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The Tokugawa Period has long ended, but dotted around the country there are remains in the form of castles (originals or replicas), yashiki (the residences of the daimyo ruling class) and of course the magnificent gardens with which the yashiki were adorned. Indeed, in most cases only the garden remains; the palaces are gone.

The Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 was a great turning point in Japanese history. The victor was Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542-1616), and the Edo or Tokugawa Period is generally dated from his appointment as shogun in 1603.

Ishida Mitsunari, the leader of the losing side, forfeited his seat of power (along with his life). This was Sawayama Castle which was located 2-3 km northeast of Hikone in the old province of Omi (now Shiga Prefecture). Ii Naomasa, one of the Tokugawa’s most loyal and brave generals, was given Ishida’s holdings; Naomasa intended to relocate the castle, but he died of his wounds before the plan could be realized.

His son Ii Naokatsu succeeded him and relocated the castle to its present location. The site chosen was perfect for a castle and the seat of regional power. The steep rocky crag was 50 meters above the surrounding marshy flats along the edge of Lake Biwa. Construction began in 1606 and took 20 years to complete; the central donjon or keep (tenshukaku) of Otsu Castle at the west end of the lake was dismantled and reassembled in Hikone under Ii’s orders. As one of the few surviving original castles of this period it is a major attraction; it is also very beautiful with its white walls, bell-shaped windows and intersecting gables.

The castle is protected by two water-filled moats (the outer moat is presently being dredged and cleaned). Between the moats is a well preserved Edo Period Japanese garden, Genkyu-en, with an area of 2 hectares. According to the guide map it should take only eight minutes to walk around this garden — but why hurry? Genkyu-en deserves a leisurely pace. Indeed, one visit may not be enough, since the garden was designed to be viewed across the four seasons.

Genkyu-en lies at the northeast side of Hikone Castle. It was constructed by the fourth lord of Hikone, Ii Naooki, in the year Enpo 5 (1677), and was designed and named after a garden built by Tang Dynasty Emperor Xuan Zong (r. 712-756). The water for the lake in Genkyu-en comes from Lake Biwa. From the double-span wooden bridge there is a splendid view of the shoin-style teahouses. This architectural style, which was developed in Japan during the Muromachi Period, is studiedly simple, affecting the outer appearance of a country farmhouse, with gently sloping thatched roofs, while the interiors were elegant enough for the daimyo to entertain guests. Here they would drink tea and admire the garden with its lake, islands and bridges.

Today we mere commoners can enter the shoin buildings of Genkyu-en and, for a small fee, take part in the tea ceremony and admire the views of the garden.

The largest island is named Kakume Nagisa and has a beach where cranes could sing; again, this reference is philosophical and imaginary: This island is a typical horai jima. The idea of the horai (peng-lai) or “isle of immortals” comes from Taoist mythology. Emperor Wudi (r. 140-86 B.C.) of the Han Dynasty, who was interested in Taoism, is said to have been the first to create “isles of immortals” in his garden lakes.

The view from a hill in the north part of the garden looking up toward the donjon is superb, a splendid example of borrowed scenery or shakkei. This hill is known as Hosho-dai, the phoenix’s landing, another idea from Taoism. The lake, the teahouse and the wooded slopes leading up to the donjon are all framed in this view; it is especially magnificent in early morning when the sun is shining on the castle.

Toward the end of your walk around the Genkyu-en you will notice another building and attached garden beyond a hedge and bamboo fence. The fourth lord of Hikone built this villa, named Keyaki Goten (Zelkova Palace) since it was in fact entirely made of the wood of the keyaki (Zelkova serrata), a tall deciduous tree native to Japan. Keyaki wood is very durable. This residence was used as a retreat even though it is near to castle and main residence.

In the 19th century the 12th lord, Ii Naoaki, built an annex which was known as Rakuraku-no-ma, and since then the villa has been known as Rakuraku-en.

During the Muromachi Period kare-sansui (dry landscape gardens) were developed. Kare-sansui landscapes were originally designed and constructed by Zen monks to represent the black and white paintings of China. A kare-sansui garden was designed for contemplation, to be viewed from a fixed vantage point such as a temple veranda. The Rakuraku-en garden has a superb example of a dry waterfall, complete with a stone bridge. The gravel “lake” at the bottom of the waterfall is on the same level as the real lake in Genkyu-en.

Standing next to Rakuraku villa is the tallest Japanese holly tree (kurogane-mochi, Ilex rotunda) I have ever seen. The park and castle grounds also offer some very impressive tabu-no-ki (Machilus thunbergi), evergreens that can attain a height of 30 meters, and some of Hikone’s must be 25 meters or more. This tree grows wild along the coast of Honshu, Shikoku, Kyushu and Okinawa.

As one of the most powerful vassal houses of the Tokugawa, the successive lords of Hikone took a leading role in the shogunate government, no less than five achieving the rank of tairo (chief minister). The last of these was Ii Naosuke (1815-1860), whose commemorative statue stands outside Genkyu-en garden.

Naosuke was the youngest son of the 11th Lord Hikone. His mother died when he was only 5 and his father passed away when he was 17. At this age he moved out of the castle and lived for 15 years in a small house, Umoregi-no-ie, located near Gokoku Shrine just outside the castle walls. In 1850 his eldest brother died unexpectedly without issue, and Naosuke, then aged 36 and known only as a poet and aesthete, became 13th lord and, thereafter, tairo.

When in 1853 Commodore Perry arrived in Edo with his fleet of “black ships,” Naosuke was one of the few officials to recognize the inevitability of opening the doors to foreign trade. He helped prepare and sign the Treaty of Amity and Commerce in 1858, and took vigorous measures to suppress antiforeign and antishogunate agitation. In consequence, antishogunate zealots assassinated Naosuke March 3, 1860, outside Sakurada-mon gate of Edo Castle. He was briefly succeeded by his son Naonori, the last lord of Hikone Castle.