Hikone Castle 410th anniversary 2017

20170322_6135Updated: July 16, 2017

Ten years after the grand 400th anniversary of Hikone Castle in 2007, Hikone is at it again, albeit on a smaller scale. This time, it’s for the castle’s 410th anniversary (彦根城築城410年祭). The celebration is from March 18 to December 10, 2017. It marks the anniversary of the completion of the castle’s main tower (tenshukaku or tenshu) in 1607. (The castle itself was completed much later in 1622.)

I went to see it a few days after it started. It’s basically a series of special exhibitions held in three castle buildings. Compared to 10 years ago, they have a lot more English captions. It’s part of Hikone’s push (since 1992) to have Hikone Castle designated as a World Heritage Site. The English is not perfect, but better than nothing.

It’s strange that they have English explanations in the exhibitions and videos, but no English in their PR materials and PR website for the 410th anniversary. (Usually it’s vice versa: PR info in English, but no English captions.) They even created a slick Japanese PR video that went viral even in Japan’s English-speaking world, but without any followup in any foreign languages. Such a pity. And so, I’m writing this overview of the 410th anniversary because no one else has done so in English.

Hikone Castle’s 410th anniversary exhibitions (and videos) are inside these three castle buildings: Kaikoku Kinenkan museum, Tenbin Yagura Turret, and Nishinomaru Sanju-yagura turret (photos below). The other castle buildings such as the main castle tower and Hikone Castle Museum have nothing related to the 410th anniversary. They remain the same as usual. There’s no new mascot either. The city is already happy with the nationally famous Hiko-nyan, a holdover from the 400th anniversary 10 years ago. That must’ve reduced the anniversary’s cost to the city.

On June 4, 2017, as part of the 410th anniversary, the Blue Impulse aerobatic team of the Japan Air Self-Defense Force performed in the skies of Hikone.

On Blue Impulse day, Konki Park near the castle where they had a stage and food booths. Lines for food were ridiculously long. Dusty too. Good view of the castle (toward the right). but the planes never flew near the castle.

Blue Impulse drawing in the sky above Hikone.

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Cherry blossoms in the sky!

Thank you Blue Impulse for performing in Shiga for the first time.

Special edition Hikone Castle admission ticket sold only on June 4, 2017, Blue Impulse day.

There’s no extra fee to see the 410th anniversary special exhibitions and videos. You just pay the normal castle admission of ¥1,500 which includes admission to the castle, Hikone Castle Museum, Kaikoku Kinenkan museum, and the adjacent Genkyuen Garden. If you want to skip the Hikone Castle Museum, the admission is ¥1,000. Allow at least 2 to 3 hours to visit the castle, museums, and garden. Note that the Genkyuen Garden pond is being repaired in March–April 2017 so the water might be drained.

Hikone Castle is a short walk from JR Hikone Station (JR Tokaido/Biwako Line), an easy day trip from Kyoto, Nagoya, Fukui, and Gifu.

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Kaikoku Kinenkan museum. Entrance is on the other side.

Kaikoku Kinenkan museum (開国記念館) is one of the first buildings you will see and pass by when you reach the castle from Hikone Station. It’s in the reconstructed portion of the Ninomaru-Sawaguchi Tamon Yagura Turret. It’s modern on the inside. Instead of entering this museum first, it might be better to enter it last on the way back to the train station.

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Besides regular exhibits (like a scale model of Hikone Castle town), Kaikoku Kinenkan museum’s special exhibition is about the NHK Taiga Drama TV series that featured the Ii Clan (mainly Ii Naomasa or Ii Naosuke) from 1963 to 2017 (大河ドラマに見る井伊家 —「花の生涯」から「おんな城主 直虎」まで—). It is in tandem with the current NHK Taiga TV drama series, Onna Joshu Naotora about Hikone Castle founder Lord Ii Naomasa’s adoptive mother Ii Naotora (1536?–1582) who was a 16th century female daimyo and castle lord in Iinoya, Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture. The room has panel displays, videos, and costumes and implements used in past Taiga Dramas. Nothing is in English.

The NHK Taiga Drama is a year-long, weekly TV program dramatizing historical events and figures in Japanese history. It covers a different historical theme (usually feudal/samurai-related) every year and it’s one of Japan’s most popular TV programs since 1963. The places featured in the Taiga Drama usually see an increase of tourists, and so all those places very much welcome and celebrate the free publicity. Naotora centers on Hamamatsu, Shizuoka, but it also covers Hikone since it also features her adopted son Ii Naomasa (井伊 直政 1561–1602). Naomasa became one of Tokugawa Ieyasu’s top generals and founded Hikone Castle. You could call him the “Father of Hikone.”

Because of Naomasa’s closeness and loyalty to Ieyasu in winning the pivotal Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 that unified Japan, the Ii Clan enjoyed a prominent role in the Tokugawa government for generations until the 19th century. They also had a domain and residence in Edo (now Tokyo).

Besides Naomasa, the second-most prominent family member was Ii Naosuke (井伊 直弼 1850–1860). Naosuke was the Tokugawa government’s Chief Minister (Tairo) who was the de facto head of the national government (the shogun was only a figurehead). He favored and concluded commercial treaties with the Western powers and thus broke Japan’s isolation from the world. Foreigners were then allowed to trade with Japan and take up residence in cities like Yokohama and Hakodate. Naosuke was later famously and brutally assassinated in 1860 near Edo Castle by samurai radicals from Mito (Ibaraki Prefecture) who sought to oust the foreign “barbarians.”

Because of this, the cities of Mito and Hikone had bad blood between them for many years until they officially reconciled in 1968 and became Friendship Cities.

Statue of Ii Naomasa in front of JR Hikone Station.

Kaikoku Kinenkan’s most interesting special exhibit was the complete 45-min. black-and-white video of the very first NHK Taiga Drama episode from Hana no Shogai (A Flowering Life 花の生涯) that aired in 1963. The series was about the life of Ii Naosuke up until his assassination, starring kabuki actor Onoe Shoroku II (1913–1989) as Naosuke. Titled Aoyagi no Ito (青柳の糸), this is the only episode from this series that was preserved. Unfortunately, the videotapes of the other episodes were erased (overwritten) as the series progressed. NHK could not afford to save the videotape for each episode so they reused the videotape. (Videotape was very expensive in those days and reruns were not part of their vocabulary yet.)

Apparently, this first episode is available on DVD, but there are no English subtitles. I asked the museum staff about what this first episode was about, but they didn’t know. They scurried around in the museum and asked other staff, but no one knew. I don’t think they took the time to even watch it. (They are probably security staff rather than docents.) Hopefully by now, they have watched it and are prepared to tell you (in Japanese) what it’s about. (As I left the museum, I told them, “Study harder please.”)

After the Kaikoku Kinenkan museum, you will pass by the Umaya Horse Stable and a gift shop. The horse stable, open to the public with a fake horse inside, is also a National Important Cultural Property and one-of-a-kind in a Japanese castle.

Cross the wooden bridge over the moat and you’ll see the castle ticket office and Hikone Castle Museum. Show your ticket and go up the wide stone steps. You’ll soon see the impressive stone wall and bridge of the Tenbin Yagura turret.

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Tenbin Yagura Turret. Entrance is on other side.

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Near Tenbin Yagura is this explanatory sign with a mistranslation. 天秤櫓の「天秤」は「天秤ばかり」ではなく、「天秤棒」のことである。この説明看板の英文に誤訳あり。

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Tenbin Yagura is named after the luggage-carrying shoulder pole depicted on this traveling Omi merchant.

