Koto Sanzan Temple Trio autumn foliage 2017

pagoda

Saimyoji’s 3-story pagoda, a National Treasure.

In 2017, the Koto Sanzan autumn foliage season will be November 18th–27th, 2017. Shuttle buses will run between Hikone Station and the three Koto Sanzan temples.

Koto Sanzan (湖東三山) is a trio of large Tendai Buddhist temples famous for autumn leaves in eastern Shiga. They are Saimyoji (西明寺) in KoraKongorinji (金剛輪寺) in Aisho, and Hyakusaiji (百済寺) in Higashi-Omi (see map below). They are also famous for structures that are National Treasures or Important Cultural Properties.

Each temple has its own unique characteristics. Saimyoji’s main temple and pagoda are both National Treasures that you can enter. It’s also deservedly one of Japan’s 100 Grand Autumn Foliage Sites. Kongorinji has many colorfully dressed Jizo statues and a National Treasure main temple housing an 11-faced Kannon statue and 13 other statues that are Important Cultural Properties. Hyakusaiji is famous for giant straw sandals on a gate and a Japanese garden. Established by Shotoku Taishi in 609, Hyakusaiji is Shiga Prefecture’s oldest temple and one of Japan’s oldest. After entering the gate adorned with a pair of giant straw sandals, see the Hondo temple hall with an 11-faced Kannon statue carved by Shotoku Taishi, a prince credited with spreading Buddhism in Japan.

Until late Nov. or early Dec. 2017, all three temples will be holding a special display of their unique Buddha statues normally hidden from the public. Kongorinji temple is displaying its Daikokuten statue (大黒天), the largest in Japan.

Each temple charges admission ¥600 for adults.

Kongorinji

Kongorinji

Hyakusaiji

Hyakusaiji

Autumn foliage shuttle bus

Autumn foliage shuttle bus

During this year’s autumn foliage season from November 18–27, 2017, convenient, low-cost shuttle buses (Koto Sanzan Shuttle Bus) run every day between Hikone Station and these three Koto Sanzan temples. At Hikone Station, the first shuttle bus leaves at 9 a.m. and goes to Saimyoji, Kongorinji, and Hyakusaiji. From Hyakusaiji, the shuttle bus goes back to Hikone Station while stopping at the other temples along the way. (See the shuttle bus schedule below.) It will take most of the day to see all three temples so start as early as you can in the morning. (Unlike in previous years, the shuttle bus no longer runs to Eigenji and Yokaichi Station.)

Although you can pay the shuttle bus fare per ride (costing ¥300 to ¥600), I recommend buying the day pass called Momiji kippu (Maple ticket) for ¥1,200 (¥600 for kids). This day pass is good for riding the shuttle bus between Hikone Station and the three temples. Get on and off as much as you like for one day. So you start and end at Hikone Station. The Momiji kippu day pass is sold at Hikone Station’s bus stop at the west exit from 8:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. If you like to take your time (for photography, etc.), you might not have time to see all three temples in one day.

There are also guided tour buses (teiki kanko bus) departing Nagahama, Kyoto, Maibara, and Hikone Stations that are much more expensive (around ¥8,000) and follow a set tour schedule. No English guides.

Koto Sanzan Foliage Shuttle Bus Schedule (Nov. 18th–27th, 2017), Hikone Station to Hyakusaiji (read down).
Bus StopBus 1Bus 2Bus 3Bus 4Bus 5Bus 6 
Hikone Station9:00 am9:35 am10:00 am11:10 am1:10 pm2:45 pm
Taga Town Hall9:25 am10:00 am10:35 am11:35 am1:35 pm3:10 pm
Seseragi no Sato9:30 am10:05 am10:40 am11:40 am1:40 pm3:15 pm
Saimyoji9:35 am10:10 am10:45 am11:45 am1:45 pm3:20 pm
Kongorinji9:45 am10:55 am11:55 am1:55 pm3:30 pm
Kongoen-guchi9:50 am11:00 am12:00 pm2:00 pm3:35 pm
Crefeel Koto9:56 am11:06 am12:06 pm2:06 pm3:41 pm
Yomiaido10:00 am11:10 am12:10 pm2:10 pm3:45 pm
Arrive Hyakusaiji10:10 am11:20 am12:20 pm2:20 pm3:55 pm
Koto Sanzan Foliage Shuttle Bus Schedule (Nov. 18th–27th, 2017), return trip from Hyakusaiji to Hikone Station (Read down)
Bus StopBus 1Bus 2Bus 3Bus 4Bus 5Bus 6 
Depart Hyakusaiji10:30 am11:50 pm1:25 pm2:50 pm4:20 pm4:50 pm
Yomiaido10:40 am12:00 pm1:35 pm3:00 pm4:30 pm5:00 pm
Crefeel Koto10:44 am12:04 pm1:39 pm3:04 pm4:34 pm5:04 pm
Kongoen-guchi10:50 am12:10 pm1:45 pm3:10 pm4:40 pm5:10 pm
Kongorinji10:55 am12:15 pm1:50 pm3:15 pm4:45 pm5:15 pm
Saimyoji11:05 am12:25 pm2:00 pm3:25 pm4:55 pm5:25 pm
Seseragi no Sato11:10 am12:30 pm2:05 pm3:30 pm5:00 pm5:30 pm
Taga Town Hall11:15 am12:35 pm2:10 pm3:35 pm5:05 pm5:35 pm
Arrive Hikone Station11:40 am1:00 pm2:35 pm4:00 pm5:30 pm6:00 pm

If you have time on another day, also see Eigenji temple (永源寺) in Higashi-Omi. Being a Zen Buddhist temple, it’s not part of the Koto Sanzan Trio and the shuttle buses do not run to/from Eigenji. Buses run to Eigenji from Yokaichi Station.

Eigenji

Eigenji

秋の湖東三山
Shuttle bus info in Japanese:
http://www.ohmitetudo.co.jp/bus/2017.10.31kotousanzan/index.html
Japanese pamphlet: http://www.ohmitetudo.co.jp/file/bus_shuttlebus_kotousanzan2017.pdf
Official sites: Saimyoji | Kongorinji | Hyakusaiji

UCC Shiga Factory tours in Echigawa, Aisho

Entrance

Entrance to UCC Shiga Factory in Aisho.

The UCC Shiga Factory (UCC滋賀工場) in Aisho, Shiga Prefecture (near Ohmi Railways Echigawa Station) started full-scale operations in March 2013 to make regular coffee in plastic bottles (930 ml) and cans (300 ml and 400 ml) with screw-on caps. It uses the clean water from the Suzuka mountains to make the coffee.

UCC is a very famous coffee brand in Japan synonymous with canned coffee since they invented and popularized canned coffee in 1969. “UCC” stands for “Ueshima Coffee Company” named after Ueshima Tadao who founded the company in Kobe, Hyogo Prefecture in 1933. Coffee was one of the Western things that came to Kobe and he fell in love with the drink with his first cup. UCC’s innovative canned coffee got its big break at Expo ’70 in Osaka. With all those people drinking UCC canned coffee milk at the expo, it was a major PR coup.

In 1989, they started operating their own coffee plantation (UCC Hawaii) in Kona, Hawaii which also conducts tours for the public. They also have a coffee farm in the famous Blue Mountains of Jamaica.

UCC Shiga Factory Tours

The UCC Shiga Factory conducts free factory tours twice a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays. They offer two identical tours on both days starting at 10:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. The tour is about 80 min. long and up to 22 people can join the tour. Reservations are required at the UCC website (in Japanese). The reservations page shows a calendar indicating when space is available. An “x” means no spaces are available. A number indicates the number of spaces still available on that tour. You can make reservations up to three months in advance and it must be made by 4:00 p.m. the day before the tour.

