If you’re a fan of original castle keeps and want to do a nice day trip from Kyoto, then you should consider stopping by Hikone Castle.
While it’s a small castle keep, it’s really beautiful and gives you a good impression of a feudal Japanese castle.
Hikone Castle (彦根城) is located in Hikone City, Shiga Prefecture (map). It’s not too far from Kyoto or Osaka, so you could just do a day trip. The castle is considered the most significant historical building in Shiga Prefecture.
The Origins of Hikone Castle
The history of Hikone Castle begins in 1603.
After the Battle of Sekigahara (1600), it was no other than Tokugawa Ieyasu who gave Sawayama Castle to Lord Naomasa Ii as a present for his service during the battle. However, the location and condition of the castle were inconvenient for upcoming battles and so they decided Hikone should be a better place.
Unfortunately Lord Naomasa Ii died shortly after that. So, his son Naotsugu began the construction.
It took almost 20 years to finish the castle including all the towers, moats and the castle town.
To be precise, the castle was already built in 1575 as part of Otsu Castle (also in Shiga), but then moved to Hikone by the Ii clan.
Some other parts were also moved from nearby Nagahama Castle.
Notsugu’s brother, Naotaka, finished the construction and became lord of the castle in 1615.
It is quite amazing that Hikone Castle was in the hands of only one clan, the Ii clan, for about 250 years (1622-1874).
One of Japan’s 12 Original Castle Keeps
With the beginning of the Meiji era in 1868, the majority of Japanese castles were unfortunately dismantled.
Hikone Castle didn’t meet that fate as the emperor himself decided to keep it after a short visit.
Today only 12 original castles remain.
Apart from Hikone Castle, those are: Bitchu-Matsuyama Castle (Okayama), Himeji Castle (Hyogo), Hirosaki Castle (Aomori), Inuyama Castle (Gifu), Kochi Castle (Kochi), Marugame Castle (Kagawa), Maruoka Castle (Fukui), Matsue Castle (Shimane), Matsumoto Castle (Nagano), Matsuyama Castle (Ehime) and Uwajima Castle (Ehime).
Needless to say that I’ve visited all of them and I highly recommend these!
It’s no surprise that the main keep of Hikone Castle was designated a National Treasure in 1952.
Apart from the main keep, a large part of the inner moats, walls, gates and guard houses also have survived.
Like all the original castle keeps renovation has to be carried out carefully and regularly.
The last big renovation of Hikone Castle was in 1996.
Compared to some other impressive castle keeps, Hikone Castle is rather small with only 3 levels.
However, it has a rather unique design combining several different architecture styles.
The remaining castle walls are quite impressive.
Hikone Castle is a hilltop castle.
In order to approach the main keep, one has to get up a spiral ramp. There’s also a wooden bridge (Rokabashi Bridge) that you have to cross.
From the Tenbin Yagura (one of the several turrets) an enemy could easily be spotted and the bridge could be destroyed to deny access to the castle.
There’s also a huge bell that rang several times to tell the time of the day to the people of the castle town.
As Hikone Castle is on a hill, you get quite a nice view of Hikone City.
The weather was quite the bitch on that day, but you can imagine how lovely this must look on a clear day.
Hikone Castle Museum
The main attraction of Hikone Castle Museum is without a doubt the partial reconstruction of the former palace buildings.
Not only impressive tatami rooms and offices, but also a beautiful garden can be enjoyed there.
You’ll find a lot of exhibits of the Ii clan such as weapons, armor, clothes and documents.
A kimono and an armor of the Ii clan.
Also several other belongings of the clan can be enjoyed.
A peek into the small inner garden.
It was actually snowing really heavily later on that day. Just know that this can happen in certain regions of Kansai, but usually it never lasts very long.
Genkyu-en Garden (玄宮園) was built on the grounds of Hikone Castle in 1677.
The 4th lord, Naooki Ii, wanted to have this garden as entertainment for his family and guests.
The name of the garden as well as the design were taken from the Chinese Emperor’s palace garden of the Tang Period
You’ll find a typical Japanese garden architecture there with a central pond, a circular walking trail and several small islands connected by bridges throughout the pond.
The fact that you can see Hikone Castle from the garden enhances the beauty of the landscape even more.
There are a few wooden buildings along the pond which served as entertainment to the guests.
You can enjoy Japanese green tea in the teahouse called Hakkeitei.
Close to the garden is Rakurakuen Palace which once was the residence of the lord’s family.
Unfortunately it’s currently undergoing renovation – which is scheduled to be completed in 2025!
Hikone Castle is for you if …
You like Japanese castles in general? You always wanted to see an original castle keep? Just like Himeji Castle this one is really easily accessible.
It’s also a very different castle experience if you’ve already been to Himeji and Osaka Castles. I recommend to give nearby Nagahama Castle a try as well. You can effortlessly visit both in a day and then travel back to Kyoto or Osaka.
Keep in mind that a visit during cherry blossom season is probably the best option. There are cherry trees along the moat, on the castle grounds and the garden will also be more beautiful. Another great time to visit is autumn.
But even in winter it’s lovely as you can see in the (crappy, because old camera, sorry!) photos above.