The Tenbin Yagura Turret (天秤櫓), a National Important Cultural Property, is the second special exhibition venue for the 410th anniversary. It’s Hikone Castle’s second-most famous and important building. It has a pair of two-story watchtower turrets. They look almost identical and symmetrical, but they are not. “Tenbin” in this case does not refer to a balance scale as mistranslated in the explanatory sign. It actually refers to its similarity to a shoulder pole or carrying pole with luggage on both ends (called tenbinbo 天秤棒).

Many movies and dramas have been filmed around this historic building. To enter, you have to take off your shoes.

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Inside Tenbin Yagura.

The exhibits in the Tenbin Yagura change every few months. The following describes the exhibits shown until July 2. From July 8 to Sept. 18, it will show exhibits related to the Battle of Sekigahara in Gifu in conjunction with the new movie. And from Sept. 23 to Dec. 10, it will show an exhibition called “Hikone Art Castle.”

Until July 2: The Tenbin Yagura is showing has four large video monitors for a special video exhibition titled, Hikone and the World During the Edo Period As Seen Through Ii Clan Treasures (井伊家 家宝の魅力と江戸期の世界). Instead of displaying actual items, you only see video images of it. The good thing is that most everything has English captions.

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Screen showing Hikone Byobu amid glare.

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Hikone Byobu annotation appears when you move the magnifying glass with your finger.

One video monitor shows the Hikone Byobu folding screen (彦根屏風) in detail. The Hikone Byobu is a 17th-century National Treasure painting on gold leaf. It shows a fashion-leading pleasure quarters scene in Kyoto. 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.

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 for generations, the screen is nicknamed “Hikone Byobu” even though the painting is not related to Hikone. The city of Hikone owns the byobu (since 1997).

The byobu’s National Treasure acclaim comes from 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.

And this is exactly what the video monitor provides. It has a touchscreen virtual magnifying glass which you can move around on the painting displayed on the video screen. Use your finger to move the magnifying glass to magnify any part of the painting. When you move the magnifying glass over a point of interest, a pop-up caption appears to explain it in Japanese and English. It works well, but the English is a little sloppy. (The photo above shows “quiet” misspelled.) There’s also lots of glare from the windows facing the video monitors, making it hard to read. The video monitor has only two magnifying glasses so only two people can use it at the same time.

The major disadvantage of this video display is that it shows the byobu painting completely flat. This byobu was actually designed to be viewed not as a flat painting, but as a folding screen with its characteristic zig-zag panels facing inward or outward. The people were painted to match the respective panel’s angle. The optical illusion shows people on adjacent panels angled or facing toward each other. Pretty neat.

You can see this angle effect on the genuine Hikone Byobu displayed at Hikone Castle Museum from mid-April to mid-May every year. This year, it will be exhibited in the museum from April 14 to May 16, 2017. Read more about the Hikone Byobu here.

Another video monitor shows treasures of the Ii Clan such as Noh masks and a palanquin. A third video monitor shows various Hikone sarasa (更紗) chintz fabrics owned by the Ii Clan.

An adjacent room has a larger video monitor showing a short video about how Japan was depicted in old maps drawn by Europeans during the Edo Period and how the Ii Clan viewed the world outside Japan. This video has English subtitles.

Note that the special exhibition inside Tenbin Yagura ends on July 2, 2017. I hope someday we will be allowed to go up the two turret towers as well. They are still closed to the public.

From the Tenbin Yagura, there are some more steps toward the main castle tower.

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Choshoan tea house next to the bell.

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Gracious tea host inside Choshoan tea house.

On the way to the main castle tower (tenshu), you can take a tea break at this small tea house called Choshoan (聴鐘庵). For ¥500, you can try matcha tea and a small confection. It’s operated by members of a tea school started by castle lord and tea master Ii Naosuke. At 12 noon and 3:00 p.m., you’ll hear the big “Time-Signal Bell” ringing right outside. The tea house was originally the bell ringer’s rest house.

After having tea, go up just a few more steps and go through the Taikomon Gate to finally see the main castle tower, a National Treasure.

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Hiko-nyan near the main castle tower at 1:30 p.m.

At 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. near the main castle tower and at 3 p.m. outside Hikone Castle Museum, you can see Hiko-nyan, Hikone’s nationally famous official mascot posing for tourists for 30 min. He is basically a white cat with a horned samurai helmet modeled after Naomasa’s helmet. Modeled after the beckoning cat, Hiko-nyan was created for the 400th anniversary in 2007. Back in 2007, the crowds came to see Hiko-nyan rather than the castle or the 400th anniversary exhibits.

Hikone Castle’s tenshu main tower.

If it’s not crowded (no people outside waiting in line), you can go up to the top of the tenshu (tenshukaku) main castle tower in a short time after going up a few steep stairs. (Take off your shoes when entering.) There’s no balcony outside, but the window views are nice. Hikone Castle’s main tower recycled parts of Otsu Castle and was brought here in 1606 and completed in 1607. However, the entire castle wasn’t completed until 1622 after 20 years of construction. Since Hikone Castle was regarded as a strategically important castle to fend off any rebellious opposition from western Japan, its construction was a national project with labor and materials coming from other castles. However, the Edo Period was largely peaceful and Hikone Castle was never attacked.

Hikone Castle has one of the five main castle towers in Japan that is original and designated as a National Treasure. The others are Himeji, Matsumoto, Matsue, and Inuyama Castles. One reason why Hikone Castle’s main tower is a National Treasure is because it has many different types of roof features on one building (photo above). Its survival among the thousands of castles that have come and gone in Japan over the centuries is quite miraculous. What with feudal wars, lightning-caused fires, earthquakes, Meiji Era decimation of feudal castles, and World War II bombings, Hikone Castle is still standing.

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Hikone Castle’s main tower and plum blossoms in March.

Although the tenshu main tower was the most prominent building, the daimyo castle lord did not live in it. It was mainly a glorious symbol and storehouse for samurai armor and other artifacts of past Hikone daimyo. The castle lord’s residence (reconstructed as Hikone Castle Museum) was the palace at the foot of the mountain.

After visiting the main tower, walk behind on the left to a park-like area anchored by the L-shaped Nishinomaru Sanju-yagura turret (西の丸三重櫓) on the far end.

Nishinomaru Sanju-yagura turret

Nishinomaru Sanju-yagura turret faces the lake.

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You can also go up the three-story turret.

Nishinomaru Sanju-yagura turret is the third and last venue of the 410th anniversary exhibitions. It is said to have been the tenshu castle tower of Odani Castle in Nagahama. To enter, take off your shoes.

Inside Nishinomaru Sanju-yagura.

The first room has large panels explaining about other Japanese castles like Edo, Wakayama, Fukuoka, Yashimanoki, Iinoya, and Takamatsu which is Hikone’s sister castle since 1966. No English here. These panels will be displayed until July 9. From July 13 to Dec. 10, this building will show scale models of Japanese castles.

In the back room is a makeshift theater. Nishinomaru Sanju-yagura’s main highlight is a 10-min. fictional CG anime about the design and construction of Hikone Castle, centering on the architect, Yasozaemon. English subtitles provided, but not perfect. For example in the video, naiko (内湖) was translated as “Lake Naiko.” It’s not the name of any lake, it’s just a generic word for an attached lake on the fringe of Lake Biwa.