They do not allow pets, baby strollers (can be stored), and wheelchairs (due to the stairs). Kids younger than jr. high school need to be accompanied by an adult. If there are enough foreigners, I was told that tours in English are also possible.

You have to get to the factory at least 15 min. before the tour starts. You can enter the factory up to 30 min. before the tour starts and enjoy a cup of coffee while waiting. If you come by car, parking is available in front of the factory. If you come on foot, follow the pedestrian path (follow the signs) toward the left of the giant coffee cup. There is a security gate where they will ask for your name. (In Japanese, say “kengaku” which means factory tour.)

When you enter the building, they will greet you and ask for your name. There is a lobby where you take off your shoes and wear house slippers. The lobby wall has a display of the products made at the factory. Photography is allowed only in this lobby (and outside). Photos and videos are not allowed anywhere else in the factory. Our friendly factory guides were women in red uniforms.

entrance

Follow the pedestrian path to the factory entrance ahead.

lobby

UCC Shiga Factory 1st floor lobby. Sign for selfies says, “Visited UCC Shiga Factory.”

UCC

Lobby displays coffee drinks made by the UCC Shiga Factory.

From the lobby, we were told to go upstairs to the “Theater Room” which is a nice coffee lounge with chairs, tables, small gift shop, and a video screen. As we waited for the tour to start, we were served free UCC coffee and we could choose which coffee to drink. The room also has a showcase tracing the company’s history with product displays. You can see how the UCC coffee can design has evolved since 1969. The tour started with a short video in Japanese introducing the company and its coffee farms in Jamaica and Kona, Hawaii.

Then we left the room and entered the factory after saying the “magic password” to open the factory door. We walked through a corridor with glass windows on both sides and saw mostly metal pipes going in all directions and large vats. One stop was in front of the production line where they fill coffee cans (800 cans of coffee per minute). Another stop was at a line where plastic PET bottles were being transported. Those 1-liter PET bottles were actually made from small test tube-size plastic pieces (called “preforms”) that is expanded and inflated at the factory into regular-size PET bottles. Amazing, I had never wondered how PET bottles were made until then. It’s a lot easier and cheaper to transport those small preforms to the factory than ready-made bottles which take up a lot more space. They also showed us the very thin films used for the PET bottle labels.

Unfortunately, the factory production lines were not operating when we were there. Apparently, their production quota had been reached so they weren’t operating. It wasn’t a 24/7 operation. So we didn’t see anything move. No noise, and almost no people. Looks very automated.

We also had a live video chat with a quality control inspector working in the quality control room. He explained how he samples the coffee through smell and taste to ensure product quality. I asked him (jokingly) how he prevents overdosing on caffeine while on the job. He said he doesn’t sample enough coffee to overdose on caffeine. He only samples a few cups of coffee worth per day for his job. (He says you need to drink tens of cups of coffee in a day to overdose on caffeine.)

Next, we were led to the “Coffee-Tasting Room” where we sat for a coffee-tasting session. We each had two tiny cups of different coffee to compare regular coffee and coffee made with a concentrate. They definitely smelled and tasted different. They explained how each type of coffee is made and how it affects the taste.

Lastly, we were led back to the “Theater Room” lounge where they introduced their latest coffee products and their little gift shop on a small shelf. If you buy something at the gift shop, they give you a door prize like packets of instant coffee. And if you buy at least ¥1,000 of gifts, they give you two free bags containing six instant coffee packets. Lots of freebies and there wasn’t anything expensive to buy. We also had time to taste UCC’s different canned and bottled coffee. I tasted them all and noticed differences in the taste, sweetness, milkiness, and smoothness. I concluded that coffee in small cans tasted better than the coffee in large PET bottles.

Since the factory is still new, the place is nice and clean and the staff were friendly and nice. After the tour if you have time, I recommend also visiting the Omi Jofu Traditional Crafts Center down the road and try hands-on weaving.

This gift set cost only ¥200 at UCC Shiga Factory gift shop.

canning date

Imprinted on the neck is the expiration date and “SGF” which indicates “Shiga Factory.”

Senbei

Coaster-shaped senbei crackers imprinted with “UCC Shiga Factory.”

Obviously I had to buy this Kona Coffee and little canvas bag (since I’m from Hawaii).

packets

Buy at least ¥1,000 of gifts and get this free. Six instant coffee packets in each bag.

Freebies

Free door prize (instant coffee) with any purchase.

Also see UCC’s photos of the Shiga factory here.

The factory is a 15-min. walk from Echigawa Station on the Ohmi Railways. Or 15 min. by taxi from JR Notogawa Station.

Coincidentally, I tried this large can of sweet UCC coffee during my last trip to Hawaii.

Koto Sanzan Temple Trio autumn foliage

Saimyoji

Saimyoji

Updated: This page has been updated here for November 2017.

Koto Sanzan (湖東三山) is a trio of large Tendai Buddhist temples famous for autumn leaves in eastern Shiga. They are Saimyoji (西明寺) in KoraKongorinji (金剛輪寺) in Aisho, and Hyakusaiji (百済寺) in Higashi-Omi (see map below). They are also famous for structures that are National Treasures or Important Cultural Properties.

Each temple has its own unique characteristics. Saimyoji’s main temple and pagoda are both National Treasures that you can enter. It’s also deservedly one of Japan’s 100 Grand Autumn Foliage Sites. Kongorinji has many colorfully dressed Jizo statues and a National Treasure main temple housing an 11-faced Kannon statue and 13 other statues that are Important Cultural Properties. Hyakusaiji is famous for giant straw sandals on a gate and a Japanese garden. Established by Shotoku Taishi in 609, Hyakusaiji is Shiga Prefecture’s oldest temple and one of Japan’s oldest. The Hondo temple hall has an 11-faced Kannon statue carved by Shotoku Taishi, a prince credited with spreading Buddhism in Japan. Each temple charges admission of ¥600 for adults.

Kongorinji

Kongorinji

Autumn foliage shuttle bus

Autumn foliage shuttle bus

During the autumn foliage season from November 19–27, 2016, convenient, low-cost shuttle buses (Koto Sanzan Shuttle Bus) run every day between these three temples and Hikone Station and Yokaichi Station. You can either start at Hikone Station or Yokaichi Station. At Hikone Station, the first shuttle bus leaves at 9 am and goes to Saimyoji first. From Yokaichi Station, you can get on the first (and only) shuttle bus at 9:45 am to go to Hyakusaiji. It will take most of the day to see all three temples so start as early as you can in the morning. Another option is to also see Eigenji temple in Higashi-Omi. Being a Zen Buddhist temple, it’s not part of the Koto Sanzan Trio, but it is near Hyakusaiji and also famous for autumn leaves. You can either visit Eigenji first by taking a bus from Yokaichi Station, or visit it last after Hyakusaiji.

Hyakusaiji

Hyakusaiji

I recommend starting from Hikone Station so you’ll work your way south by visiting Saimyoji first, then Kongorinji and Hyakusaiji (see shuttle bus schedule below). If you have time, you can take a local bus from Hyakusaiji to Eigenji. If you don’t have time, from Hyakusaiji, you can take the shuttle bus back to Hikone Station (last bus at 4:50 pm) or to Yokaichi Station (last bus at 5 pm). From Yokaichi Station, you can take the Ohmi Railways to JR Omi-Hachiman Station.

