Another video hosted by English-speaking kids. Since two of them were from Hikone, I decided to make a video of Hikone Castle, which I call one of Shiga’s Top Three tourist sights. (The other two being Lake Biwa and Enryakuji temple.)
I tried to make the video as short as possible, but even so, it turned out to be 34 min. Goes to show how much there is to see at Hikone Castle. There’s quite a bit of English text which, if you read, will give you a good primer on what the castle and Hikone lords are about. Besides the castle, I cover official mascot Hiko-nyan, the adjacent Genkyuen Garden and palace, and two autumn castle festivals.
Spent quite a bit of time editing the video. Much of the time was spent reading up (in Japanese of course) on all the castle structures and lords and trying to write explanations as short and concise as possible. In the process, my knowledge of Hikone Castle has expanded.
Tenbin Yagura (天秤櫓)
One major discovery was a common mistranslation of a key word. Even I had misunderstood and mistranslated this word all these years. That was Tenbin Yagura (天秤櫓). This is a storehouse with two turrets on each end so it looks symmetrical like a “balance scale” as all the English pamphlets and Web pages will tell you. However, this is incorrect.
Tenbin shoulder pole carried by Omi merchant.
Tenbin, in ths case, refers to the shoulder pole for carrying luggage on both ends like this Omi merchant in the photo. It was commonly used even in modern times in rural areas for selling goldfish even.
I hope to spread the word about this longtime mistranslation. This is what happens when a Japanese word has more than one meaning. But I wonder now if the tenbin shoulder pole was actually named after the balance scale. Probably. Or vice versa?
Hikone Castle saw over 700,000 visitors in 2012. This is not the most they ever had, but it’s a good number.
Here’s my video of the Higashi-Omi Giant Kite Festival (東近江大凧まつり Higashi-Omi Odako Matsuri) held on Sunday, May 26, 2013. Another one of my ongoing video series with local kids introducing the sights in English. We took three Japanese kids from Higashi-Omi who had never seen the kite festival (neither did their parents). The video also has a few cameo appearances by other local folks.
It was a nice day, somewhat hot under the sun, but cool in the shade with good winds. There were all kinds of kites in the air, many of them quite exotic from around Japan. Didn’t get to see them all though.
They flew the giant kite several times during the morning and afternoon sessions. Watch the video to see how high it flew. The giant kite festival was held at the Fureai Undo Koen Park in Notogawa for the first time this year in 2013 (map here). Since it is closer to Lake Biwa than the old riverside site in Yokaichi, the wind supposed to be better. The former site was also getting narrower with the river widening or eroding.
The new festival site was certainly large enough, but it was still too narrow to fly the big kite. If they could run across the length of the park, it might work. But they pulled the giant kite across the park’s width because the wind was blowing that way. So each time they pulled the giant kite, it went up, but immediately went down when they stopped pulling after running out of ground.
However, compared to the old site and compared to last year’s festival when they had no wind at all, this new site is way better. Videos of the giant kite last year showed that the kite couldn’t even leave the ground. At least it well got off the ground this year.
The new site is also a lot more convenient for people coming from outside Higashi-Omi. JR Notogawa Station is convenient on the Tokaido Line and they had free shuttle buses going to the park. The park had no public parking so they provided designated parking lots some distance away from the park. Too far to walk, so free shuttle buses also ran from the parking lots.
Another major change was the name of the festival. It was formerly called the “Yokaichi Odako Matsuri” until 2011. They changed the name to “Higashi-Omi Odako Matsuri” last year in May 2012. Some people opposed the name change and I feel sorry for people in Yokaichi (central area in Higashi-Omi) for losing a namesake that they’ve known for about 30 years.
