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Hanami in Japan: Visit the spectacular Hikone Castle

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A new account of 18-day trip to Japan we did in April 2017. On this occasion we left the beautiful Kyoto to start the route for the country First stop: visit to Hikone Castle, one of the five national treasures of Japan.

We left very early from Kyoto. We leave the curious hotel The Prime Pod from Sanjo-dori street and we went to Kyoto station to take a regional train direction Hikone.

Hikone it is a small city on the eastern shore of lake biwa. It was a sunny day and we wanted to visit Hikone Castle and learn a little about its history, as it is one of the five castles categorized as "National Treasure" by the Japanese government. As soon as we got off at the station and through the exit doors, we met our guide, Mr. Takashi, waiting for us. He was a tall man in his sixties, a retired man who, due to his interest in the history of Japan, had joined the volunteer tour guide program in the city of Hikone. As he told us, for this he had to do a six-month workshop. We store our bags at the ticket office at the station for 600 yen and leave with Takashi. Even before leaving the train station, he showed us a poster of a famous screen decorated with a beautiful painting found in the hikone castle. And just that day was the first on which that was exhibited screen in the castle museum.

First we stopped in front of the statue of samurai Ii Naomasa. This samurai stood out in the battle of Sekigahara on the eastern side under Tokugawa and was rewarded with the lands of the Omi province. It is in these lands, next to Lake Biwa, where the city of Hikone and its emblematic castle stands today. A place with a lot of history.

Among other reasons, the former province of Omi was the center of power of the famous daemon Oda Nobunaga, the famous samurai leader who initiated the unification of Japan in the mid-16th century. In the year 1600, the battle of sekigahara, delivered just a twenty-minute drive north of Hikone, would seal Japan's fate and grant Ieyasu Tokugawa the free way to take over the shogunate and the definitive control of the Japanese archipelago. Tokugawa's adversary in that battle was Ishida Mitsunari, main manager of the late Taiko Hideyoshi Toyotomi, who commanded the unified troops of western Japan.

This feudal lord dominated the passage between east and west from his Hikone fortress, which then stood on Sawayama Hill, 2 km from the current castle. When he was defeated in Sekigahara, he was Ii Naomasa who took control of their lands. With the approval of Tokugawa, Naomasa's son had a new, more modern castle built and prepared to block a possible advance of the troops from the west to the new capital in the east. This was the castle of Hikone That can be visited today.

This new castle was located on a hill between Lake Biwa to the west and another artificial lake to the north, so that the two bodies of water served as protection. In addition, the course of a river was diverted in the east to pour its waters into a pit in the south and two more pits were built around it. The plans of the castle created them Yasozaemon, a famous military architect who employed Koishu military strategy techniques inherited from the great general Takeda Shingen. To expedite the construction of such a strategically key castle, the structures of two other castles, which were dismantled and moved to Hikone, were used. The main gate gate took advantage of Hideyoshi's first castle, while the main tower took advantage of Mitsunari Castle, adapting it from its original five floors to only three in Hikone. Even so, the castle took about 20 years to complete.

We learned all this by listening to the explanations of Mr. Takashi, a true lover of the history of the period Sengoku. As we crossed the intermediate pit bridge, he told us that the outer pit was covered with earth after World War II to reduce malaria mosquito diseases. A sign of the deterioration of Japanese heritage during the conflict, fortunately very different from the landscape that can be seen today.
In April 2017, the cherry trees along the intermediate pit poured their pink and white petals into the water and created a beautiful landscape.

As we headed to the entrance, Takashi told us the story of the pines that flank the main road next to the pit: the so-called «alphabet pines»Because there were as many as letters in the Japanese alphabet. Each of his high-ranking samurai was in charge of the health of one of those pines. Just before the entrance, there is a monument in honor of Ii Naosuke, the thirteenth lord of the Ii clan and chief advisor of the last shogun Tokugawa, famous for giving in to US pressure and opening the country to international trade after centuries of isolationism.

On the driveway, Takashi made us look at the shape of a section of the wall in front of the pit, which is called kabuto (helmet) for having two levels of inclination, an exceptional detail in the design of Japanese castles. Then we go up the stone staircase. The steps have different heights so that an enemy troop stumbles and falls to the ground when climbing through them. We also look at the different loopholes of the walls. The rectangular ones served to shoot with archer against the assailants, and the triangular ones to shoot with arcabuz (teppo).

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