Japan: Hikone Castle, A Feudal Treasure on the Shores of Lake Biwa
Updated: Jan 22
Hikone Castle, located near Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture, Japan, is a historical monument of significant importance. It played a key role in Japan's history, especially during the Edo period. Designated as a national treasure, its history begins in the early 17th century, shortly after the end of the Sengoku period. Photographing in the footsteps of the Shogun series.
© O. Robert
Foundation and Construction (1603-1622)
It is claimed that the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, which led to the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate, is indirectly related to the construction of Hikone Castle, but there is no definitive proof of this. However, it is known that the castle was built by Ii Naokatsu, son of Ii Naomasa, one of the four generals of Ieyasu Tokugawa, the first shogun of the Tokugawa Shogunate.
Construction began in 1603 and was completed in 1622. The castle was erected on the ruins of a previous castle, Ōtsu Castle, and some of its parts, including the main tower, came from Fushimi Castle in Kyoto, built by Hideyoshi Toyotomi.
Edo Period (1603-1868)
During the Edo period, Hikone Castle served as the residence of the Ii clan, a powerful and influential family of daimyo (feudal lords). The castle was strategically important due to its proximity to Lake Biwa, Japan's largest lake, and its position on the Tōkaidō route, one of the main roads connecting Kyoto to Edo (present-day Tokyo). See my articles on Lake Biwa.
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Architecture and Design
The architecture of Hikone Castle is remarkable for its blend of military and residential building styles. The main tower (Tenshu) is a typical example of Japanese castle architecture from this period, featuring massive stone walls and strategically designed defenses.
The Genkyū-en Garden (see below), constructed in 1677, is another highlight of the castle, representing the aesthetics of Japanese gardens of the Edo period.
End of the Castle Era (1868)
After the Meiji Restoration in 1868, many Japanese castles were demolished as part of the country's modernization efforts. However, Hikone Castle was one of the few castles to be preserved, largely thanks to the efforts of the Ii clan and the local community.
The Castle Today
Today, Hikone Castle is one of only four castles in Japan with a main tower designated as a national treasure. It attracts visitors from across the country and around the world, fascinated by its historical architecture and beautifully preserved gardens.
The castle's museum displays armors, weapons, and other historical items related to the history of the Ii clan and the Edo period. The majority of the displayed items are national treasures and are well worth a visit if you are in the Lake Biwa area.
© O. Robert
Hikone Castle remains a living testimony to Japanese history, a place where one can still feel the spirit of the samurai era and understand the importance of castles in Japanese feudal society.
The castle is a remarkable example of Japanese fortress architecture from the Edo period. Here are some of its major features.
1. Main Tower (Tenshu)
The main tower is relatively small compared to other famous Japanese castles. It stands about 21 meters high, spread over three floors. It was built using both wood and stone construction techniques, typical of the time.
2. Site Area
Hikone Castle covers a significant area, including the main tower, several secondary buildings, stone walls, moats, and gardens. The exact size of the site is not well documented, but it is clear that it covers a large space, typical of strategically important castles from this tumultuous era.
3. Stone Walls and Moats
The castle's stone walls are an impressive feature, built to withstand attacks and sieges. They vary in height, with some reaching several meters. The moats, which surround the castle, were once filled with water to provide additional protection against invaders.
Library: Samurai Castles | Japanese Castles AD 250 - 1450
4. Genkyū-en Garden
Created in 1677, this Japanese garden is designed to complement the aesthetics and function of the castle. It covers an extensive area and includes a pond, islands, bridges, and a tea house, reflecting the style of stroll gardens from the Edo period. It is also one of the filming locations for the "Shogun" series (see below).
5. Other Structures
In addition to the main tower, the castle includes several yagura (watchtowers), gates, and residential buildings, each with its own specific function and architecture.
6. Construction Materials
Most of the castle's structures, including the main tower, are built from wood, a traditional material in Japanese architecture. The retaining walls and some foundations are made of stone, showing a mix of materials used for both aesthetic and practical reasons.
Hikone Castle is not only an example of Japanese castle architecture but also a testament to Japanese history and culture. Although its exact dimensions are not always clearly documented, its design and structure reflect the importance and sophistication of Japanese castles from that era.
The presence of cherry blossoms at Hikone Castle is an excellent example of how nature and history intermingle in Japanese cultural sites. They symbolize both the ephemeral beauty and the continuity of traditions.
My library: The Gardens of Japan.
Cherry Blossom Season
The cherry blossom season in April is one of the most spectacular times to visit Hikone Castle. The cherry blossoms, with their pale pink and white hues, create a striking contrast against the dark and imposing structure of the castle.
Although the exact number of cherry trees within the grounds of Hikone Castle is not clearly documented, there are several thousand. It's evident that the trees are strategically planted around the castle and its gardens to maximize their aesthetic effect.
Shogun Series Filming Location
For those unfamiliar with this cinematic reference, "Shogun" is an American television miniseries aired in 1980, based on the novel of the same name by James Clavell. Set in Japan in the early 17th century, it follows the adventures of John Blackthorne, an English navigator portrayed by Richard Chamberlain, who becomes a pawn in the political power games of feudal Japan. The character of Blackthorne is based on William Adams, a real English navigator who became a samurai.
© O. Robert
The two photos above show two scenes that appear repeatedly in the series. One of them is the scene of the wooden bridge where Lord Toranaga tries to escape from the castle in a palanquin.
The series offers a dramatic glimpse into the political and cultural conflicts of the time, focusing on the culture clash between the West and Japan. Toshirō Mifune, a Japanese cinema icon, portrays the warlord Toranaga, inspired by the historical shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu.
Directed by Jerry London, "Shogun" was acclaimed for its detailed historical reconstruction and immersion into Japanese culture. It played a significant role in introducing many aspects of Japanese culture to Western audiences and won several awards, including Emmys and Golden Globes. The series became an international success, marking a significant moment in cultural exchanges between the West and Japan.
For those not from my generation, I highly recommend watching this series for a better understanding of this important part of Japanese history. Although fictionalized, this well-researched series is based on actual historical facts. The series is only available on DVD.
The Shogun series, inspired by the novel by James Clavell.
"Shogun" was partially filmed at Hikone Castle. The estate served as a filming location and backdrop to represent Lord Toranaga's castle in the series. Thus, viewers can see the protagonists navigating, especially on the large pond of the Genkyū-en garden (photo below).
At this point in the series, John Blackthorne explains to Lord Toranaga how he navigated to Japan and the organization of the world, all while drawing in the sand of the garden.
© O. Robert
Getting to Hikone Castle
To get to Hikone Castle from Ōtsu, there are several options:
The car journey between Ōtsu and Hikone is the option I highly recommend. Not only for its comfort but also for getting as close as possible to the castle. The journey takes about an hour, depending on traffic.
There are many large parking areas reserved for castle visitors. Their size quickly makes you realize that you are indeed on a site of national importance, especially famous for its cherry blossoms. Therefore, in April, the castle experiences its highest visitor numbers.
Take a JR Biwako line train from Ōtsu Station to Hikone Station. The journey takes about 45 minutes to 1 hour, depending on whether you take an express or local train.
Although less frequent, it is possible to take a bus from Ōtsu. However, this mode of transport may be less convenient in terms of schedule and journey duration.
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