Where history whiffs in the air

An epic battle, a castle and stinky old fish all add to the allure of Hikone in Shiga Prefecture

by Chris Bamforth

As anyone with even a scant knowledge of Japanese history is probably aware, the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 was the “Big One.” The absolute victory of Tokugawa Ieyasu made shoguns of him and his successors, who kept their hands firmly clutching the reins of power until they were wrenched away in 1868’s Meiji Restoration.

After the conflict, Tokugawa was well disposed to those who had assisted in his ascent; less so to those who hadn’t. And thus his trusted ally Ii Naomasa found his reward in the form of a hefty stipend plus Omi Province, centered on Hikone in today’s Shiga Prefecture — just down the road from Sekigahara in present-day Gifu Prefecture.

Naomasa promptly did what any self-respecting/self-admiring feudal lord would do under the circumstances: he started building himself a bloody big castle. However, a stray bullet he stopped at Sekigahara led to his demise just a couple of years later, and it was left to his sons to complete the edifice that is today’s biggest tourist lure in Hikone.

Hikone Castle is one of those hilltop fortresses that from afar appear Kafkaesque and domineering, but by the time you’ve hauled yourself up all those steps to the inner precincts, it has quietly transformed into a rather pint-size affair. Nonetheless, the castle is one of only a dozen in Japan to retain its original wooden structure. And it’s soon apparent that this is the real deal: shoes off at the entrance; stairs pitched so steeply they practically qualify as ladders; ceiling beams so crooked they look as if the builders went out of their way to find the most deformed trees in the forest.

But it is rather a handsome structure — one of just four castles to be designated a National Treasure — and suitably emanates so much more dignity than all the ferroconcrete facsimiles up and down the country. Around the castle is preserved its complex system of moats, in whose olive-green waters carp glide by like fat torpedoes.

From the castle, there is a view over the glittering surface of Lake Biwa — best viewed on a hazy day so that the details of industrial overspill are engagingly obscured. Occupying one-sixth the area of Shiga Prefecture, Lake Biwa is Japan’s biggest freshwater body and is named for its shape resembling that of the eponymous stringed instrument. However, as anyone glancing at a map who’s ever seen a biwa will quickly realize, somebody somewhere clearly suffered no dearth of imagination in the naming process.

In the depths of Lake Biwa lurk the fish known as Crucian carp, which go to make the local specialty of funazushi. Perhaps every foreigner living in Japan has at one time or other been asked by Japanese if they can eat natto (fermented soybeans) — and often won unfeigned admiration for an affirmative answer. But natto is nothing. The real test of gastronomic mettle in this country is funazushi.

This forerunner of all sushi comprises fish that have first been salted and then had the salt soaked out before being packed into large crocks between layers of cooked rice and left to “mature” for two or three years. The resulting utterly ungodly stench from this finny fare is enough to make a grown man practically keel over.

But, reflecting that some fine-tasting cheeses have a rancidity not unlike that of diaper contents, I tried it. And of course the stuff tastes exactly like it stinks. The official guide to Hikone cheerfully observes that funazushi is often referred to as the “king of delicacies.” Quite what the “riffraff of delicacies” must taste like doesn’t bear thinking about.

Those who really must try funazushi can do so on Yume-Kyobashi Castle Road — an area of restored old shops with bamboo-lattice fronts, hawking pottery, incense, chopsticks, toys, confectionery and the like. Even the Biwako Bank gets into the spirit of things here by cladding itself in a tasteful old-style exterior. Restaurants come with long noren (split entrance-curtains) and the traditional small cones of wet salt at the doorway. Castle Road, one suspects, is there to catch the tourist dollar, but even with cars trundling along the street, it’s no bad effort at recreating something of the character of Hikone long ago.

That character is certainly evident in Hikone’s most famous feature after its castle.

Even for those of us whose usual demands of a garden are simply a chair, a beer and a mosquito coil on a summer’s afternoon, Genkyuen is oddly likable. Constructed in 1677, the garden deftly enlists the skyline castle as a backdrop, and though such features as bridges, waterways and wooden buildings have been precisely placed for visual harmony, Genkyuen has a natural appeal and lacks the mannered, manicured aspect that detracts from many Japanese gardens.

An attractive garden of a different ilk is found some distance from the town center. In contrast to the celebrated Genkyuen, the garden at Ryotanji Temple has a more private, intimate character. It’s quite a hike there from town on a hot day, but the disarmingly lovely, tranquil spot is definitely worth the effort. In keeping with the temple’s sect, the garden shows the influence of Zen Buddhism. But unlike the similar- sounding Ryoanji in Kyoto — a garden that is famously just stark rocks and stones — appreciating the swirling gravel and moss-covered stone islands at Ryotanji doesn’t require the ability to hear the sound of one hand clapping.

Hikone may be the biggest town on the eastern shores of Lake Biwa, but it’s a quiet, laidback place lent an impressive historical air by its castle. Naomasa, of course, never got to see his fortress, but he is certainly remembered in the place it dominates, as testified by a statue of him — looking suitably bellicose — that stands in front of the station. Populated by folk with a disarmingly friendly disposition, and who are conspicuously helpful and obliging, Hikone makes for a pleasurable trip.

But I would pass on the long-dead fish.

Hikone can be reached in 48 minutes by limited express from Osaka.