There will be a Part 2 video about the building of Hikone’s castle town that will be shown at from Aug. to Dec.

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More short videos of castles.

There’s also a smaller video monitor showing short videos of other castles. Most impressive was the CG animation of what Azuchi Castle may have looked like. Super gorgeous castle. It’s so sad it was attacked and set afire three years after it was completed.

After seeing the exhibits and video, go up the three-story turret tower via steep stairs.

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Top floor of the three-story Nishinomaru Sanju-yagura.

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View of the lake from the top of the three-story turret.

Nishinomaru Sanju-yagura turret has the closest views of the lake. No balcony, but windows are open (if it’s not raining).

All these 410th anniversary special exhibitions and videos are good, but probably do not live up to the hype and viral PR video. The special exhibitions might not be a must-see, but Hikone Castle is a must-see. if it will be your first visit to Hikone, the special exhibitions will add a nice touch.

After Nishinomaru Sanju-yagura, visit Genkyuen Garden by taking the quiet stone steps down to Kuromon Gate (follow the sign). The garden doesn’t have anything related to the 410th anniversary. Be aware that the garden pond is being repaired so the water might be partially drained as of March and April 2017. (Not very photogenic without the pond water.)

I hope this post will help you understand the 410th anniversary and castle better.

Related posts at shiga-ken.com:

Hikone Castle photos – Over 280 photos of Hikone castle.

Genkyuen Garden – Castle garden next to Hikone Castle.

Hikone Castle Festival Parade – Held on Nov. 3.

About Hikone – Overview of the city of Hikone.

Goggle map of Hikone – Main sights listed.

Hikone Byobu folding screen – Detailed look at this National Treasure.

Hikone: A Journey in Time (manga review) – English manga (sold at Hikone Castle museums) about Hikone’s feudal history and cultural sights. Too many spelling and grammatical errors though.

Iinoya (Ryotanji temple), Hamamatsu, Shizuoka – Childhood home of Ii Naomasa, first castle lord of Hikone.

Gotokuji temple, Setagaya, Tokyo – Ii Clan’s family temple. Six Hikone Castle lords including Ii Naosuke are buried here. Also the home of the beckoning cat (maneki-neko) on which Hiko-nyan is based.

Kamonyama Park, Yokohama – Park dedicated to Ii Naosuke whose efforts opened Yokohama to the outside world.

Hikone Castle video (embedded below) – Comprehensive 34-min. video about the castle, its history, Genkyuen Garden, and autumn castle festivals.


410th anniversary banner.

“One and Only”だけにすると、彦根は彦根城しかないという印象になります。(事実上そうかもしれないけど。)”In Japan”とか加えるべきです。

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Sign in front of Hikone City Hall pushing Hikone Castle to become a World Heritage Site.

別に世界遺産にならなくても彦根城を未来へ残すことができると思うのでもっと説得力がある表現にした方がいいと思う。世界的にどういう価値があるのか。姫路城との差別化など。

Hikone Castle has languished on UNESCO’s Tentative List for 25 years since Japan first nominated it in 1992 for World Heritage status.

Spelling errors on a “clear file” folder.

Hikonyan = ひこんやん
Hiko-nyan = ひこに

CASTALもダメですね。

世界遺産の候補でしたら、まず英語をもっとしっかりしましょう。

Visiting University of Shiga Prefecture

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“Pencil Tower” at the center of the University of Shiga Prefecture.

I finally visited the University of Shiga Prefecture (USP or Shiga Kenritsu Daigaku 滋賀県立大学) for the first time in Jan. 2016. It’s a 15-min. bus ride from JR Minami-Hikone Station. The largely flat, rectangular campus is quite near the shore of Lake Biwa in a rural fishing neighborhood called Hassaka (八坂町) in Hikone. Established by the prefecture, USP is not to be confused with Shiga University (Shiga Daigaku 滋賀大学) which is a national university with a campus adjacent to Hikone Castle.

Founded in 1995, USP has an enrollment of about 2,400 undergraduate and 270 graduate students. They have the School of Environmental Science with over 800 students, School of Engineering with over 700 students, School of Human Cultures with almost 900 students, and School of Nursing with about 300. There were 93 foreign students as of May 2015 with 66 of them coming from China. Only four were from the U.S. as exchange students.

In the School of Human Cultures, the Department of Intercultural Communications has 200 students learning foreign languages. They are required to learn two foreign languages. That must be really tough. Studying just one foreign language is tough enough. Most of them take advantage of the exchange program to study abroad.

Since USP is only 20 years old, the buildings still look new and modern. Different clusters of buildings have different designs to reflect their respective departments such as buildings that look like barns or a hospital.

But the most distinctive structure and symbol of the school is a tower nicknamed “Pencil Tower.” It does look like a pencil, but I’m told that it wasn’t designed to look like a pencil. Too bad we cannot go up the tower since the views must be great from the top. The tower does not seem to serve any purpose except as an architectural focal point and reference point to help you get your bearings on campus.

Scale model of USP. Lake Biwa is toward the top of the photo.

The campus is fairly large, including an athletic field and gymnasium. The central buildings are surrounded by a cherry tree-lined circular moat complete with ducks. (The school even has a duck club to take care of the ducks.) The sports facilities are used only for practice and do not have spectator seats since no sports competitions are held at USP. Competitive games are instead held at public sports facilities elsewhere in Hikone.

USP has no museum (like the Omi merchant museum at Shiga University) nor outdoor sculptures and art galleries (like at Seian University of Art and Design). So what does USP have that could attract visitors? It’s cherry blossoms. There are many sakura trees at the University of Shiga Prefecture. The ones lining the circular moat would look nice when in bloom.

The only thing is, no one knows about USP’s cherry blossoms and Hikone Castle’s cherry blossoms are so famous and easy to get to that no one thinks about seeing cherry blossoms anywhere else in Hikone. USP’s cherry blossoms bloom during spring break when there are hardly any students on campus. The poor cherry blossoms thereby bloom with almost no one to enjoy them. So if you want to enjoy sakura with almost no people around, visit USP around early April.

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Circular moat and cherry trees.

Lecture hall

Lecture room with lots of wood.

Cafeteria

Cafeteria

Cafe Pianissimo

Besides the cherry blossoms, the school cafeteria, Cafe Pianissimo, and the small University Shop are open to the public when classes are in session. Lunch in the cafeteria was good and cheap. It gets very crowded during lunch time (11 am–2 pm, 6 pm–8 pm). The cafe next to the auditorium was run by a pair of friendly ladies. Good place for coffee and cake.

The small University Shop is more like a small, neighborhood convenience store. Although it sells books (including books about Shiga), it doesn’t sell textbooks nor USP merchandise like T-shirts and hoodies. (Textbooks are sold in a special area at the start of each school session.) The only USP-branded item I found was a pink pen with the university’s name in Japanese. There was also a bottle of local sake. I guess the school is not big enough to market USP merchandise which is a shame since it can spark and spread school pride. How about selling pencils having the same design as the Pencil Tower? The USP Pencil Tower pencil. Picture postcards of the school would also be nice.

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Pen with USP’s name imprinted. Made of recycled materials.

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Some of USP’s partner universities. (Cal State East Bay is no longer a partner.)

