happening in Hikone was the deciding factor.
Shiga-ken draws a blank in many English travel guides to Japan. It's home to Japan's largest lake, Biwa-ko, but other than that it's largely viewed as a rural backwater with harsh winters. All this is despite the fact that the main Tōkaido bullet train line goes smack through it, and the extended suburbs of Kyoto and Nagoya are practically a stone's throw from the prefecture. Even so, I'm not complaining - that just means it's not overflowing with tour groups.
Nagahama, like pretty much anywhere else in Japan, is a modern city with more than its fair share of concrete. A reconstructed castle sits atop a bluff near the lakeside, looking charming from afar, but rather bland and 1960s-ish on the inside. Apparently it's a prime site for cherry-blossom viewing in the spring, but we're a bit past that point now. The main selling point for the city comes from its compact old core of historic storehouses and private homes, now dominated by an active glassblowing industry. Though tiny in terms of scale, the charming quarter makes for an intriguing stroll, which was just about ideal for the few hours we had available to visit it.
The city sits just a few stops north of eastern Shiga-ken's big train hub of Maibara, an ugly mess of rusty rail tracks and polluting industry. Hikone, on the other hand, sits just a few stops south of the same hub. This meant it was only a matter of minutes before Mayu and I were out of Nagahama and into Hikone. Like Nagahama, Hikone is a mostly modern city with little of visible note upon arrival. What makes it distinct is its original castle, which is listed as a national treasure alongside the more famous fortress of Himeji (as well as those of Matsumoto and Inuyama). In the meantime though, we had another distraction to detain us beforehand: the annual Hikone Castle Festival.
The Hikone-jō Matsuri
is not one of Japan's most famous by any stretch. By appearance, it doesn't even seem to show on the national radar, and the crowds are small by Japanese festival standards. It does, however, feature a very well-organized parade of local schoolchildren and marching bands, followed by a succession of locals in traditional dress (most of which are children as well). Mayu and I stumbled upon the very beginning of it just a few streets north of the station, managing to find an ideal location to take pictures without interference.
As most people wait for the parade close to the castle grounds, we were practically alone on the quiet residential sidestreet. Once we had seen the whole procession, we got to catch up with them again a little closer towards the castle, as we were en route to the main town sight(s).
An interesting little souvenir strip has developed just off the way from Hikone castle. Seeking to bolster its claim as a historic town (rather than an average industrial one that had demolished most of its heritage), the city of Hikone saw fit to reconstruct a machiya
district to cater to visiting tourists. While most of the houses and stores are of no real vintage, they provide a nice atmosphere of old Japan (even despite the constant flow of cars down the street beside them). Best of all, they show that, given the right circumstances, Japanese bureaucrats can actual muster up a coherent plan on building something truer to their country's roots.
Having lucked out fairly well with the weather so far, Mayu and I then at last made our way up to the castle. That's when it decided to drizzle on us. Fortunately it never picked up to be more than a light rain, and I suppose it did give us the opportunity to use those umbrellas we'd brought along with us. Hikone castle itself is rather small and squat, but still has the edge in size over Aichi's tiny Inuyama-jō. The grounds themselves are liberally peppered with sakura trees, which would make it a lovely site for hanami in the spring. For us, they offered a little early autumn foliage, adding a bit of varied color to photography. The view from the top of the donjon unfortunately is a bit scrunched, which wasn't helped by the severely overcast conditions outside. On a fine day, we'd get some fantastic views across Lake Biwa, but you can't ask for everything, I suppose.
The last stop before the train home was neighboring Genkyū-en, the former private garden of the local daimyō
. The hilltop donjon of Hikone castle has been cleverly included as "borrowed scenery," making for a picturesque addition to the well-manicured landscape. Mayu and I strolled for a bit before finally sitting down to relax and enjoy the late afternoon view. It was about that time that the sun decided to peek out. Sometimes nature just has to rub it in.
It's holiday time again in Japan, so once more we have a perfect opportunity for a daytrip. In my ever constant fascination with Japanese castles, I selected the small cities of Nagahama and Hikone in nearby Shiga-ken as a good place to go for the day. Mayu originally didn't show much interest in accompanying me, but she later changed her mind. I think the fact that there was going to be a