The fact is though, the kite festival has a 300-year history. And it was not originally called “Yokaichi Odako Matsuri.” The festival was started by villages in the Yokaichi area that started flying kites for Boy’s Day in May to celebrate the birth of a boy. The villages eventually competed in kite-making and the kites got larger and larger. The kite festival was named after the respective village. When villages merged and got a new municipal name, the name of the kite festival also changed accordingly. So the name of the festival actually changed a number of times. That’s the way it goes when a festival is not held by a shrine or temple.
They build a new giant kite every three years. The kite we saw was three years old and flew for the last time that day. This summer, they will build a new giant kite to be flown for the next three years until 2016. Glad we got to see this kite before it was retired. The artwork is simply awesome. And the meaning too (explained in my video). If you missed it, you can see it displayed at the Higashi-Omi Giant Kite Museum (map here) during the next three years.
Higashi-Omi in eastern Shiga Prefecture is famous for its giant kite measuring 12 meters by 13 meters. It’s flown on the last Sunday of May at the annual Giant Kite Festival (Odako Matsuri). (Details below.)
For people who can’t see the festival, they should visit the Higashi-Omi Giant KIte Museum (東近江大凧会館 formerly Yokaichi Giant Kite Museum) not far from Ohmi Railways Yokaichi Station (map here). It displays the previous giant kite along with hundreds of kites from all over Japan and the world.
I made this video of the kite museum with three English-speaking local kids as the reporters. We went to the museum on May 5, 2013, Children’s Day, when the kite museum held an event for kids to paste stickers written with their wishes or dreams on the giant kite. They also attended a kite-making session.
We are gearing up to see the giant kite festival on May 26, 2013 to be held at Fureai Undo Park west of JR Notogawa Station. Free shuttle buses will run from Notogawa Station. They are holding the festival at a different riverside park now, closer to Lake Biwa where the winds are stronger. The old riverside festival site was getting narrower due to the river getting wider. Winds were also weaker. Also note that they changed the name of festival from Yokaichi Giant Kite Festival to Higashi-Omi Giant Kite Festival.
After a ceremony at 9:20 am, the Higashi-Omi Giant Kite Festival 2013 (東近江大凧まつり 2013) will start from 10:15 am with a kite flying contest. They will fly the giant kite twice, from 11:30 am to 12:30 pm and from 2:30 pm to 3 pm when the festival will end. There will be some stage entertainment like taiko drumming, display of the giant kite on the ground, and an area to fly kites. They’ll have food and souvenir booths.
Free shuttle buses from JR Notogawa Station (from 8 am), the Odako Kaikan kite museum, and designated parking lots will run to the festival site at Fureai Undo Koen park.
The Hikone Castle Museum is now exhibiting the Hikone Byobu folding screen (彦根屏風), a National Treasure, until May 7, 2013. Shiga Prefecture has only four paintings that are National Treasures, and this is one of them and the only non-religious one. The others are all religious paintings owned by temples like Miidera. (Japan has 158 paintings designated as National Treasures as of this writing.) The byobu shows a pleasure quarters scene in Kyoto. It’s painted on a gold-leaf paper background.
The six-panel byobu is dated to be from the Edo Period’s Kan’ei era (1624-44). It measures 271 cm wide and 94 cm high. Since it was kept by the Ii clan (lord of Hikone Castle) for generations, the screen is nicknamed “Hikone Byobu” even though the painting is not related to Hikone. The byobu’s official name is a mouthful: Shihon Kinjichaku-shoku Fuzoku-zu (紙本金地著色風俗図). The city of Hikone now owns the byobu (since 1997). The Hikone Byobu underwent meticulous repairs for two years and it is exhibited for a few weeks every spring during this time.
The byobu’s National Treasure acclaim is due to the highly skilled and meticulous painting style and the myriad of people, fashion, and objects depicted from that era. Extremely fine lines and dots are painted for the hair, kimono patterns, etc. You’ll need a magnifying glass to see all that intricate detail (although you won’t be able to get that close to the painting). The painted scene is an outstanding snapshot of the people and customs of that time. Thus, it is called a fuzoku-zu (風俗図). With so many little details pictured, you would have to be well-versed in the arts, fashion, customs, and history of that period to fully appreciate what is depicted.