Also visited the Office of International Programs and Development. The director’s office has these flags of some of USP’s overseas partner universities for exchange programs in the U.S. (including Michigan, Shiga’s sister state), Europe, Australia, China, Taiwan, Mongolia, and Korea. (List of partner schools here.)

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Lake Biwa shore in Hassaka, Hikone.

USP’s rural, lakeside neighborhood of Hassaka (八坂町) is quite well known among Japanese-Canadians in Canada. Did you know that the largest group of Japanese immigrants to Canada before World War II came from Shiga? Many came from eastern Shiga, namely Hikone and the old fishing villages of Hassaka and neighboring Oyabu (大藪町). I had thought that most came from Wakayama Prefecture since they even had a museum dedicated to the immigrants. (Too bad that it recently closed.) During WWII, the Japanese immigrants were forced to either relocate to camps in the interior or to return to Japan. So there are descendants in Hikone of those immigrants who returned to Shiga. Sadly, their stories are being lost in Shiga. Even the descendants might not know much about the experiences of their immigrant grandparents or great grandparents.

Something I would like to see at USP is a public exhibition space showing the basic history of Hikone’s immigrant past and some immigrant artifacts donated or loaned by immigrant descendants. The oral histories of those who returned to Shiga should also be recorded. (Their numbers and memories are quickly dwindling.) Back in Feb. 2011, Hikone City Hall had a photo exhibition of Hikone’s immigrants for a short time in the lobby. Shiga should have something more permanent and USP would be the ideal place for it.

Despite the historical connection with Canada, Shiga has only one sister city in Canada, between Higashi-Omi and Taber, Alberta (not a place where the Japanese immigrated). USP also does not have any student exchange partner universities in Canada.

But anyway, USP is a viable choice for students. Somewhat out of the way, but the neighborhood is nice and peaceful.

*Special thanks to former USP associate professor Martin Stack for guiding me around USP. 

Click here for more photos of USP. Below is a video of the cherry blossoms on campus:

Buddhist altars made in Shiga Prefecture

Butsudan woodcarver Mori Tesso in Maibara.

Butsudan woodcarver Mori Tesso in Maibara.

Updated: May 7, 2017

Shiga Prefecture has three handicrafts officially designated as a “Traditional Craft” by the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry (経済産業大臣指定伝統的工芸品). “Traditional crafts” as defined by the Japanese government are handicrafts used in everyday life that are largely handmade using traditional techniques and traditional materials. And they are made in a specific area.

Shiga’s three designated traditional crafts are Omi jofu hemp cloth (近江上布), Shigaraki pottery (信楽焼), and Hikone butsudan (彦根仏壇) or household Buddhist altars made in Hikone.

Japan has over thirty cities and areas that produce household Buddhist altars (“butsudan” in Japanese). Fifteen of them are officially designated as a “Traditional Craft Production Area” (伝統的工芸品産地指定) by the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry. These areas include the cities of Yamagata, Kyoto, Kanazawa, Niigata, Osaka, Nagoya, Hiroshima, and Hikone. They all have been making butsudan since the Edo Period. In 1975, Hikone butsudan became Japan’s first butsudan to be officially designated as a “traditional craft.”

Hikone butsudan is thus one of Shiga’s signature products. However, Shiga actually has two traditional butsudan manufacturing areas. Besides Hikone butsudan made in Hikone and MaibaraHama butsudan (浜仏壇), commonly called “Hama-dan” (浜壇) which is short for “Nagahama butsudan,” is made in Nagahama, Maibara, and Hikone. Although Hikone butsudan is more famous nationally due to its official designation, Hama-dan is not inferior in any way. Interesting how the Hikone butsudan and Hama-dan production bases are right next to each other, but they have different origins, histories, and designs. Since there is virtually zero English information about Hama-dan, this article will also shed some light on Hama-dan.

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Hikone butsudan and certified craftsman.

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Hama-dan Buddhist altar in Mori Tesso’s home. Guess how much it cost? (Read below.)

Chube'e

Buddhist altar room in Itoh Chube’e Memorial House in Toyosato.

Traditional butsudan are like miniature Buddhist temples in Japanese homes. They are more common in rural (old) Japanese-style homes (with tatami mats) than in urban condominiums/apartments. A Japanese-style home may even have a Buddhist altar room called butsuma (仏間) designed for a large butsudan to fit into an alcove.

Japanese families keep a butsudan to memorialize and pray to deceased family members and ancestors. Photos of the recently deceased or small vertical tablets (ihai) inscribed with their names may adorn or complement the butsudan along with various Buddhist implements (candle holders, rice offering holders, incense burner, bell, etc.). They all direct attention to the butsudan’s central figure that is usually a Buddha statue or scroll. While praying in front of the butsudan, a family member might even “talk” or “report” to the deceased about their lives and achievements.

During the obon season in mid-August and on the anniversary of a family member’s passing, the family may hire a Buddhist priest to conduct a memorial service in front of their household Buddhist altar. The butsudan thereby unifies and bonds living family members as it reminds them of their common ancestors. And it’s much more convenient than going to the gravesite to pray to the deceased.

The practice of keeping a Buddhist altar at home is unique to Japan. They don’t do it in other Buddhist countries like Thailand. It supposedly began in the Kamakura Period (1185–1333), but it didn’t spread until the Edo Period in the 17th century. When Christians were being persecuted in Japan, butsudan is said to have spread among families who wanted to show that they were not Christian. However, fewer and fewer modern homes in Japan today are designed to have a butsudan, so fewer and fewer families buy and keep a butsudan.

Butsudan is not to be confused with kami-dana (神棚) which are household Shinto altars (miniature Shinto shrines). Keeping a household altar is a common practice in both Buddhism and Shinto. But butsudan and kami-dana altars look totally different and serve different functions.

Kami

Kami-dana household Shinto altar in a Hino merchant’s home.

dana

Kami-dana for sale.

The household Shinto altar is generally less ornate (mostly bare wood) and smaller than butsudan and are mounted high on a shelf toward the ceiling. It is usually dedicated to a local Shinto god or the god of one’s profession. Household members commonly pray to kami-dana for family safety, good health, and business prosperity. Kami-dana is quite common among business owners.

In a nutshell, butsudan are dedicated to the deceased, while kami-dana are dedicated to the living. Also, you don’t have to be Buddhist to keep a butsudan nor a Shinto believer to have a kami-dana. A home may even have both, as many Japanese worship or respect both Buddhism and Shinto. Families commonly hold both Shinto weddings and Buddhist funerals even though Shinto funerals and Buddhist weddings are perfectly fine. Even professional sumo wrestlers commonly have Buddhist funerals (sumo is a Shinto sport). When it comes to religion in Japan, things are not so black and white.

Besides serving spiritual and family functions, the traditional butsudan is a major assemblage of intricate, elaborate, and ornate artwork. It provides the livelihoods of highly-skilled traditional craftsmen and artisans required to make a butsudan. There are at least seven types of traditional craftsmen involved in making a butsudan: Cabinet maker (kiji-shi 木地師) who makes the wooden exterior cabinet, inner altar builder (kuden-shi 宮殿師) who makes the butsudan’s inner sanctum complete with a temple-like roof, woodcarver (chokoku-shi 彫刻師) who carves the transoms and Buddha statue, lacquer painter (nuri-shi 漆塗り師) who lacquers the cabinet, gold leaf gilder (kinpaku-oshi-shi 金箔押し師), metallic ornament maker (kazari-kanagu-shi 錺金具師) who makes metallic fittings and ornaments, and maki-e artist (makie-shi 蒔絵師) who creates lacquer decorations with sprinkled gold powder. The butsudan parts are then assembled by the butsudan shop that received the customer’s order. The best traditional craftsmen can also be certified with the official title of “Traditional Craftsman” (伝統工芸士) from the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry.