Bus fare is ¥200 to ¥600 per ride depending on the distance. They also offer a day pass called Momiji kippu (Maple ticket) for ¥1,800 (¥900 for kids). This day pass includes passage on the shuttle buses and local buses to/from the train stations to the three Koto Sanzan temples and Eigenji and Ohmi Railways trains between Yokaichi and Omi-Hachiman Stations. A good deal if you plan to ride on Ohmi Railways. The Momiji kippu day pass is sold at Hikone Station (west exit bus stop), Omi-Hachiman Station (Ohmi Railways ticket office), and Yokaichi Station. If you like to take your time (for photography, etc.), you might not have time to see all three temples in one day. There are also guided tour buses (teiki kanko bus) departing Nagahama, Kyoto, Maibara, and Hikone Stations that are much more expensive (around ¥8,000) and follow a set tour schedule. The shuttle buses allows you a more flexible schedule, but just remember what time the last bus leaves.

Koto Sanzan Foliage Shuttle Bus Schedule, Hikone Station to Yokaichi (Read down)
Bus StopBus 1Bus 2Bus 3Bus 4Bus 5Bus 6 
Hikone Station9:00 am9:35 am10:00 am11:00 am1:00 pm2:30 pm
Taga Town Hall9:25 am10:00 am10:25 am11:25 am1:25 pm2:55 pm
Seseragi no Sato9:30 am10:05 am10:30 am11:30 am1:30 pm3:00 pm
Saimyoji9:35 am10:10 am10:35 am11:35 am1:35 pm3:05 pm
Kongorinji9:45 am10:45 am11:45 am1:45 pm3:15 pm
Kongoen-guchi9:50 am10:50 am11:50 am1:50 pm3:20 pm
Crefeel Koto9:56 am10:56 am11:56 am1:56 pm3:26 pm
Yomiaido10:00 am11:00 am12:00 pm2:00 pm3:30 pm
Arrive Hyakusaiji10:10 am11:10 am12:10 pm2:10 pm3:40 pm
Depart Hyakusaiji10:20 am11:25 am12:50 pm1:55 pm3:00 pm3:55 pm5:00 pm
Arrive Eigenji*10:40 am11:45 am1:10 pm2:15 pm3:20 pm4:15 pm-
Arrive Yokaichi Station5:25 pm

*From Eigenji, buses bound for Yokaichi Station leave once or twice an hour until 8:27 pm on weekdays or 7:16 pm on weekends and holidays.

Local Bus Schedule, Yokaichi to Eigenji and Hyakusaiji (Read down)
Bus Stop       
Depart Yokaichi Station9:45 amFor Eigenji on weekdays: 8:32 am, 9:10 am, 10:10 am, 11:15 am, 12:15 pmFor Eigenji on weekends: 7:50 am, 8:40 am, 9:10 am, 10:15 am, 11:15 am, 12:15 pm
Depart Eigenji-10:50 am11:55 am1:20 pm2:25 pm3:30 pm4:20 pm
Arrive Hyakusaiji10:10 am11:10 am12:15 pm1:40 pm2:45 pm3:50 pm4:40 pm
Koto Sanzan Foliage Shuttle Bus Schedule (Nov. 18th–27th, 2017), return trip from Hyakusaiji to Hikone Station (Read down)
Bus StopBus 1Bus 2Bus 3Bus 4Bus 5Bus 6 
Depart Hyakusaiji10:30 am11:50 pm1:25 pm2:50 pm4:20 pm4:50 pm
Yomiaido10:40 am12:00 pm1:35 pm3:00 pm4:30 pm5:00 pm
Crefeel Koto10:44 am12:04 pm1:39 pm3:04 pm4:34 pm5:04 pm
Kongoen-guchi10:50 am12:10 pm1:45 pm3:10 pm4:40 pm5:10 pm
Kongorinji10:55 am12:15 pm1:50 pm3:15 pm4:45 pm5:15 pm
Saimyoji11:05 am12:25 pm2:00 pm3:25 pm4:55 pm5:25 pm
Seseragi no Sato11:10 am12:30 pm2:05 pm3:30 pm5:00 pm5:30 pm
Taga Town Hall11:15 am12:35 pm2:10 pm3:35 pm5:05 pm5:35 pm
Arrive Hikone Station11:40 am1:00 pm2:35 pm4:00 pm5:30 pm6:00 pm
Eigenji

Eigenji

秋の湖東三山
Shuttle bus info in Japanese: http://www.ohmitetudo.co.jp/bus/kotousanzan_shuttle/index.html/
Japanese pamphlet: http://www.ohmitetudo.co.jp/file/bus_kotousanzan_shuttle2016.pdf
Official sites: Saimyoji | Kongorinji | Hyakusaiji

Top 20 train stations in Shiga Prefecture

Notogawa Station

JR Notogawa Station shaped like a waterwheel.

Updated: Oct. 11, 2017

滋賀県の一番美しい駅舎
〜心に残る駅舎〜

The train station is a gateway to the local area. First-time visitors may get their first impressions of a city or town from the train station. It’s like the genkan (foyer) of your house where you might keep a vase of flowers or a painting to impress visitors. Although I don’t judge a place by its train station, I do take note of how nice the train station is.

After seeing most of Shiga’s train stations (totaling about 120), I’ve picked and ranked Shiga’s Top 20 train stations. My selections and ranking are based on architectural and aesthetic design, incorporation of the local flavor/character/community, and uniqueness.

Quite a few train stations in Shiga have been rebuilt in the last 10-15 years. Most of them have incorporated the local flavor quite well. Ohmi Railways have Shiga’s oldest train stations which seem to take you back to the prewar days. Due to their look and feel, they retain a historic charm in this modern age.

Very appropriate calligraphy art in JR Maibara Station saying “Welcome home” and “I’m home.” By the Ibuki High School Calligraphy Club for Golden Week 2013.

On the other hand, too many train stations are quite boring. Major stations like Otsu*, Hikone, Omi-Hachiman, and Maibara are functional but nothing special. Even though Maibara Station is Shiga’s sole shinkansen station renovated in 2009, it is bland even though it’s roomy and practical. Well-known painter and Maibara native Hiro Yamagata was also supposed to paint the walls inside the station, but it didn’t pan out due to budgetary reasons. They instead have local artists decorating a few walls, which is fine. (*Otsu Station was finally renovated and reopened on Oct. 1, 2016.)

Train stations on the JR Kosei Line along western Shiga are mostly faceless and featureless in gray concrete as they are built under elevated train tracks. They all look the same. Takashima Station, though, has a giant statue of Gulliver right outside. And Ogoto Onsen Station recently got a nice touch with a free hot-spring foot bath nearby.

So this is Shiga’s Top 20 most memorable and interesting train stations as I see it. (Click on the photo to see more photos of the train station and click on the station name for a map of its location.)

Nagahama Station

Nagahama Station terrace.

1. Nagahama Station (長浜駅), JR Hokuriku Line, Nagahama
At No. 1 is Nagahama Station. The station building, rebuilt from the ground up in Oct. 2006, is modeled after the station’s first and original building from 1882. They did a great job combining the old and the new. To fully appreciate the new station building, you have to see the original 19th-century station building which is preserved a short distance away at Nagahama Railroad Square, a train station museum with a few retired trains. The resemblance is impressive.

Nagahama Station is airy, attractive, and functional. A great improvement over the old and boring train station built in 1955. Near the turnstile is a nice, air-conditioned waiting room that also houses the tourist information desk. The waiting rooms on the train platforms are also convenient, but somewhat small. When you go down the exit escalator on the Heiwado side, you see a beautiful stained glass mural of Hikiyama Festival kabuki actors.