On the left of the byobu, you can see a folding screen with a Chinese-style painting. This is the only prop we see in the background and it indicates that the scene on the left half of the screen is indoors where everyone is sitting close together. The right half of the screen looks like it’s outdoors since the people are standing and one woman is walking her little dog (imported from Europe) even. We see no boundary between the indoors and outdoors, but it is obviously implied.
On the screen’s left half showing the indoor scene, three people are playing the samisen and three people are playing Japanese backgammon called sugoroku (双六). There is also a long tobacco pipe below the backgammon player dressed in black. Tobacco pipes were imported from Spain and Portugal at the time and were very popular in Japan. Their length eventually got shorter in later years.
On the lower right in the indoor scene is a girl writing a love letter with ink and brush. The samisen players, sugoroku players, letter writer, and background folding screen all refer to the Chinese-originated cultural concept of kinkishoga (琴棋書画), meaning stringed instrument (koto), traditional board game, calligraphy, and painting. Being skilled at these four traditional arts was considered a prerequisite of a cultured person. It was common for paintings to depict kinkishoga.
Above the letter writer is a middle-age woman leaning on an arm rest. She is thought to be a Buddhist layman of great knowledge, making her the de facto supervisor there.
The pleasure quarters was for people of taste and culture. It was a leading edge for fashion and we can see various fashion statements in the painting. The people wear a variety of hairstyles. For example, the karawa-mage style (唐輪髷) with the hair stacked up was favored by the courtesans of that day. We also see short-sleeve casual kimono called kosode (小袖) and they also have gold leaf embedded in the material.
On the right side of the byobu, the woman second from the right edge is wearing a kimono with a basho (banana plant) design. It reminds one of a Noh song titled, Basho. (Famous haiku poet Basho named himself after the banana plant.)
When the Hikone Byobu was made in the early Edo Period, it wasn’t for the masses to see. Only the cultural elite would be able to see it and the artist knew this. The artist therefore included little details that only the cultural elite would appreciate and understand. They would have been well-versed in Chinese-style painting, religious paintings, Noh plays, etc.
The painting was designed to be viewed not as a flat painting, but on a folding screen with its characteristic zig-zag panels facing inward or outward. The people were painted to match the respective panel’s angle. If you look closely, you can see that the way the people are facing are indeed enhanced or emphasized by the angle of the panel. Since the painting was not signed, the artist is unknown. However, experts say that the painter likely belonged to the Kano school of Japanese painting. It’s astonishing that the artist did not sign such a masterpiece. I wonder if the artist didn’t sign it because the work was still unfinished (the background looks too empty to me) or maybe there were multiple artists. There are still things about the painting that experts do not know about.
I went to see this byobu a year ago during Golden Week. I went without reading up about it, so I was unable to fully appreciate the byobu’s artistic and cultural value when I saw it. It was only after I did some reading when I was able to appreciate this rare National Treasure. I’m happy to now share with you what I’ve learned about this fascinating byobu. You should appreciate it for what it’s really worth. A little knowledge (and language) goes a long way.
The Hikone Castle Museum is next to the ticket booth to enter Hikone Castle. Open 8:30 am to 5 pm (enter by 4:30 pm). Admission is 500 yen for adults (cheaper if you also buy a ticket to enter Hikone Castle). Google Map
April is a great month. Soon after the onslaught of cherry blossoms, we have an onslaught of festivals (matsuri). This is the time to go out and celebrate the coming of spring, pray for good harvests, and see the traditional splendor of Shiga. The highest number of matsuri are held during these two months, especially during the string of national holidays in late April and early May called Golden Week. During the Golden Week holidays, Shiga has multiple festivals on the same day.