Installing a metallic fitting on Hikone butsudan.

Attaching a metallic hinge on Hikone butsudan door.

butsudan

Hikone butsudan is very gold.

Hikone butsudan is classified as a kin-butsudan (gold Buddhist altar 金仏壇) in reference to the abundant use of gold leaf (made of 95%+ pure gold). Like Kanazawa butsudan in Ishikawa Prefecture (famous for gold leaf) and Kyoto butsudan, Hikone butsudan looks very gold and is regarded as a high-end butsudan. The lacquer is glossy and the wood is usually hinoki cypress, zelkova (keyaki), or Japanese cedar.

Hikone butsudan originated in the mid-Edo Period (17th-18th centuries). Traditional craftsmen such as cabinet makers, lacquerware artists, and metallic ornament makers who had produced samurai swords, helmets, armor, etc., switched to making Buddhist altars as a peaceful pursuit during the peaceful Edo Period. It started with a lacquerware merchant who made a butsudan after learning from Kyoto butsudan sometime during 1624-44. As household Buddhist altars became more common, the Hikone daimyo (Ii Clan) officially sanctioned and protected the butsudan makers’ livelihoods. Many of these craftsmen lived in the Nanamagari area (七曲がり) of Hikone where a number of butsudan craftsmen and shops still remain while other craftsmen are scattered about in Hikone. In Nanamagari, you can visit butsudan shops and perhaps see an artisan at work or take a workshop in one of the butsudan crafts. In autumn, they hold the Nanamagari Festa (七曲がりフェスタ) with butsudan craftsmen demonstrating their art and offering hands-on lessons for the public.

With the backing of the local daimyo, Hikone’s butsudan industry developed into an efficient production system and became one of Hikone’s major traditional industries. After World War II, Hikone butsudan makers established their own guild and product inspection system to improve and assure the quality of their products. Traditional butsudan are usually signed and dated by the maker or artisan.

Hikiyama

Nagahama Hikiyama festival float (Shojo-maru).

chidori

Hama-dan has a top-edge, bare wood transom and inner roof with three triangular chidori-hafu. The roof’s center is similar to the roof of Nagahama Hikiyama Festival floats.

Meanwhile, Hama-dan Buddhist altars have kind of a confusing history since there was the original Izumi-dan (和泉壇) which has since been grouped together with Hama-dan. Technically, Izumi-dan and Hama-dan have separate lineages and both still exist, but I’m told Izumi-dan is quite rare now due to its high price range and it has since been commonly called Hama-dan. Izumi-dan has a unique kind of sculpture or style that a butsudan expert can distinguish from a Hama-dan. Izumi-dan is named after a prominent Nagahama carpenter and woodcarver named Fujioka Izumi (藤岡 和泉 1617–1705) who specialized in carving lotuses and clouds. He gained fame after creating highly-rated woodcarvings for Izumi Shrine in Nagahama. He made butsudan as well.

Izumi favored making butsudan with less gold leaf and more bare wood than Hikone butsudan and Kyoto butsudan. For example, the wood-carved transom (sama) on the altar’s top edge is bare wood and not gold like on Hikone butsudan. He used zelkova (an expensive and durable wood) for the transom and hinoki cypress for the cabinet and included much maki-e lacquer art.

Another distinctive feature is the Hama-dan’s inner altar roof. It looks a like castle roof with multiple ridges and decorative triangular gables called chidori-hafu (千鳥破風). They make the butsudan look very dignified.

Izumi’s descendants/associates also made the first hikiyama floats for the Nagahama Hikiyama Matsuri in the 18th century when kabuki became popular. The design of the hikiyama floats was modeled after the Izumi-dan Buddhist altars. In the photos above, you can how the roof design of the hikiyama float and butsudan are similar. Hikone butsudan has a different type of inner roof.

The Fujioka family helped to build and maintain the ornate Nagahama hikiyama floats. However today, the Fujioka family is no longer in this business and the floats are maintained by butsudan craftsmen.

Despite the different designs of Hikone butsudan and Hama-dan, both types can be configured to suit any Japanese Buddhist sect. Although the Jodo Shinshu Sect favors gold butsudan (like Hikone/Kyoto butsudan), a Jodo Shinshu family can still use a Hama-dan instead. I’m told that most Jodo Shinshu families in Nagahama and Maibara have a Hama-dan. (The butsudan in my home in Shiga is a Hama-dan as well.) Hama-dan is also reputed to be bigger than Hikone butsudan. Although I’m sure a (rich) customer can custom order a Hikone butsudan in any large size. I’m told that Hikone butsudan has a nationwide market base, while Hama-dan customers are mainly limited to northern Shiga.

Even though they are neighbors, it’s nice that Hikone butsudan and Hama-dan have retained their unique characteristics all these centuries. They also share some of the craftsmen who make butsudan parts for both Hikone butsudan and Hama-dan.

Mori Tesso in his workshop.

Mori Tesso in his workshop.

Mori Tesso and a dragon.

Mori Tesso and a dragon.

In September 2015, we visited one such craftsman, a very accomplished and versatile 70-year-old woodcarver (and painter) named Mori Tesso (森 哲荘) who lives and works in Kami-nyu (上丹生) in the city of Maibara. Out of the seven traditional butsudan craftsmen, I was most interested in the woodcarvers. After all, they make the Buddha statues that become the focal point of the butsudan. An online search led me to Mori Tesso at Mori Chokokusho (森彫刻所), a modest woodcarving studio next to his house. He has been a woodcarver in Kami-nyu for 55 years since age 15, right after junior high school. I got an exclusive interview and tour of their studio.

Kami-nyu is a small, rural enclave of butsudan craftsmen in a quiet, mountainous neighborhood in the Samegai area (on the way to the trout farm). There are cabinet makers, woodcarvers, gold leaf gilders, lacquer painters, etc. To have all these traditional craftsman in one place is quite rare in Japan. They make butsudan parts for both Hikone butsudan and Hama-dan, although such work has decreased dramatically.

Kami-nyu’s history goes back to the Tempyo Period (729–749) when a clan related to the Imperial Court lived in this area. Through their connections, they were exposed to cultural information and techniques from Korea and China. Kami-nyu thereby developed as a center of highly refined culture. In the early 19th century, two Kami-nyu teenage lads, 14-year-old Ueda Yusuke (上田勇助), who was the son of a shrine/temple carpenter, and friend Kawaguchi Shichiemon (川口七右衛門), spent 12 years in Kyoto to learn traditional woodcarving. When Yusuke came back to Kami-nyu, he worked as a woodcarver for local temples. Since the area was mountainous with little farmland, people in Kami-nyu made a living cutting trees and making woodcarvings for temples, shrines, and festival floats.

In the late 19th century (mid-Meiji Period), Yusuke’s son and successor (Yusuke II) ventured to make woodcarvings for Hama-dan, further refining his skills. Other butsudan craftsmen from different disciplines also started to settle in Kami-nyu. Kami-nyu thereby transformed from a woodcarvers’ neighborhood into a traditional crafts village that continues today. It’s a family business or cottage industry and most everything is handmade. They work separately, but as a team. There are no large, mass production factories. (Yusuke’s current descendants are no longer woodcarvers.)