The new station was built on land adjacent to the old train station that was torn down. The location of the old train station is now occupied by a monstrous wedding hall dwarfing the new train station building right next to it. Although the wedding hall has a similar design as the station building, it almost totally cancels out the station building. It’s a real shame.

On the other hand, the new low-rise Heiwado shopping mall called Mondecool is nicely connected to the train station without overwhelming it.

Notogawa

JR Notogawa Station, east side.

2. Notogawa Station (能登川駅), JR Tokaido/Biwako Line, Higashi-Omi
Another one of my all-time favorite train stations. Rebuilt in 2003, the Notogawa Station building is shaped like a giant waterwheel, the symbol of Notogawa town before it merged with Higashi-Omi in 2006. Notogawa has a giant waterwheel at a local park. The waterwheel design is on both the east and west sides of the train station. It’s so distinctive and very impressive. I loudly applaud the people who planned and designed the building. The building’s waterwheel structure houses an escalator on one end and stairs on the other. The west side of the station has other waterwheel-themed objects, not to mention a local shopping center also bearing waterwheel designs. Although there are train stations in Japan with a real waterwheel next to it, it seems Notogawa Station is the only one that is shaped like a waterwheel. Higashi-Omi’s sole JR train station.

Ninja painting fused with a bench in JR Koka Station, Koka.

3. Koka Station (甲賀駅), JR Kusatsu Line, Koka
One of Japan’s most uniquely localized train stations. JR Koka Station opened its new station building in Nov. 2005. It resembles a farmer’s kura storehouse on the outside. But the inside has a number of visual surprises with ingenious, interactive ninja wall paintings.

Koka is famous for Koka/Koga ninja, and the station plays this up with ninja motifs and playful 3D ninja paintings. Thanks to some very clever optical illusions called “trick art,” you can join in the virtual ninja world by posing inside the painting. (Get your camera ready.) The seven ninja wall paintings were painted by Hattori Masashi (服部 正志), a noted artist. They should rename the station, “Ninja Station.” That would attract more attention and tourists (it would also cost a good bit of money). Koka’s authentic Ninja House and Ninja Village amusement park are popular attractions.

The station building’s first floor has display cases of medicines produced by Koka drug companies. The abundant herbs in the area gave rise to many druggists in Koka. The ninja were also expert with drugs and chemicals. The name “Koka” is often mispronounced as “Koga” (as in Koga ninja) by Japanese and foreigners alike. The proper pronunciation is “Koka.” FYI, there’s another ninja train station at Ueno-shi Station in Iga, Mie, famous for Iga ninja.

Enryakuji Station

Enryakuji Station atop Mt. Hiei.

4. Cable Enryakuji Station (ケーブル延暦寺駅), Hiezan Railway, Otsu
Mt. Hiei and Enryakuji temple (World Heritage Site and National Treasure) are accessible via cable railway from Cable Sakamoto Station in Sakamoto at the foot of Mt. Hiei in Shiga. At the top, you get off at Cable Enryakuji Station. This is the original building that has been used since the cable railway opened between Sakamoto and Mt. Hiei in 1927. It was Japan’s longest cable car route (2,025 meters) at the time. The first floor is the station, while the 2nd floor used to be a VIP room. The 2nd floor is now an exhibition room open to the public. It also has a nice lookout deck. The distinguished-looking building is a National Registered Tangible Cultural Property (登録有形文化財).

Shin-Yokaichi

Shin-Yokaichi Station platform.

5. Shin-Yokaichi Station (新八日市駅), Omi Railways Yokaichi LineHigashi-Omi
Shiga’s oldest train station buildings are on the Ohmi Railways, and Shin-Yokaichi Station is one of them. It’s a Western-style, two-story wooden building built in 1913. The second floor is closed to the public due to old age. It originally housed the Konan Railway company’s head office (湖南鉄道). Konan Railway originally operated the railway between Yokaichi and Omi-Hachiman before it merged with another company that later merged with Ohmi Railways. Tourists don’t normally get off at this station since most attractions are at the next stop, Yokaichi Station.

Hikone-guchi

Hikone-guchi Station’s long bench.

6. Hikone-guchi Station (彦根口駅), Omi Railways Main LineHikone
Unless you live near here, it’s unlikely that you would ever get off here and see this nostalgic and homely train station. When you enter the station building, which has a surprisingly large floor space like a dance hall, it’s like you’re back in the 1930s. The simple turnstile, long wooden benches, and the whole feel of the place had me imagining what it was like in the old days. Moviemakers can use it as a movie set. Perhaps of a scene of young local men boarding a train to go off to a senseless war as their mothers and siblings tearfully bid them goodbye amid cheers of “Banzai!” After belching a loud whistle, the black steam locomotive then slowly pulls away…

Although it almost looks like a condemned building, I hope they keep it for as long as possible. I like it. But there doesn’t seem to be any toilets in the station. The front wall even has a sign saying, “No urinating” (for men). The toilets were removed some time ago due to old age.
Update: Sadly, this train station building was torn down in Aug. 2014. It’s no longer there. No replacement building either.

Toriimoto

Toriimoto Station platform and building.

7. Toriimoto Station (鳥居本駅), Omi Railways Main Line, Hikone
Another example of a prewar Western-style train station building. It has been here since the station first opened in 1931. It has a red mansard roof, perhaps unique in Shiga. The compact interior also reeks of the good old days. If its walls could talk, I can only imagine what stories they could tell. It looks kind of lonely, but beloved by local residents since it was originally built upon request by the local government and residents. Most of the construction cost was therefore borne by the locals. There’s no train station staff so it’s really empty and quiet when there are no trains. Toriimoto was the sixty-third shukuba post town on the Nakasendo Road. It has a nice section of traditional shukuba buildings.

Shigaraki Station

8. Shigaraki Station (信楽駅), Shigaraki Kogen Railway, Koka
Shigaraki Station’s little, modern building is nothing special, but it’s embellished with tanuki (raccoon dog) statues, including a giant tanuki right outside to greet visitors. It’s one example of how to make a plain train station into a special one: Decorate it local-style. The tanuki is a symbol of Shigaraki/Shiga and a common sight in Japan with shops and restaurants displaying a tanuki outside the entrance. It has various symbolic meanings.

The Shigaraki Kogen Railway closed for a time as it underwent repairs of the substantial damage wrought by Typhoon Man-yi in Sept. 2013.

Riding on Shigaraki Kogen Railway always reminds me of that terrible tragedy on May 14, 1991 when a Shigaraki Kogen Railway train collided head-on with a JR train near Shigarakigushi Station. The trains were packed with people attending the World Ceramic Festival being held at the newly opened Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park. Sadly, 42 people died and 628 were injured. Many of the victims were young students and it is one of Japan’s worst train accidents.

The train station has a small exhibit about the accident. When you read about how it happened, it’s hard to believe how negligent the train operators were. It was a horrific scene and I was shocked because I had visited the World Ceramic Festival via the railway only 10 days before the accident. Years later, I visited and prayed at the prayer monument near where the accident occurred. A memorial service is held there annually on May 14 attended by railway officials and relatives of the victims.

Echigawa Station

9. Echigawa Station (愛知川駅), Omi Railways Main Line, Aisho
Opened in March 2000, Echigawa Station’s building is a well-designed and well thought-out building. There’s a community space with a gallery and tourist information desk. The station exterior resembles a traditional building in the old post town of Echigawa nearby on the Nakasendo Road.

