After the decisive Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, Tokugawa Ieyasu, who came to power then, presented the Sawayama Castle which was controlled by the defeated army, to Ii Naomasa for his distinguished service in the battle. The construction of Hikone Castle, which replaced the Sawayama Castle, started in 1604 under the orders of Ieyasu in order to wipe out the opponent army. It took about 20 years to build the whole castle, including the towers, the main palace, the moats, and the castle town.
Ii Naotaka, like his father Naomasa, proved himself to be a great warrior during the Winter and Summer Sieges in the Battle of Osaka. He continuously served as the consultant‐general for three Shoguns, namely, Hidetada, Iemitsu, and Ietsuna. Due to Naotaka's huge contribution to the Shogunate, the Ii Family received an unprecedented raise in wages from180 thousand koku to 350 thousand koku (i.e.63 million liters) of rice annually.
Castle on the Verge of Demolition
In 1868, during the period of the revolution in Japan known as the Meiji Restoration, most of the castles in Japan were demolished because they were considered as symbols of the feudal system. Hikone Castle was slated for demolition, too. However, Emperor Meiji, who visited the Hikone area, decided to preserve it thanks to the recommendation made by some of his entourage.
Hikone Castle Today
Twelve main castles, including Hikone Castle, were preserved all over Japan during that period. The others are the following: Hirosaki Castle, Matsumoto Castle, Inuyama Castle, Maruoka Castle, Himeji Castle, Bichu˗Matsuyama Castle, Matsue Castle, Marugame Castle, Matsuyama Castle, Uwajima Castle, and Kochi Castle. Four of these castles, Matsumoto Castle, Inuyama Castle, Hikone Castle, and Himeji Castle, are designated as National Treasures.
Hikone Castle had its 5th grand renovation in 1996. Sixty thousand new roof tiles, made of thirty-four different kinds, were used to refurbish the castle, and besides, the walls were painted white. Indeed, the renovation has contributed immensely to the revival of Hikone Castle. The castle area has been designated as a special historic site.
Tenshu (Main Castle Tower) a National Treasure
Tenshu is the most important part of the castle. During a siege, Tenshu was to be the ultimate target therefore; it was built to be an impregnable structure. The exterior of the three-storied Tenshu is elaborately decorated with gables in various styles, gorgeous, golden ornaments, and graceful Katomado (Bell-Shaped Window). A pair of golden Shachi(imaginary fish-shaped beast), sits on both ends of the rooftop ridge. They are believed to protect the building from fires. In contrast, the interior is not decorated, as it is uninhabitable. Embrasures for matchlocks and arrows are secretly placed in the wall. Narrow staircases lead to the top floor. The stone wall where Tenshu stands is made in a particular way called Gobo-zumi, a stacked burdock style. This wall looks random but actually just the same as it was built 400 years ago.
Tenbin-Yagura (Tower) an Important National Cultural Asset
As you ascend the slope from Omotemon (front gate), you will find Roka-Bashi (corridor bridge). The bridge could have been demolished in emergencies. This tower has a symmetric shape with the corridor bridge at the center. It resembles Tenbin (balance scale). This unique style of the tower exists only in Hikone.
Nishino-Maru Sanju-Yagura (Tower) an Important National Cultural Asset
The area to the west of the main castle tower is called Nishino-Maru. A three-storied tower is built at its west end. It stands on a 10m high stone wall. Many cherry trees have been planted in this area and in spring, many visitors to the castle enjoy cherry blossom viewing.
Taiko-Mon-Yagura (Drum Tower) an Important National Cultural Asset
Taiko-Mon-Yagura is the last gate to the main castle tower. It has no east wall and has the bridge railing in the hallway between the pillars. It is said that it was a device to give a better sound to the call-up drum.
The bell is rung five times a day. The sound of this bell was selected as one of the best 100 sounds and views in Japan. In the early19th century, during the period of Ii Naoaki, the 12th lord, it was remolded with several gold coins to enhance the sound. At the attached tea house, Chosho-an, you can enjoy usucha (powdered green tea) and Japanese sweet.
- Opening Hours: 9:00 to 16:00
- Usucha and Japanese sweet: 500 yen
In A.D. 710, a temple, called Hikone Temple, was built by Fujiwara Fusasaki, a government official, to keep the miniature statue of the Kannon (Goddess of Mercy). The statue was about 5.4cm (2 inches) tall, and was regarded as the principal image of worship on Hikone Hill. Supposedly, there was a hall to enshrine the Kannon standing on a golden tortoise. It was said that the Kannon had the ability to cure people with eye disease. Hearsay spread as far as Kyoto, and it was believed that Emperor Go-Shirakawa or his Ministers, as well as many people, made pilgrimage to the Kannon on Hikone Hill.