Kami-nyu has a few butsudan shops (仏壇店) where you can custom order a butsudan to suit your budget and preferences. Many customers have their traditional butsudan custom-made. The shop will then mobilize and coordinate the traditional craftsmen in Kami-nyu to make the butsudan parts to be assembled by the shop.

Although the Kami-nyu craftsmen’s mainstay used to be making butsudan parts, their numbers have sadly shrunk dramatically due to a lack of work. The surviving ones now do mostly other work, any type of job that matches their skills (and fees). It could be a transom in a new house, restoration or repair work for temples, shrines, large altars, butsudan, kami-dana, and festival floats. They are highly versatile craftsmen.

Mori Tesso shows a drawing of a carving to be made for a roof part.

Mori Tesso shows a drawing of a carving to be made for a roof part.

Mori Tesso is a second-generation Kami-nyu woodcarver taking after his late father Hideo (秀男) who started the family trade. He was pretty much forced into the profession by his father who insisted that there were skills that can only be acquired at a young age. Tesso originally did not care so much for woodcarving and wanted to continue on to high school instead. However, after learning the craft from his father and older brother Nozomu, Tesso came to love woodcarving and feels fortunate to have pursued it. Look at his works and you will see that he is very good.

Hideo, born in 1900, apprenticed under a butsudan woodcarver in Kyoto after elementary school. He eventually became a master woodcarver. The post-war years were tough for him as people were too poor to buy butsudan. Old butsudan were often sold to feed the family.

As Japan recovered and people could afford to buy butsudan again, Hideo worked in Kyoto and trained many apprentices including his elder son Nozomu who started in 1951 after junior high school. Nozomu has been carving for over 60 years and lives in Kami-nyu.

Buddha

Butsudan Buddha statue carved by Mori Hideo.

Unfortunately, Hideo died at age 64, only three years after Tesso started carving. Tesso was quite saddened by his father’s passing and started dabbling in drawing and painting. But after getting married in 1973, he buckled down and pursued butsudan woodcarving seriously for a steady income. It takes at least 10 years to master the craft, and another 10 years to become a more versatile woodcarver.

He soon had two sons, Yasuichiro (靖一郎) and Tetsuo (徹雄), both of whom became woodcarvers themselves. Yasuichiro started training under his father and Uncle Nozomu at age 20 after graduating from a junior art college. Younger son Tetsuo apprenticed under his Uncle Nozomu as a woodcarver after high school. Both Yasuichiro and Tetsuo have been been carving for over 20 years now, so both are already master woodcarvers. Like his father, Yasuichiro has been certified by the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry as a Traditional Craftsman for Hikone butsudan (彦根仏壇伝統工芸士). (There is no such certification for Hama-dan.) The two sons were not home during our visit so I didn’t get to meet them.

chisels

Mori Tesso and some of his many chisels.

The Moris live along the river flowing through Kami-nyu and Samegai. Their immediate neighbor is another craftsman and there is also butsudan shop right nearby. Their woodcarving studio is in a separate building next to their home. The studio is a fairly spacious room for three woodcarvers to work. They all face a window so they can look outside once in a while. Tesso carves while sitting at a low table which is actually a thick plank of wood. He sits on the floor, but his legs stretch out into a sunken pit. He has many little drawers for an arsenal of many different chisels. Kami-nyu is a quiet and relaxing place to do intricate work.

He showed us a variety of wood sculptures. He sketches the carving on the wood or paper, then makes a rough carving with a hammer and chisel. The final stages are fine carving. If there is a human face, he carves it last, as it is the most difficult part to carve. They don’t use sandpaper, etc., to smooth the surface either. It’s all smoothed with a chisel. This skill itself takes a few years to master.

Besides butsudan carvings, the Moris carve sculptures for shrines and temples (roof beams, transoms, etc.), wooden signboards for businesses, wooden picture frames, and festival floats. They can basically carve whatever the customer wants. They also repair butsudan sculptures. They do have ready-made sculptures for sale, but it seems that they mainly produce custom orders.

Tesso is a very, very versatile artist. He can carve all kinds of things. Just look at their website gallery for samples of their work. They also sell their work online via Yahoo Japan. An incredible variety. The Mori family also carved part of the impressive woodcarving mural displayed at Maibara Station’s east entrance. The mural shows Maibara’s major sights like Mt. Ibuki (top center) and Mishima Pond carved in wood.

Mural at Maibara Station by Kami-nyu woodcarvers.

Mural at Maibara Station by Kami-nyu woodcarvers.

After showing us his workshop, he brought us into his home where we saw a large Hama-dan in his Buddhist altar room (top photo). He made the butsudan with all the woodcarvings except for the Buddha statue that was carved by his father. Tesso told me that one customer saw this butsudan and immediately decided that he wanted one exactly like it. So Tesso had one made exactly like it. The cost? Ten million yen (!).

Indeed, high-end (i.e. large size and ornate), traditional butsudan can cost more than the top-of-the-line Mercedes-Benz luxury car (S-Class). On the other hand, there are also simplified and compact butsudan called “modern butsudan” (モダン仏壇) which cost a lot less than traditional butsudan. Modern butsudan are basically wooden cabinets sans woodcarvings and major artwork. Average size models (about 60 cm high) can cost around ¥150,000 or more, but when you throw in the standard implements (rice offering holders, candle holders, bell, etc.) and Buddha figure or scroll, it can total around ¥300,000 or more. Modern butsudan are geared for city dwellers and condos where space is limited.

Also, there is a lot of imported butsudan (or parts) from countries like China and Vietnam where labor is much cheaper than in Japan. Imported butsudan started to spread in Japan from the 1990s. They now account for about 70 percent of the butsudan sold in Japan.

Tesso tells me that these imported butsudan pose the biggest challenge or competition to the traditional craftsmen. Sadly, the number of traditional butsudan craftsmen has decreased significantly and the Moris no longer carve for butsudan that much. He says that they have been adapting and adjusting to such market conditions. Traditional craftsmen in Japan are now basically relegated to the high-end market. They are also supported by purists who still favor “Made in Japan” butsudan and other crafts, citing subtle differences in the artwork of imported models. For example, dragon sculptures on imported butsudan may look too “Chinese.” Some butsudan shops proudly indicate that their butsudan are “Made in Japan.” Otherwise, we cannot tell if it is imported or not.

Modern

Even modern butsudan are quite diverse. These are 50-60 cm tall.

During a quick tour of butsudan shops in Tokyo, I was surprised to see so many modern and imported butsudan. Even though the modern ones are more suited for urban families and Western-style homes, it’s still sad to see how the traditional butsudan are being squeezed out. The lower prices of modern/imported butsudan are no doubt very tempting for the average worshipper.

People in the market for a butsudan have a very, very wide selection. Whether it’s traditional or modern, large or small, cheap or expensive, or plain or ornate. Unlike electrical appliances, cars, and furniture, there are no corporate brands of butsudan. There are only traditional regional brands and anonymous brands (modern or imported). Hikone butsudan and Hama-dan are no doubt among Japan’s elite butsudan that can last for generations.

Even if you’re not Buddhist/religious or have no plans to buy a butsudan, I hope this article makes you appreciate the fine artwork that goes into a traditional butsudan and piques your interest to try and identify any butsudan you might sooner or later see in Shiga.

