Staying for once for longer in the Kansai region, we were able to venture beyond Kyoto in our explorations. The town of Hikone, located on the shores of Lake Biwa, Japan’s largest lake, is reachable from Kyoto in one hour by train, making it an easy day trip. Hikone Castle counts as one of the three best castles of Japan (after Himeji and Matsumoto).The main keep of the castle is much smaller in comparison to the ones of Himeji and Matsumoto. But little matter, the castle and it surroundings are an extremely pleasant spot. The approach from the station is direct, and within 10 minutes, we reached the moat, lined by famed Iroha pines. Passing through the gate, we started the ascent up the castle hill, passing a variety of fortifications and buildings before reaching the main keep. Of course, there were tourists around, but Hikone seemed quite off the beaten track compared to the amounts of visitors in Kyoto. We were lucky to get clear skies in the midst of rainy season for a day! The castle grounds were serene and green with many trees. We passed a tea house on the way up, hoping to stop there on the way back, but ended up descending by a different route. Don’t put it off it you fancy a bowl of matcha!
Once the top of the hill is reached, the main keep does not seem so very imposing anymore, yet inside, a number of stairs still wait to be climbed. The last two stories in particular have very steep stairs with high steps, requiring extra attention, in particular for elderly people or with little kids in tow. If you make it to the top, you are rewarded by a panoramic view of Hikone town, the surrounding hills and Lake Biwa. Descending on the easy side, we reached Genkyu-en, a Japanese daimyo garden formerly belonging to the residence of the Ii family. This garden, built around a large central pond of a striking green color, is really amazing. Standing on the far side of the pond, there is a beautiful view of Hikone castle above several old-style buildings with thatched roofs. Standing here, one feels immersed in a picturesque old Japan as all trace of modernity has faded away. By the time we had visited both the castle and the garden, midday had come around and the sun was burning down hotly. We made it to the West-side of the castle to Yume-Kyobashi Castle Road, where the buildings are all kept in the style of an Edo-area castle town. The image would have been more perfect, if there hadn’t been busy car traffic going down this street as well. We had a nice lunch of Ayu river fish and also had some dorayaki, apparently a local specialty. While we might have spent some more time in Hikone, we were anxious to get out of the sun and were soon on our way back to the old capital.
I found that Hikone castle makes a great day-trip destination from Kyoto. It’s a scenic place full of old-time charm, calm and serenity. Genkyu-en in particular must not be missed.