JR Aburahi Station

10. Aburahi Station (油日駅), JR Kusatsu LineKoka
Rebuilt in March 2002, Aburahi Station has a striking exterior design and a warm, welcoming interior made of wood. The exterior reminds me of the top of a samurai helmet, but the building was actually designed to be a ninja house. But that can’t be right since a real ninja house looked like any other house. (Ninja didn’t advertise that they were ninja.)

Well, the round windows have a shuriken (throwing knife) design. The station also has rental bicycles. Shiga’s southernmost train station next to the prefectural border with Mie Prefecture. When my train to go home (after seeing the Aburahi Matsuri) arrived at the station, I almost felt sad to leave such a comfortable train station.

Gokasho Station

11. Gokasho Station (五箇荘駅), Omi Railways Main LineHigashi-Omi
Love the inside of Gokasho Station. The warmth of wood envelopes you completely almost like a large sauna (without the heat and steam). When I visited, it still had a woody fragrance. Nice traditional-style building inside and out. It was designed to match the Omi-shonin merchant homes in Gokasho. The building was built in 2000 and it still looks new. Adjacent to the train station building is a matching building housing the retirees’ employment office where you can rent bicycles. Note that the kanji character for “ka” in Gokasho Station (五箇荘駅) is different from the one used in the place name “Gokasho” (五個荘).

JR Kinomoto Station

JR Kinomoto Station

12. Kinomoto Station (木ノ本駅), JR Hokuriku LineNagahama
In Oct. 2006, the JR Hokuriku Line switched to direct-current electrification between Nagahama Station and Tsuruga Station (Fukui). This enabled faster and modern Shin-kaisoku (Special Rapid) trains from Kyoto to reach train stations north of Nagahama Station directly (Torahime, Kawake, Takatsuki, Kinomoto, Yogo, and Omi-Shiotsu Stations). Before the switch, passengers had to transfer trains at Nagahama Station to go further north. Anticipating a substantial increase in visitors, new train station buildings were built at Nagahama, Torahime, Takatsuki, and Kinomoto Stations. However, by March 2008, the passenger increase was only 0.5 percent, far below what they had hoped for.

Built slightly north of the old station building and opened in Oct. 2006, the new Kinomoto Station building is modern with a traditional look. Spacious and airy and well designed for function and aesthetics. A lot bigger than the old station building. The train station sign is also wooden like on the old train station. (“Kinomoto” means “origin of wood.”) Next to the exit on the ground floor is a large space selling local products and a tourist information counter. The old and much smaller Kinomoto Station building has been retained as a small exhibition space. Kinomoto Station is where you get off to take a bus to breathtaking and historic Mt. Shizugatake. There’s also a giant Jizo statue nearby. Visiting Kinomoto is highly recommended. Note that Kinomoto Station in Japanese (木ノ本駅) uses a different kanji from the one used for the place name Kinomoto (木之本).

Takamiya

Takamiya Station

13. Takamiya Station (高宮駅), Omi Railways Taga Line, Hikone
Unique building with a high tower in the center reminiscent of ancient Shinto shrines which were elevated to be closer to the gods. It also might be a play on the name “Takamiya” which literally means “high shrine.” The station building was rebuilt in March 2002. The station is near the old Takamiya-juku, the sixty-fourth of the sixty-nine stations or shukuba post towns of the Nakasendo Road. Near the station is a large torii leading to Taga Taisha Shrine in neighboring Taga.

JR Nagahara Station

14. Nagahara Station (永原駅), JR Kosei LineNagahama
The loghouse is a common building design, but Nagahara has a good reason to use it. Before railroads were built, this area was a port town teeming with wooden maruko-bune boats plying across Lake Biwa between Otsu and this area of northern Lake Biwa. The trademark of maruko-bune was a semi-round log (maruko) along the sides of the boat. Nearby is the Maruko-bune Museum. The station building was rebuilt in April 2000. The inside was kind of dark and musty when I visited some years ago, but I liked the exterior.

Hino

Hino Station

15. Hino Station (日野駅), Omi Railways Main Line, Hino
Hino Station is another old station that takes you back to the prewar years on the inside. It has a nice vintage look and feel inside. The station building is the original one built in 1916. However, outside the station building, there are just too many modern objects that clutter the vintage facade: A waiting taxi (and often a bus), phone booth, and vending machine (always the worst offender). Otherwise, I would rank this station higher. In late Dec. 2016, plans to renovate the station were announced and donations are being solicited to cover the cost. Next to the station is a small tourist information office that is always helpful especially during the Hino Matsuri float festival, blooming Shakunage Gorge, and other local festivals. Hino Station is Hino town’s sole train station and one of the main stations on Ohmi Railways.
Update: Hino Station completed major renovations on Oct. 1, 2017 when a ceremony was held. Although the building’s shape has been basically retained, it looks brand new inside and out with a new paint job, etc. The exterior is now dark brown. I shall miss the old Hino Station.

Inside JR Torahime Station.

16. Torahime Station (虎姫駅), JR Hokuriku LineNagahama
Torahime Station rebuilt its building in March 2006. Very nice woody building inside and out. There’s a commercial space where a bakery once operated, but they have since left and finding a suitable tenant has been a problem. Outside the station, there’s a statue of the Tiger Princess (which is what “Torahime” means) and the small Torahime Shrine (popular with fans of the Hanshin Tigers baseball team in Osaka). Someday, I want to see the cherry blossoms at nearby Toragozen-yama.

Omi-Shiotsu

Omi-Shiotsu Station

17. Omi-Shiotsu Station (近江塩津駅), JR Hokuriku LineNagahama
Nice traditional-looking structure rebuilt in Sept. 1995 to look like a lodge. The wooden sign says “Kaido Ajikama Lodge” (海道・あぢかまの宿). It was the name of a real lodge that existed in here in Shiotsu, a former post town along the Hokkoku Kaido Road (北国街道) going from Maibara/Nagahama to Fukui and the Hokuriku Region. Inside, the arch-shaped corridor to the train platforms reminds me of an underground military bunker. Omi-Shiotsu Station is where you transfer trains between the Hokuriku Line and Kosei Line. Remember this station if plan to travel around northern Lake Biwa by train. Nothing much nearby.

Toyosato

Toyosato Station

18. Toyosato Station (豊郷駅), Omi Railways Main Line, Toyosato
Rebuilt in the late 1990s, Toyosato Station’s building looks like an Omi merchant’s home or storehouse. A testament to the many Omi merchants who once lived in the area, including Itoh Chube’e, founder of Itochu, one of Japan’s leading trading companies. His home is open to the public.

If you see an umbrella or umbrella design in the station, it refers to the Goshu Ondo song and bon dance co-founded at Senjuji temple (千樹寺) in Toyosato. These days, Toyosato’s main attraction is the Toyosato Elementary School made famous by the popular K-ON! anime/manga series in 2009-2010. The train station is in a quiet neighborhood with stone statues of a tortoise and hare showing you the way to the elementary school.

JR Kusatsu Station East Entrance

19. Kusatsu Station (草津駅), JR Tokaido/Biwako Line and JR Kusatsu Line, Kusatsu
The station’s slanted roof lines are similar to the roof of the Kusatsu Honjin, one of Japan’s best preserved Honjin used for VIP lodging in former post towns. A traditional-looking gate (photo) and a road marker on the pedestrian deck add a nice touch.

Although it has nothing to do with the architecture, the best thing I like about Kusatsu Station is the little tourist information booth right outside the turnstile. As soon as you give your ticket to go out, it’s right there. When staffed during the better part of the day, they are very helpful with directions to places. Local-area tourist pamphlets are also available at all times.

