Hikone Castle: a recycled original

Hikone Castle, overlooking the eastern shore of Lake Biwa, is one of only 12 original castles in Japan.  But how original is a castle said to be made largely of materials recycled from other, earlier castles?  The answer is, pretty darned original.

Hikone castle was completed in 1622, after nearly 20 years of construction.  It was built by the Ii family, who were awarded this area by Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616) for their support in the Battle of Sekigahara (1600) that gave him domination over a unified Japan.  The castle remained in the Ii family for over 300 years until it became the property of the city of Hikone in 1944; descendants of the family still guard the Ii legacy, as you learn during your visit.  Ii family symbols can still be seen throughout the castle and its grounds, not to mention family treasures on display in the museum at the base of the hill on which the castle sits.

The castle was built on a hill overlooking Lake Biwa on the orders of Tokugawa Ieyasu who, as victor at Sekigahara, had emerged as Shogun of Japan.

Tokugawa felt having a castle in this position was crucial to his ability to retain power, and, particularly, control of Lake Biwa, so there was some urgency to the construction.  Two other minor castles were torn down and their materials re-used as a means to build more quickly.

The donjon, or keep, on top of the hill was apparently finished relatively early, and it was the remaining walls, fortifications and moats that took the longest to complete, with many of the stones also recycled from other decommissioned castles.  As with many castles, the outer defenses of walls and moats were regarded as essential to the life of the castle, which served as a combination administrative/defensive center (although it appears Hikone Castle was never forced to defend itself from enemy attack).

Apparently there were originally three concentric moats protecting the castle, drawing their waters from nearby Lake Biwa.  Only two remain today.  Although it was not operating during my last visit, there is, apparently, a boat ride on the moats that introduces their history and function.

Part of the palace at the base of the castle grounds has been restored to give visitors insights into the lifestyle of daimyo families of the day (separate “museum” admission applies).  One of the old gatehouses similarly serves as a museum, although the architecture is at least as interesting as the artifacts on display.

One particular feature of the area surrounding the castle keep at the top of the hill is the bridge providing access to the area.  Although drawbridges were not in use in Japan at this time, the concept is similar; the bridge could be quickly destroyed to deny the enemy access to the upper area.

A bit further up the hill is the Bell Tower, moved to this site in 1844 from further down.  The bell served to tell time for all those within hearing distance.  Even today, it is tolled five times a day, every three hours between 6 am and 6 pm.

After passing by the bell tower there is yet one more gate to get through before reaching the donjon. This truly is a heavily defensive position!

A short climb above this gate and one emerges into an expansive area outside the three-story castle keep.  Three stories isn’t particularly large for a castle, but sitting atop a hill such as this, it doesn’t need to be any higher.

One distinctive feature of Hikone Castle is its eclectic collection of gable styles: Irimoya Gables at the top that, from a distance, make the castle look larger than it is; Kara Gables with their gentle, bow-like curve; and triangular Kirizuma Gables toward the bottom.  Combined with bell-shaped windows more commonly seen in temples, they form a perfect whole.

Inside, the fact that the donjon was constructed of materials used in a previous castle is occasionally obvious from scars in exposed beams where they had early been joined differently.  In a sense one is reassured that these massive beams were re-used rather than destroyed.  Some pretty big trees gave their lives for the cause.

Although the castle is only three stories, moving from one level to another is by staircases so steep they are practically ladders.  One marvels that ladies in kimono could ever manage to navigate these stairs.

Among the interesting features of the castle are special cutaway holes in the walls for shooting outward at enemies: square holes, the aperture angled slightly downward, for arrows and triangular ones for long guns.  There were also two “hidden rooms” under the gables at the uppermost level, each said to be able to accommodate 4-5 people, although they would have been rather cramped.  Perhaps these spaces served the same function as panic rooms in modern homes today.

And finally, there is the expansive view.  Certainly from here one could monitor comings and goings and see any enemies from far off.

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There are plenty of nooks and crannies to explore throughout the castle grounds, and no clear route to do so.  Meander and enjoy.  In the mid 19th century, at the beginning of the Meiji Restoration period, most Japanese castles were ordered destroyed as part of the dismantling of the old feudal structure.  Hikone Castle only escaped when the Emperor Meiji visited the castle in 1871 and was so taken with it that he commanded it be spared.  Thus we have him to thank for this wonderful castle, one of only five designated as national treasures.

At the base of the hill to the north is Genkyu-en Garden, the pleasure garden of the Ii family, lords of the castle.  The scenery depicted in this traditionally-styled strolling garden is said to be based on eight scenic spots of Omi (the historical name for what is now Shiga Prefecture).  The water from the pond is also from Lake Biwa, via the castle’s outer moat.  In November, when the leaves are changing colors, the garden is illuminated and open to night visitors, a special seasonal treat.

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To the south and east of the castle are the remnants of the old jokamachi (castle town), now full of shops and restaurants that cater more to tourists than locals.  But still interesting to explore.

  • Location: 15 minute walk from JR Hikone Station
  • Hours: 8:30 – 17:00 daily
  • Admission: Castle and Garden – JPY800 (Children-JPY200); Castle, Garden and Museum – JPY1200 (Children-JPY350); Garden only – JPY200 (Children-JPY100)

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