*Special thanks to Mori Tesso for showing us his workplace and sculptures and to Yasuichiro for answering my supplemental questions.

Major references for this article:

Autumn festivals and foliage November 2014 in Shiga Prefecture

Recommended festivals, events, exhibitions, and autumn leaves in Shiga Prefecture in November 2014. (Most official Web sites are in Japanese only.) Compiled by Philbert Ono. Updated: Nov. 5, 2014

Video link: http://youtu.be/ve0KVtx_u74

Omi Shrine Yabusame

Omi Shrine Yabusame

November 3, 2014
♦ Omi Jingu Shrine Yabusame Horseback Archery, Otsu, 12:30 pm – 2:00 pm
One of Shiga’s largest shrines, Omi Jingu will hold horseback archery on this national holiday known as Culture Day. The festival starts with a ceremony at 12:30 pm in the Haiden worship hall and the archery begins at 1 pm along the main path to the shrine serving as the horse track. Expert archers from the Takeda School of Mounted Archery (from Kamakura) will perform. Reserved seating is also available for 500 yen. Call the shrine at 077-522-3725 to make reservations. Otherwise, get there early to get a good spot (standing room only). Good to see it this year since it’s the Year of the Horse. The shrine is also famous for clocks and karuta tournaments. Near Omi Jingu-mae Station on the Keihan Ishiyama-Sakamoto Line. Map | Video | Photos
近江神宮流鏑馬神事
http://oumijingu.org/publics/index/134/

November 3, 2014
♦ Little Edo Hikone Castle Festival Parade, Hikone Castle, 1:00 pm – 3:00 pm
Very elaborate costume parade of mainly kids dressed as samurai and Edo-Period ladies. Highlights include the Hikone Gun Battalion giving a matchlock gun demo (in front of Horse Stable), Ii Naosuke played by an actor on horseback, fireman acrobatics, and Sarugaku dancers. The parade route starts from Joto Elementary School and proceeds along the road to the castle and passes in front of the Umaya Horse Stable. Video here. Short walk from JR Hikone Station. Map | Video | Photos
小江戸彦根の城まつりパレード
http://www.hikoneshi.com/jp/event/articles/c/parade

Until November 9, 2014 (closed Thursdays)
♦ BIWAKO Biennale 2014, Omi-Hachiman, 10:00 am – 5:00 pm
Held for the 6th time, the BIWAKO Biennale showcases the work of about 60 artists in Omi-Hachiman’s traditional townscape area. Art exhibitions will be in former merchant homes, traditional houses, and a sake factory. A blend of modern art and traditional Japanese buildings. Workshops for kids by the artists, and concerts in various places. Advance tickets ¥1,800 (available at Lawson) or ¥2,000 at the door.
BIWAKOビエンナーレ
http://energyfield.org/biwakobiennale/page/english

Until November 9, 2014 (closed Oct. 20 and 27)
♦ Yellow catfish exhibit at Lake Biwa MuseumKusatsu, 9:30 am – 5:00 pm
Live display of a rare yellow catfish endemic to Lake Biwa is at the museum’s aquarium. It is a medium-size species called Iwatoko-namazu (イワトコナマズ Silurus lithophilus) in Japanese. It is not the large Lake Biwa Giant Catfish which can also be yellow. This species normally live in rocky waters in northern Lake Biwa. Map
http://www.lbm.go.jp/english/
http://www.lbm.go.jp/tenji/suizoku/topic/index.html

November 8-9, 2014
♦ Shiga-Biwako Brand Fair, JR Osaka Station (Osaka Station City 1st floor), 11:00 am – 6:00 pm
This event is not in Shiga, but in Osaka. It’s a Shiga products fair where you can taste and buy stuff from Shiga. There will also be stage entertainment such as mascots from Shiga. Hiko-nyan is scheduled to appear on Nov. 8 at 11:30 am and 2 pm. Crafts people will also demonstrate the making of Omi-jofu hemp cloth and Hikone Buddhist altars.
http://www.motherlake.jp/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/burand-tirashi.pdf

Hiyoshi Taisha torii lit up in autumn.

November 15-30, 2014
Hiyoshi Taisha Shrine Maple Festival Light-up, Otsu
Hiyoshi Taisha Shrine at the foot of Mt. Hie in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture is the head shrine for all Hiyoshi, Hie, and Sanno Shrines in Japan (around 2,000). The spacious grounds includes two shrines that are National Treasures and 3,000 maple trees lit up at night 5:00 pm – 8:30 pm during this period. Even the green leaves look great against the dark sky. Highly recommended if you’re in that part of the city. Near Hiezan Sakamoto Station on the JR Kosei Line and Keihan Line’s Sakamoto Station. Map | Photos
もみじ祭
http://hiyoshitaisha.jp/event/momiji/

Saimyoji

Saimyoji

November 22-30, 2014
♦ Koto Sanzan Temple Trio autumn foliage, Kora, Aisho, and Higashi-Omi
Koto Sanzan (湖東三山) is a trio of large Tendai Buddhist temples in eastern Shiga: Saimyoji (西明寺) in Kora, Kongorinji (金剛輪寺) in Aisho, and Hyakusaiji (百済寺) in Higashi-Omi. They are famous for autumn leaves and structures that are National Treasures or Important Cultural Properties. Each temple also has its own unique characteristics. Saimyoji has a National Treasure Hondo worship hall and National Treasure pagoda that you can enter. It’s also deservedly one of Japan’s 100 Grand Autumn Foliage Sites. Kongorinji has many little Jizo statues and a National Treasure Hondo main hall housing an 11-faced Kannon statue and 13 other statues that are Important Cultural Properties. It is also displaying Japan’s oldest Daikokuten statue until Nov. 30, normally hidden from view. It’s 1,200 years old. 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.

During this period, convenient shuttle buses (Koto Sanzan Shuttle Bus) run every day between these three temples and a few train stations. The shuttle buses run most frequently from north to south, that is, from Saimyoji to Kongorinji and then to Hyakusaiji. If you start from the north, board the shuttle bus at Hikone Station. The bus will take you to Taga Town Hall from which you transfer to a bus bound for Saimyoji first.

From the south, board the bus at Ohmi Railways Yokaichi Station. The bus will stop at Hyakusaiji first. (A different bus also goes to Eigenji.) Check the bus stop for bus departure times. After touring Saimyoji (or Hyakusaiji), catch another shuttle bus to the next temple. Shuttle buses also run from Hyakusaiji to Eigenji (listed below), another temple famous for foliage. From Saimyoji, the last shuttle bus leaves at 5:23 pm for Taga Town Hall where you can catch a bus to Hikone Station (or walk to Taga Taisha-mae Station).

From Hyakusaiji and Eigenji, buses go to Ohmi Railways Yokaichi Station. From Hyakusaiji, the last shuttle bus leaves at 4:30 pm for Ohmi Railways Yokaichi Station arriving at 5 pm. Note that from this year, shuttle buses will not run from Amago Station and Kawase Station.