One of my pet peeves is that JR train stations always have tourist pamphlets in plain sight, but for a different destination. They don’t stock tourist pamphlets for the place I just arrived at. Why not have tourist pamphlets for that place? I just spent a good amount of money to get there, and now they want me to go somewhere else?? They should also care about inbound people, not just outbound. When a tourist gets off the train, the first thing he/she wants is a map of the place of arrival. Instead, you have to search for the map signboard or tourist info office if there is one. But Kusatsu Station is the rare exception where the tourist info booth and local brochures are right there. A few train stations in Shiga have a tourist information booth right outside the turnstile only during major festivals.

Kusatsu Station is Shiga’s busiest train station with the highest daily average of boarding passengers exceeding 27,000 in 2012. The second busiest is neighboring Minami-Kusatsu Station with over 24,000 passengers daily. In comparison, Otsu Station sees over 17,000 passengers daily and Kyoto Station has over 185,000 passengers. These numbers do not include the number of people getting off the train.

Taga Taisha-mae

Taga Taisha-mae Station

20. Taga Taisha-mae Station (多賀大社前駅), Omi Railways Taga Line, Taga
The building is shaped like a shrine building, to match Taga Taisha Shrine and the large torii right outside. An exhibition space (waiting room) is integrated with the station building rebuilt in 2002. The quality of the exhibitions is good when there are exhibitions. A large showcase displays ema prayer tablets from many shrines. The station is the end terminal of the Taga Line. Taga Taisha Shrine is a short walk away.

Nagahama Station

Nagahama Station before the wedding hall was built.

Incorporating the train station with local elements certainly boosts visitors’ impressions and the local folks’ pride and morale.

People are starting to realize that the train station itself can be a tourist attraction. Just look at the magnificently reconstructed Tokyo Station and the nyan-nyan Kishi Station in Wakayama. People in Otsu should take note when they think about how to revitalize the Otsu Station area. To attract more people, make the train station the attraction. How about filling the station building with B-kyu (B-grade) gourmet food stands? Cheap but delicious local food always attracts people. Great if we could eat B-kyu food year-round in Otsu instead only once a year. Right now, most of the restaurants in and around Otsu Station are nothing special. The Otsu Station area needs to have something special that Hama-Otsu doesn’t have and preferably found nowhere else in Japan.
Update: After major renovations, the Otsu Station building reopened on Oct. 1, 2016 with a 60-bed capsule hotel (geared for foreign tourists), multilingual tourist information center, free rental bicycles, five restaurants, and an outdoor terrace and event space.

Shinkansen

Shinkansen speeding past Mt. Ibuki.

Today, it’s hard to imagine life without trains. Japan’s first railway opened between Yokohama and Shimbashi (Tokyo) in 1872. Shiga laid its first railway 12 years later in 1884 between Nagahama and Tsuruga (Fukui). In 1889, the Tokaido Line was completed. In 1900, Ohmi Railway opened a train line between Hikone and Kibukawa. The Keihan Line in Otsu started running between Hama-Otsu and Ishiyama-dera in 1914. The defunct Kojaku Railway Line (江若鉄道) opened between Miidera Station and Eizan Station (now Hiei-zan Sakamoto Station) in 1921. It was the predecessor of the JR Kosei Line that took over in 1974. All these railways gradually extended their lines to what they are today. In Oct. 1964, the shinkansen started stopping at Maibara.

If there’s one thing that has improved in Japan, it’s rail transportation. Trains have gotten faster, cutting travel times significantly. Train/subway lines have also increased or been extended, mainly in urban areas. Trains are also more comfortable with non-smoking cars and Western-style toilets.

Can you imagine that until the 1980s, smoking was allowed in most train cars, train stations, and platforms? Older folks may remember seeing cigarette butts all over the train platform and an ash tray in front of all the train seats. Most of the shinkansen cars also allowed smoking. It wasn’t until the 1990s when non-smokers’ rights gained traction and most or all train cars and stations started to prohibit smoking. Thank goodness. This trend has spread to other public places such as restaurants and even city streets and beaches. Excellent.

Of course, many train station buildings have also much improved with brighter, cleaner, and more spacious interiors. Restrooms also tend to have toilet paper and sometimes even soap as an added bonus. Major stations also have escalators and elevators. I remember Tokyo Station had a small army of hardy men called “Akabo” (Red Caps 赤帽) who were red-capped porters earning tips by carrying your heavy luggage up or down the stairs. They made a decent living when suitcases still didn’t have casters and there were no escalators. Akabo at Tokyo Station became extinct in March 2001. I wish I took a picture of them.

Another major improvement and development is the employment of women as train conductors and drivers. Once upon a time, we never ever saw women train conductors and drivers. Now they are quite common.

Sorry that this blog post turned out to be longer than I expected. Often one topic leads to another story or tidbit. I’m not really a train fan except for the shinkansen, but trains are a fact of life in Japan and a great convenience.

Essential Japanese Train Station Vocabulary (by Philbert Ono)

  • tetsudo 鉄道 – railway
  • eki 駅 – railway station (train, subway, or street car)
  • ekisha 駅舎 – railway station building
  • eki konai 駅構内 – inside or within the train station.
  • kippu uriba きっぷうりば – place to buy tickets
  • kenbaiki 券売機 – ticket vending machine
  • Midori no Madoguchi みどりの窓口 – Manned ticket counter or office at major train stations to buy reserved seat tickets (and rail passes). Colored in green and usually open from 5:30 am to 10 pm.
  • joshaken 乗車券 – regular-fare train ticket
  • tokkyuken 特急券 – express-fare train ticket
  • jiyuseki 自由席 – non-reserved seating
  • shiteiseki 指定席 – reserved seating, extra charge required.
  • machiai-shitsu 待合室 – Waiting room in the train station. A room to keep warm in winter or cool in summer while waiting for your train. Most train stations have a small waiting room on the platform.
  • te-arai 手洗い – restrooms (toilet)
  • kaisatsu 改札 – Turnstile or gate where you present your ticket or tap card.
  • ICOCA – IC smart card issued in the Kansai area as a rechargeable tap card to pay the train fare through an automated turnstile equipped with a card reader. Prounounced “Ikoka” which means “Shall we go?”
  • ressha 列車 – train
  • Futsu 普通 – Local train stopping at every station. Also called Futsu-ressha 普通列車.
  • kaku-eki 各駅 – Stops at every station.
  • Kaisoku 快速 – Rapid Service train stopping at fewer stations than Futsu. (Same train fare as Futsu.)
  • Shin-kaisoku 新快速 – Special Rapid Service train stopping at fewer stations than Kaisoku trains. (Same train fare as Futsu.)
  • Tokkyu 特急 – Limited Express long-distance trains stopping only at major train stations. Extra charge required.
  • Green-sha グリーン車 – First-class car requiring extra charge.
  • shinkansen 新幹線 – Bullet train. Nozomi only stops at the major stations (doesn’t stop at Maibara). Hikari trains stop at a few more stations (sometimes Maibara) and Kodama trains stop at all shinkansen stations on the Tokaido Shinkansen Line.
  • daiya ダイヤ or jikokuhyo 時刻表 – Train schedule
  • yukisaki 行先 – train destination
  • unkyu 運休 – canceled train
  • okure 遅れ – Delayed train. Usually preceded by the number of minutes the train is delayed.
  • yusen-seki 優先席 – Courtesy seat for elderly, handicapped, etc. Formerly called “silver seat” シルバーシート.
  • rosen 路線 – train line (Biwako Line, Kusatsu Line, etc.)
  • senro – 線路 – Railroad/train tracks. If you drop something on the tracks, alert the station staff.
  • homu ホーム – Station platform where you board the train.
  • Roku-ryo-hensei 6両編成 – Six-car train. If it’s a 10-car train, it’s called Ju-ryo hensei.
  • nanban-sen 何番線 – Which platform No.?
  • shasho 車掌 – On-board train conductor who may check your express train ticket (on tokkyu and shinkansen). He/she also sells train tickets if your boarding train station does not have a ticket machine or manned ticket window.
  • deguchi 出口 – exit (Nishi-guchi 西口 West exit, Higashi-guchi 東口 East exit, Kita-guchi 北口 North exit, Minami-guchi 南口 South exit)
  • shuten 終点 – Last stop on the train line.
  • coin locker コインロッカー – Coin-operated lockers for luggage. Only the larger train stations have it.
  • kanko annaisho 観光案内所 – tourist information desk
  • renta-saikuru レンタサイクル – Bicycle rentals. Or just say “jintensha karitai.”
  • basu noriba バスのりば – bus stop
  • taxi noriba タクシーのりば – taxi stand

