a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage site in the autumn of 2017. On April 15, the climax of the festival, gorgeous festival floats make their way around the town. Boys between the ages of five and twelve give a rousing kabuki performance on the float stages, one that would put even adult actors to shame. The beautiful floats for this festival are always displayed at the Hikiyama Museum, so visitors can see them long after the festival has come to a close.
If you have time, you should definitely visit Chikubushima Island, a small island floating on Lake Biwa. It has been worshipped and considered to be a place where gods reside since ancient times. Hogonji Temple and Tsukubusuma Jinja Shrine stand adjacent to the steep staircase that runs across part of the island. Invaluable architecture dots the landscape, as if protected by the rich greenery. The island can be reached by boat from either Hikone or Nagahama. It runs four times a day (two times in winter) from Hikone Port, a 40-minute ride, and five times a day (two times in winter) from Nagahama Port, a 30-minute ride.
The history of Hikone and Nagahama has been preserved to this day. Embark on an enjoyable journey, one where you can feel and taste the unique history and culture of Japan, surrounded by beautiful lakeside nature.