This was Kimata’s estate which was used to welcome the second lord Ii Naotaka’s triumphal return home. Kimata was the highest ranking officer of the Hikone Clan. Formally, this enclosure had a gate known as Yamazaki Gate. Yamazaki-guruwa is comforting, quiet and it is surrounded by trees. However, only a few people visit there. It is a beautiful place where one can relax throughout the four seasons.
Buddhist deities (including Jizo, a guardian deity) were gathered and enshrined in the temple hall when the castle was built. It is believed that if you can lift the round stone placed in front of the Jizo, your wish will come true. The stone seems to get lighter when your wish is going to be answered.
Bairin (Plum Grove)
This place used to be the storehouses of Hikone Castle for keeping rice obtained from the Tokugawa administration. Currently, it is a plum grove. Annually, the about 450 pink or white plum blossoms are seen from mid to the end of March. The trees were planted in commemoration of Hikone Castle having been chosen as one of the new 100 Best Sightseeing Places in Japan.
Umaya (Stable) an Important National Cultural Asset
The stable was built in the late 17th century, and always housed dozens of horses for the lord. In 1968, the stable was dismantled and reconstructed. The roof was shingled just like the original style. This is the only stable of its kind that has been preserved within a castle site today.
Genkyu-en Garden a National Scenic Spot
The landscape garden located to the northeast of the castle was created in 1677 by Naooki, the 4th lord. Genkyu-en was designed and modeled to resemble the detached palace garden of the 8th century Emperor of China. Around the pond are symbolic representations of eight scenic spots on the southern part of Lake Biwa. In September, the garden opens in the evening for visitors to enjoy the sounds of insects. This is a place where you can really experience the atmosphere of the gardens in the Edo period.
Hosho-dai is the building situated on a small mound in the garden. This building was typically used as a guest house. You can enjoy a wonderful view from Hosho-dai while taking usucha (powdered green tea) and Japanese sweet.
- Opening Hours 9:00 to 16:00
- Usucha and Japanese sweet: 500 yen.
Rakuraku-en / Keyaki-goten (Palace) a National Scenic Spot
Naooki, the 4th lord, ordered this building to be built as the lord’s private palace.
This building was built with keyaki (hard and durable wood from Zelkova tree) . Therefore we call this keyaki-goten (or Zelkova palace). There are some extra rooms such as Jishin-no-ma (Earthquake-proof Room), Kaminari-no-ma (Thunder and Lightning-proof Room), and Rakuraku-no-ma.
Rakuraku-no-ma was made by Naoaki, the12th lord, in the early 19th century. The name of the room, “Rakuraku” probably comes from the Chinese poem, “Noble men enjoy the mountain, wise men enjoy the water”, based on the ideal that the lord enjoyed anything after the common people had enjoyed it. Raku means “enjoy”.
Sawaguchi Tamon-Yagura (Tower) an Important National Cultural Asset
When you visit Hikone Castle through Irohamatsu Avenue, you will see the building named Sawaguchi Tamon-yagura. The left part of this building was built in 1771 (mid-Edo period). The building on the right is a replica made of concrete. It was built in 1960 in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Ii Naosuke, the 13th lord, in Edo (Tokyo). This building is now used as citizens’ gallery.
Iroha-matsu (Pine Avenue)
There used to be 47 planted pine trees, the same as the number of the letters in the old Japanese alphabet: I, Ro, Ha. They were the first letters of the old alphabet, like A,B,C, in English. Trees were not usually planted alongside the moat because enemies could hide easily behind them to attack the castle. However, at that time, there were frequent floods in that neighborhood and it was difficult to recognize where the road was. Therefore it is said that the pine tree played the part of boundary markers.
This is the lodge where Ii Naosuke, the 13th lord of Hikone Clan, spent his days in ascetic style, from the age of 17 to 32, applying himself to the pursuit of knowledge and martial arts. Later, he was promoted to be the Prime Minister in the Tokugawa administration, and he played a crucial role in deciding to open up Japan to the outside world. His contemplative days at this lodge must have provided him with exceptionally broad visions.