Movie review: Idai Naru, Shurarabon

Shurarabon-posterLake Biwa and Hikone are getting a PR boost from this movie called, Idai Naru, Shurarabon (偉大なる、しゅららぼん The Great Shu Ra Ra Boom) currently playing in theaters. (Movie trailer in English at the bottom of this article.)

The movie title is making everyone ask, “What the heck is Shurarabon??” It’s not a normal Japanese word, but knowing that the movie was filmed almost entirely in Shiga Prefecture was enough for me to see the movie (and read the manga) to find out.

Overall, I thought the movie was good and worth seeing especially if you know Shiga. The story, casting, special effects, and Shiga scenery came together well enough. For us Shiga people, it’s a movie to gleefully exclaim, “I know where that is!” or “I’ve been there!” Indeed, many familiar places appear in the film unlike last year’s Time Scoop Hunter (about Azuchi Castle) that showed few recognizable places in Shiga.

The cast and crew spent one month in Shiga in spring 2013 filming the movie. Much of it was filmed in and around Hikone Castle. Another major spot was Chikubushima (pronounced correctly most of the time, except once when it was pronounced “Chikubujima”). We also see the inside of Daitsuji temple in Nagahama, Himure Hachimangu Shrine and Omi Kyodaisha Gakuen in Omi-Hachiman, Omi Shonin-tei restaurant in Aisho, Maiami-hama beach in Yasu, and stately Rokkaen in Kuwana, Mie Pref. It was all on-location and they didn’t shoot in any movie studio. This movie review doesn’t have any plot spoilers so you can still read on even if you haven’t seen the movie yet.

Based on the novel by Osaka-born Makime Manabu (万城目学), Idai Naru, Shurarabon is a modern-day fantasy story centering on two feuding Lake Biwa (Biwako) lakeside clans, the Hinode Clan (日出家) and Natsume Clan (棗家). Key members of both clans have supernatural powers gained and retained from the divine water of Lake Biwa, Japan’s largest lake and greatest “power spot.” If they move away from Lake Biwa, they lose their powers. Once upon a time, other lakeside clans (called Lake People) at other lakes in Japan existed, but those lakes lost their power and so their Lake People also lost their powers.

The Hinode Clan’s main family is Japan’s only family to live in a castle. They live in the fictitious Iwabashiri Castle in the fictitious city of Iwabashiri (石走) in eastern Lake Biwa. The castle and city are actually Hikone. Even JR Hikone Station is shown as “Iwabashiri Station” in the movie. The Hinode Clan, led by clan head Hinode Tankuro (日出 淡九郎), has the power to enter a person’s heart and mind and control it. This mind control enabled Tankuro to become a local business tycoon by making his disagreeing opponents agree with him. Many businesses in Iwabashiri bear the Hinode name.

Shurarabon-kiyoko

Tanjuro, Kiyoko, and Ryosuke enter the castle (Tenbin Yagura).

Meanwhile, the Natsume Clan is in decline. Most of its branch family members have been purged from Lake Biwa by Tankuro. Only the main Natsume family is left in Iwabashiri. Clan head Natsume Nagami (棗 永海) runs a martial arts dojo. The Natsume Clan has the power to control a person’s physical actions and can also manipulate time. So they are good at stopping fist fights, etc.

One big drawback is, whenever a supernatural Hinode clan member uses his/her power, supernatural Natsume clan members will hear a great big noise (SHU RA RA RA!!). And vice versa. Whenever a supernatural Natsume clan member uses his power, supernatural Hinode clan members will hear a thunderous noise (BO-BO-BON!!). Another reason why they don’t like each other.

Shurarabon-boom

Ryosuke hearing the dreaded noise as Natsume Hiromi uses his power.

Shortly after birth, Lake People babies undergo a religious ceremony at Chikubushima to determine whether he or she has supernatural powers (chikara). If the baby has the power, it is given a first name that includes no more than one kanji character having the sanzui radical for “water” such as 涼介 (Ryosuke), 淡十郎 (Tanjuro), 清子 (Kiyoko), and 広海 (Hiromi). In the movie, those with supernatural powers also bear a birthmark in the shape of Lake Biwa. This power also cannot be revealed to common folks, making it a childhood burden.

The movie begins with 15-year-old Hinode Ryosuke, the main character (played by Okada Masaki), arriving at Iwabashiri Castle for a home stay to hone his supernatural powers under the main Hinode family. Ryosuke is from a branch family of the Hinode living on the opposite side of the lake on the western shore. Hinode Clan tradition stipulates that all supernatural Hinode Clan members spend their three high school years at the main family’s residence (Iwabashiri Castle) to train. Ryosuke arrived in April (cherry blossom season), the day before the start of high school. While attending high school (named Iwabashiri Gakuen), Ryosuke is trained at the castle.

The main Hinode family’s heir is another 15-year-old, Tanjuro, the son of clan head and business tycoon Tankuro (Sano Shiro). Tanjuro is an eccentric, spoiled brat, and treated like a lord and living legend with exceptional powers. Although he is depicted as short and chubby in the novel, he is quite slim in the movie played by Hamada Gaku.

Shurarabon-moat

Ryosuke and Tanjuro commute to school driven by boat man Genjiro.

Ryosuke is Tanjuro’s distant cousin and a normal teenager except for his powers. He becomes a slave-like attendant to Tanjuro. Ryosuke and Tanjuro commute to their high school (filmed at the gate of Shiga University and the classroom and grounds of Omi Kyodaisha Gakuen) via moat boat in hilarious red school uniforms. Red is Tanjuro’s favorite color, but I saw it as a salute to the Ii Clan’s trademark red samurai armor. The school uniform for boys was actually black.

For 1,300 years, the Hinode and Natsume clans have been rivals feuding over their supernatural powers. Hinode heir Tanjuro wants to forfeit his inherited powers and end the feud. He arranges a meeting with Natsume Hiromi (Dai Watanabe), his classmate and heir to the Natsume Clan. Tanjuro, Ryosuke, and Hiromi are all in the same high school class. They meet at the Natsume Clan’s dojo (filmed at Omi Shonin-tei in Aisho) and Tanjuro proposes that he and Hiromi both leave Lake Biwa to pursue their personal interests. Since they will both lose their powers, the feud would stop. Although the manga mentions that Tanjuro would go to France to pursue art and Hiromi should go to Italy to study fashion, the places they would move to is not mentioned in the movie.