To make it easier to decide which ones to see, I’ve picked Shiga Prefecture’s Top 10 Festivals for April-May. I ranked them based on scale (number of participants, length of festival, etc.), grandioseness, cultural importance/significance, cultural perpetuation and practice for younger generations, uniqueness, and enjoyment by spectators.
1. Nagahama Hikiyama Matsuri, Nagahama Hachiman Shrine, Nagahama, April 15
Deciding Shiga’s No. 1 spring festival was a toss-up between the Nagahama Hikiyama Matsuri and Sanno-sai (No. 2 below). But I gave the edge to the Hikiyama Matsuri because it centers on passing on a traditional art to kids. Young boys undergo months-long rigorous training in voice and acting to put on a kabuki play during the festival. The festival has four ornate floats (hikiyama) with a small stage for authentic kabuki plays performed by grade school boys. Even if you cannot understand what they are saying, just looking at their makeup, costumes, and acting will delight. The kabuki performances start at the shrine at 10 am. Then the floats are pulled to other spots in central Nagahama where the boys perform again. By the evening, all the floats gather at the Otabisho across town for more revelry until 9:30 pm when it ends. Although it gets crowded in front of the float, you can usually see the kabuki actors because they are elevated on the float. My video | Google Map
Sanno-sai Festival, Hiyoshi Taisha
2. Sanno-sai Festival, Hiyoshi Taisha Shrine, Otsu, April 12-15
Held by Hiyoshi Taisha Shrine in western Otsu at the foot of Mt. Hiei. This is perhaps Shiga Prefecture’s largest festival in terms of participants and the number of events. Held over a few days, you can see diverse events and rituals like an evening torch procession, thunderous rocking of portable shrines, and even a boat procession on the lake. One thing I like is the joint cooperation of Shinto and Buddhist priests in the ceremonies. You can see and hear both Shinto priests and Tendai Buddhist priests from Enryakuji temple praying or chanting at the same ceremony during the festival. So it’s not entirely a Shinto festival. Hiyoshi Taisha Shrine was historically affiliated with Enryakuji temple until the state required that Shinto and Buddhism be separate organizations. It’s up to you to decide which day and what time to see the festival. Click on the link above to see my photos of the festival (taken on April 13-15) to decide what you want to see. I saw and photographed all the major festival events except on the first day when they brought down the portable shrine from a low mountain. If it’s one festival that wore me out after three days, it’s this one. My video | Google Map
3. Niu Chawan Matsuri, Niu Shrine, Yogo (Nagahama), once every several years on May 4
Another of my all-time favorite festivals. They have three wooden floats topped with lofty “balancing act” chawan bowl decorations. They also hold beautiful sacred dances by boys dressed as girls. A procession of colorful flower umbrella dancers also provides a colorful accent to the festival. It’s held deep in a mountain valley of Yogo in northern Nagahama so the whole area is lush and peaceful. The only problem is that the festival is held only once every 5-6 years. The last time it was held was in 2009. According to rumors, the festival will be held in May 2014, next year. My video | Google Map
Hino Matsuri floats at Umamioka Watamuki Shrine.
4. Hino Matsuri, Hino, May 3
Shiga has a good number of float festivals, but the grandest one in spring is the Hino Matsuri. It’s grand because they have as many as 16 ornate floats with large wooden wheels that they pull through the main streets of Hino town. Each float belongs to a specific neighborhood in Hino and they are decorated with elaborate tapestries, paper lanterns, and a homemade paper sculpture on the roof that changes every year. They also have side attractions like a portable shrine procession and ceremonies featuring a sacred dance. From the morning, the floats are pulled along the streets to gather at Umamioka Watamuki Shrine, the center of the action. They play festival music and show off their floats. If you have time, you should also visit Shakunage Gorge, famous for rhododendron growing in a scenic gorge. There are lovely nature walking paths. Buses run from Hino Station. My video | Google Map
Higashi-Omi Giant Kite Festival held on the last Sun. in May.
