[From October Issue 2010]
Shiga Prefecture has a lot to boast about. Not only does the area treat visitors to fine food and a collection of impressive historical sites, it also lays claim to the largest lake in Japan – the stunning Like Biwa.
With an area of some 670 square kilometers, Lake Biwa accounts for one sixth of the prefecture’s total area. Since the water from Lake Biwa is used as drinking water for people in the Kinki region’s cities such as Kyoto and Osaka, the lake is known as “The Water Jar of Kinki.”
Many people visit Lake Biwa to enjoy leisure activities such as swimming and boating. You can also sail around the lake on a cruise ship. A short course covering only the southern part of the lake and a course around the northern part, featuring Chikubushima, a small island in the lake, are also popular.
Being rich in nature thanks to the lake and its rivers, Shiga Prefecture produces delicious food. In particular, fish called ayu (sweetfish) and funa (carp) are local specialties of the prefecture and can be enjoyed grilled and sprinkled with salt or as sashimi. But ayu is also tasty as “tsukudani,” where the fish is boiled in soy sauce and sugar. This is very popular as a souvenir.
Funa, on the other hand, is often enjoyed as “funa zushi,” a local specialty of Shiga Prefecture, in which the fish is pickled with a mixture of rice and rice kouji (made by fermenting nuka or bran from polished rice with fungi and other bacteria). Since this dish has a strong smell, however, some people don’t care for it.
Otsu City, where the prefectural government office is located, serves as the gateway to Shiga Prefecture. Since Otsu City is only a 10-minute train ride from Kyoto, many people visit the city while touring Osaka and Kyoto. Boat trips on Lake Biwa start from Otsu Port located in Otsu City. Traveling by train for one hour from Otsu City takes you to Hikone and Nagahama cities, where a number of historic sites are situated.
Nagahama Castle, in the northern part of the prefecture, was built by TOYOTOMI Hideyoshi in 1576. A follower of warlord ODA Nobunaga, who tried to dominate Japan, Hideyoshi succeeded in ruling Japan after Nobunaga’s death. The tenshukaku, the highest part of the castle which also serves as an observation tower, has been restored as a history museum. Also, the grounds of the castle have been developed into Hou Park, which is a place of relaxation for locals.
The road running north-south across the town of Nagahama used to be called the Hokkoku Kaido. Connecting Gifu and Shiga prefectures, it was an important road that was busy with travelers. In the Meiji period (1868~1912), a bank with black walls was built along this road. Today, old stores stand in a row in this area known as “Kurokabe (black wall) Square,” a part of an effort to preserve the traditional landscape from both the late Edo and Meiji periods.
Driving west from Nagahama for about 20 minutes, you can get to Hikone City, where you’ll find Hikone Castle. The castle is also a 10-minute walk from JR Hikone Station. The tenshukaku of Hikone Castle is designated as a National Treasure and famous for its beauty. The 15th lord of the castle, II Naosuke, became the Tairo (Great Elder) of the Tokugawa Shogunate in the late Edo period and led Japan to end its isolation from the outside world, however he was eventually assassinated by people who were opposed Japan opening its borders to the outside world.
The town that flourished around Hikone Castle is now a busy shopping district called Yume Kyobashi Castle Road, where you’ll see many shops selling Japanese sweets and folk crafts. The street is lined with buildings with white walls and black wooden lattices, a scene reminiscent of the Edo period. Here, even banks have been built in a way that allows them to blend in with the surrounding landscape.
There were many other castles in Shiga Prefecture. The stone walls for these castles were constructed by a tribe of people called “Ano-shu.” Ishiku (stone masons) living in Otsu City, Shiga Prefecture, built the stone walls for Hieizan Enryaku-ji Temple. It is said that Nobunaga set fire to the temple in 1571, killing not only priests but also children. Although the temple was burned down, its stone walls didn’t collapse.
This led Nobunaga to call upon stonemasons of the Ano-shu guild to work as construction workers when building Azuchi Castle. Until then, castles in Japan had neither high stone walls nor a tenshukaku; instead most of them only had low stone walls and mounds of dirt. But after Nobunaga built high stone walls and a tenshukaku for the first time, many new castles followed his lead. In building those castles, the Ano-shu were recognized for their great skills, and were requested to build stone walls across the country.
The precincts of Hieizan Enryaku-ji Temple cover the entire area of the 848-meter Mount Hiei, which lies on the border between Shiga and Kyoto prefectures. Originally, the temple was an iori (a small monastery for Buddhist monks), founded in 788 by Saicho, who introduced the Tendai-shu (a school of Buddhism) to Japan. However, it later became a large temple after many monks came to live there. The main hall of the temple, Konpon Chudo, designated as a National Treasure, houses “the Fumetsu no Hoto” (Everlasting Lamp), which has been continuously burning for 1200 years, attracting numerous of visitors. Historically, it was known as a temple to protect Kyoto, where Gosho (the Imperial Palace) was once located.
On their way to Kyoto, the site of the former capital, many people used to travel through Shiga Prefecture. Still today, the road used in those days remains, with rows of houses standing thoughout the surrounding areas. Shiga Prefecture also has some of the bedroom suburbs for people working in neighboring Kyoto and Osaka.
Shiga Prefecture has good access to public transportation, with JR Otsu Station only two hours away by train from Kansai International Airport or Osaka International Airport (Itami Airport). From Tokyo it takes 3 hours by shinkansen, with a transfer at Kyoto.
Text: KANASAKO Sumiko