Of course, both their families fiercely opposed this proposal. However, a third force with overwhelming powers comes into play, bringing together the two heirs and Ryosuke to fight off the third force. There are some good special visual effects here.

Shurarabon-trio

Classmates Natsume Hiromi, Hinode Tanjuro, and Hinode Ryosuke team up (Hikone Castle Museum).

At the very end of the movie (after the credit roll), Tanjuro reveals what “Shurarabon” really means. (Surprising and a little disgusting.)

The story has quite a few supporting characters, but the movie is too short to fully develop and explore all of them. There’s Kiyoko, Tanjuro’s tough older sister who got stressed out by the noise of people’s thoughts and confined herself to the castle. She’s supposed to be chubby, but actress Fukada Kyoko is slim. High school delinquent Kasai (Koyanagi Yu) was funny and Natsume Clan head Nagami (Takada Nobuhiko) had excellent on-screen presence. Wish we could’ve seen more of them in the movie.

The Hinode clan’s boat man, Genjiro, was cast well with Sasano Takashi. Fujimiya Toko (Kanjiya Shihori) is Ryosuke’s busybody power trainer with only one memorable scene using a rubber ducky. Another major supporting role was high school principal Hayase Yoshiharu (Murakami Hiroaki). Wish we heard more about his background as a member of the Hayase Clan who originally lived in the castle until they sold it to the Hinode family. And Ryosuke’s brother Kosuke doesn’t appear at all in the film.

The movie omits or abbreviates many scenes and elements from the original story. Even the manga introduces quite a few Shiga things like the Lake Biwa Giant Catfish and the board game Carrom (カロム), popular in eastern Shiga (Hikone). But we hardly see it in the movie. Too bad they can’t make movies longer than 2 hours. Since the film pretty much whipped through the storyline, it would be worth reading the novel too. But it’s still entertaining for us to see Shiga on the silver screen.

The Shiga Location Office’s blog has a good collection of photos and anecdotes about the filming locations. It says that the moat boat scene with Tanjuro and Ryosuke commuting to school amid cherry blossoms was filmed in the early morning before the arrival of the hordes of tourists coming to see the cherries. The extras used in the high school scenes were students from Hikone Higashi High School next to Hikone Castle and near Shiga University. The school’s interior scenes were shot at Omi Kyodaisha High School over three days.

When they shot the Natsume dojo scene at Omi Shonin-tei restaurant, the classy restaurant treated them to a sumptuous lunch of Lake Biwa carp. For the special effects scene with the horse running through the lake, they set up a huge green screen in Moriyama. Not only that, they brought over live Lake Biwa carp fish (koi and funa) to wiggle around in the scene. (At first I thought the fish were computer graphics.) For the scene showing Chikubushima’s underwater cliff, they filmed the face of a huge stone quarry in Koka.

I don’t think I’ll have time to read the long Japanese novel, but there is an English version of the novel which I plan to read and review here.

Movie Stars’ Impressions of Shiga
At the theater, I bought the colorful movie program (¥700). The three main stars are interviewed and they each give their impressions of Shiga:

Hamada Gaku (Hinode Tanjuro): “It was my first time to visit Shiga and Lake Biwa. When I first saw Lake Biwa, it looked so big that I thought it was the ocean. I was so surprised. And Hiko-nyan was awfully cute. Honestly, I thought it was only about Lake Biwa. But there were areas with a castle town atmosphere and we filmed at most of the famous sights. We also went on special sightseeing tours like seeing inside Hikone Castle, so it was great.”

Okada Masaki (Hinode Ryosuke): “The local people cooperated with us really well, so I was very grateful. While we were filming at Hikone Castle, they gave us many little gifts (i.e. snacks and food) and many volunteers turned out so I was so happy. And Hiko-nyan was our rival! How can he be so cute (laughs)! Real cute. He kind of waddles while walking so it was hard for him to go up the stone steps. But after he went up the steps, I saw his happy and relieved face. That was cute too, darn it (laughs)! From the first day of filming, I saw him as a rival, that cat! But now, it’s so nostalgic.”

“It was my first time to see Lake Biwa. I heard that it was Japan’s largest lake, but I didn’t know it was that big! I felt power from Lake Biwa at Chikubushima. That place was mystical and we can’t go there that often. It was wonderful to throw the small clay dish at the shrine torii too, even though mine just nosedived.”

Fukada Kyoko (Hinode Kiyoko aka The Great Kiyoko): “We filmed a lot at Hikone Castle, so whenever I saw Hiko-nyan passing by, it made me so happy. I always looked for him. When the timing was right, I was able to see him. I looked forward to seeing him every day. Also, the image I had of Lake Biwa was different from what I saw. It was like an emerald-blue ocean. When we filmed on the beach of Lake Biwa (Maiami-hama in Yasu), it was so windy, making it difficult. But it was so beautiful. When I saw that scene in the movie, I was awestruck and thought, ‘Wow, how beautiful!'”

Shurarabon-miami

The Great Kiyoko at Maiami-hama beach.

Makime Manabu, author of Idai Naru, Shurarabon
Makime was born in 1976 in Osaka where he grew up. He graduated from Kyoto University. He has written a slew of novels set in the Kansai Region. At least one novel each for Kyoto, Nara, and Osaka. Now it was Shiga’s turn with Idai Naru, Shurarabon. His stories are an interesting mixture of fantasy and local history in a modern-day setting. His previous novel, Princess Toyotomi, set in Osaka, was also made into a movie. Two of the actors in Princess Toyotomi also appear in Idai Naru, Shurarabon.

Makime published Idai Naru, Shurarabon in monthly installments from May 2010 to April 2011 in Shosetsu Subaru (小説すばる), a literary magazine published by Shueisha. The installments were then published as a novel. Makime loved eastern Shiga and visited Hikone and Chikubushima many times to research the novel.

The concept of people receiving superpowers from the lake’s divine water is an amusing exaggeration of our dependence on Lake Biwa. And the idea of Lake Biwa being Japan’s greatest “power spot” is a good one. I hope this movie will prompt people to visit Lake Biwa to seek or recharge their “power.” It certainly has worked for me.

Shiga-only movie ticket with Hiko-nyan.

Shiga-only movie ticket with Hiko-nyan.

*Japanese personal names above follow the Japanese custom of the surname coming before the given name.

Now Playing
Idai Naru, Shurarabon (偉大なる、しゅららぼん) is currently playing in Shiga Prefecture at the following theaters:

United Cinemas Otsu
Alex Cinemas Otsu
Hikone Viva City Cinema
Aeon Cinema Omi-Hachiman
Aeon Cinema Kusatsu
Minakuchi Alex Cinemas (Koka)
Theaters outside Shiga: Click here

Admission
Adults: ¥1,800
High school and college students: ¥1,500
Elementary and Jr. High students: ¥1,000
Ladies day (every Wed.): ¥1,000 (ladies only)
Late show (8 pm or later): ¥1,200
First day of the month: ¥1,000
Age 60 and above: ¥1,000
Married couples with a spouse age 50 or older: ¥2,000 per couple

*Movie ticket collectors should note that Shiga-only movie tickets with Hiko-nyan pictured with Tanjuro and Ryosuke are being sold at selected vendors in Shiga. They include Hikone Castle and Museum ticket offices and tourist information offices in Hikone and Nagahama. These tickets are good for admission at all theaters in Japan showing the movie.

Trailer with English subtitles (Video link: http://vimeo.com/82622019):

Official Website

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