5. Higashi-Omi Giant Kite Festival (formerly Yokaichi Giant Kite Festival) (Odako Matsuri), Higashi-Omi, May 26 (last Sun. in May)
The giant kite, made of washi paper and a bamboo frame, measures about 13 meters by 12 meters (size of 100 tatami mats) and weighs 700 kg. It is a work of art with a distinct shape, cutouts, and paint job featuring a traditional design of a large kanji character and twin animals. The design is selected from entries from the public and a new giant kite with a new design is made every three years. The public is also invited to help build the new kite every three years during the summer. On the festival day, the kite is flown on a riverbank a few times. It usually doesn’t stay aloft for very long unless there are strong winds. It can even crash so they clear the whole area whenever they fly the kite. You can also sign up to pull the kite. I did it once and they run at full speed. Kind of scary because if you trip and fall, you might get trampled. From 2013, the festival site will be at the Fureai Undo Park in Notogawa. Free shuttle buses will run from Notogawa Station. After (or before) the festival, be sure to check out the Odako Kaikan Giant Kite museum. Shuttle buses run to the museum. My video | Google Map
Kenketo Matsuri in Tsuchiyama, Koka.
6. Kenketo Matsuri, Koka (Tsuchiyama), May 3
Held at Takigi Jinja Shrine (龍樹神社), Kenketo Odori is a dance performed by eight boys aged 7 to 12. First there’s a procession to the shrine, and the boys start dancing at the shrine at around 2 pm. The dance was originally started to ward off calamities. The boys wear tall peacock feathers on their heads. The dance is a National Intangible Folk Cultural Property. The festival has an interesting twist when the crowd rushes to the man (sometimes knocking him down) holding a flower basket to take all the flowers. To get to the shrine, get off Kibukawa Station (JR Kusatsu Line and Ohmi Railways) and catch the Aikuru Bus. Get off at Higashi Maeno. The shrine is a short walk toward the river. My video | Google Map
Shichikawa Matsuri’s yakko-furi procession.
7. Shichikawa Matsuri, Takashima, May 4
The largest festival in western Shiga is held at Oarahiko Shrine. It features a yakko-furi (samurai laborers) procession, yabusame horse runs, and portable shrine procession. The shrine is nearest to Shin-Asahi Station (JR Kosei Line). If it’s too far to walk, you can rent a bicycle at the train station. My video | Google Map
Ayame girls at Hyozu Matsuri.
8. Hyozu Matsuri, Hyozu Taisha Shrine, Yasu, May 5
I call this Shiga’s best portable shrine festival. Over 35 portable srhines (mikoshi) are carried around Hyozu Taisha Shrine in a very lively and gregarious style. Two of the mikoshi are carried by all women called “Ayame,” meaning iris flowers. They wear colorful happi coats to carry the mikoshi. The only thing is that the gravel path can kick up dust. Best to watch the festival from upwind. A few foreigners also participate. It starts in the morning and ends in mid-afternoon. My video | Google Map
9. Hachiman Matsuri, Himure Hachimangu Shrine, Omi-Hachiman, April 14
Shiga’s biggest fire festival featuring several tall straw torches (as high as 10 meters) that are lit from 8 pm. If you have time during the day, you should come and look at the torches which are great works of art. The festival is prayer for an abundant harvest. They light the torches one by one. This festival is usually billed together with the Sagicho Matsuri another fire festival held in March. Sagicho Matsuri is still my favorite festival in Omi-Hachiman. My video | Google Map
10. Taga Matsuri, Taga Taisha Shrine, Taga, April 22
If you like horses and traditional costumes, see this festival. They have a long procession featuring Shinto priests, children in costume, women warriors, and more people on 40 horses. A total of 500 people are in the procession. There is a morning procession leaving Taga Taisha at 10:30 am for Totonomiya Shrine deep in Taga’s countryside, and an afternoon (main) procession leaving Taga Taisha at 2 pm for the Otabisho, a short distance away from Taga Taisha. My video | Google Map