Bus fare is 200 yen per ride which is only 10-20 min. They also offer a day pass called Momiji kippu (Maple ticket) for 1,800 yen. This day pass includes passage on all Koto Sanzan shuttle buses and all Ohmi Railways trains. A good deal if you plan to ride on Ohmi Railways. Each temple also charges admission of 500 yen. Note that if you like to take your time, you might not be able to see all three temples in one day.
Saimyoji Map | Kongorinji Map | Hyakusaiji Map
秋の湖東三山
http://www.ohmitetudo.co.jp/bus/7859/index.html/
http://www.ohmitetudo.co.jp/file/2014syatoru_mbddzcwliqsfvpkoptqcjawmnaaowxfb.pdf
Official sites: Saimyoji | Kongorinji | Hyakusaiji

Eigenji

Eigenji

November 8-29, 2014
Eigenji Temple Autumn Foliage and Light-up, Higashi-Omi, 5:00 pm – 8:30 pm for light-up
Although this temple is not one of the Koto Sanzan Temple Trio, it’s also famous for autumn leaves with 3,000 maple trees. Along with Saimyoji, Eigenji is also one of Japan’s 100 Grand Autumn Foliage Sites. Established in 1361, Eigenji belongs to the Zen Rinzai Buddhist Sect (Eigenji School). Since it’s a different sect, Eigenji is not a member of the Koto Sanzan trio of Tendai Sect temples. Impressive during the day, but also beautiful at night when the leaves are illuminated along with the walking paths. Admission 500 yen.

From Ohmi Railways Yokaichi Station, go to Bus stop 1 and take the bus going to Eigenji Shako (永源寺車庫) and get off at Eigenji-mae (永源寺前). Takes about 35 min. Bus schedule from Yokaichi Station on weekdays | Saturday | Sunday. Note that from Eigenji-mae, the last bus for Yokaichi Station leaves at 7:26 pm on Sat./Sun. and 8:27 pm on weekdays. Shuttle buses from Hyakusaiji also run to Eigenji during Nov. 16-Dec. 1. Map
永源寺 ライトアップ
http://eigenji-t.jp

Hyozu Taisha

Hyozu Taisha garden

November 14-30, 2014
Hyozu Taisha Shrine Garden Autumn Foliage Light-up, Yasu, 5:45 pm – 9:00 pm (enter by 8:30 pm)
Established in 717 (Nara Period), Hyozu Taisha Shrine has a noted Japanese garden with a pond ringed by small rolling hills and autumn leaves. The fall leaves certainly look colorful and impressive when illuminated in the evenings and reflected in the pond. Mini concerts will be held during the foliage illumination in the evenings.

A short bus ride from JR Yasu Station’s North Exit (Kita-guchi). Take the Yoshikawa Line (going to Nishi Kawahara 2-chome 西河原2丁目 or Ayame-hama あやめ浜) and get off at Hyozu Taisha 兵主大社. Buses are infrequent (schedule here). The last bus leaving Hyozu Taisha for Yasu Station leaves around 9:02 pm on weekdays and around 7:17 pm on Sat./Sun. Or take a taxi (costing about 2,000 yen from Yasu Station). Map
兵主大社庭園紅葉ライトアップ

Genkyuen

Genkyuen autumn foliage light-up.

November 14-December 7, 2014
Genkyuen Garden Autumn Foliage Light-up, Hikone, 6:00 pm – 9:00 pm (enter by 8:30 pm)
Adjacent to Hikone Castle, Genkyuen was built as a castle garden in 1677 by Ii Naooki, the fourth lord of Hikone Castle. I would call this Shiga’s best place to view autumn foliage illumination. The pond’s reflection of the colorful autumn leaves at night doubles the impact. Hikone Castle in the background is also lit up for a perfect night scene. Reminds me of a master painter using a black canvas. Admission 500 yen. Short walk from JR Hikone Station. Map
錦秋の玄宮園ライトアップ
http://www.hikoneshi.com/jp/event/articles/c/

Chojuji

Chojuji

November 15-30, 2014
♦ Konan Sanzan Temple Trio Autumn Tour, Konan, all day
Not to be confused with Koto Sanzan, Konan Sanzan is a trio of Tendai Buddhist temples in the city of Konan. A small city like Konan is lucky to have as many as four National-Treasure structures at the three Konan Sanzan temples. Like Koto Sanzan, Konan Sanzan temples are also noted for autumn leaves. During this period, a convenient shuttle bus plies between the temples and train stations.

The temples are Jorakuji 常楽寺, Chojuji 長寿寺, and Zensuiji 善水時. Jorakuji has not one, but two buildings that are National Treasures: the Hondo main hall and three-story pagoda. Chojuji means, “Long Life Temple,” and its small, but distinctive Hondo hall is a National Treasure. Zensuiji has the largest and most impressive Hondo hall (National Treasure) bearing elegant roof lines. Not to be missed by architectural buffs. The three temples are all in quiet, rural neighborhoods.

One thing you have to understand is that two of the temples (Jorakuji and Chojuji) are on one side of the train tracks and the third temple (Zensuiji) is farther away on the other side of the tracks. So there are two separate bus routes going to the three temples and there’s a train ride between Jorakuji/Chojuji and Zensuiji.

The Konan Community bus called Meguri-kun runs from JR Ishibe Station (JR Kusatsu Line) to Jorakuji and Chojuji once an hour from 8:24 am to 3:45 pm. From Jorakuji, you can take the bus to Chojuji. From Chojuji, take the bus back to JR Ishibe Station and catch the train to JR Kosei Station one stop away. From JR Kosei Station, take the bus to Zensuiji. The last bus leaves Zensuiji at 5:17 pm for JR Kosei Station. You can also tour the temples in reverse order, starting with Zensuiji. In the morning, buses leave JR Kosei Station (north exit kita-guchi) for Zensuiji at 8:28 am, 9:20 am, 9:30 am, 10:15 am, and 11:25 am. Bus schedule here. Map
湖南三山めぐり
http://www.burari-konan.jp/konan3zan/

November 15-December 7, 2014
♦ Kyorinbo Garden Autumn Foliage Light-up, Azuchi, Omi-Hachiman, 5:00 pm – 8:00 pm (enter by 7:30 pm)
Beautiful Japanese garden designed by Kobori Enshu. Part of a temple at the foot of Mt. Kinugasa. Autumn foliage at night is reputed to be most beautiful. Of course, you can also go during the day. Tripods/monopods not allowed. The garden is usually open only on weekends and holidays, but it will be open every day during Nov. 1 to Dec. 15. Admission 500 yen. From JR Azuchi Station, take a taxi for 10-min. ride. Google Map
石の寺 教林坊 紅葉ライトアップ
http://www.d1.dion.ne.jp/~marche/kyourinbou/

November 29-30, 2014
♦ Hot Air Balloon Over Lake Biwa, Takashima, early morning
Dramatic sight of hot-air balloons crossing Lake Biwa. They start off very early in the morning so you would have stay near the launching beach in Takashima. Note that weather conditions can cancel the event.
熱気球琵琶湖横断
http://www.takashima-kanko.jp/new/20141010_1704.html

November 30, 2013
♦ Tonda Ningyo Puppet Show, Lute Plaza, Nagahama, 1:30 pm
The famous Tonda puppet troupe will perform three acts. Admission 1,200 yen at the door.
At JR Nagahama Station, go to Bus stop 1 and take the bus at 12:27 pm going to Nagahama Shiyakusho Azai-shisho-mae (長浜市役所浅井支所前) and get off at Biwa Shisho-mae (びわ支所前). Takes about 20 min. Only three buses go there on Sunday. Or take a taxi if you’re rich or going with friends. Google Map
人形浄瑠璃「冨田人形」
http://www.city.nagahama.shiga.jp/events/index.cfm/detail.1.37576.html

 

Kinomoto

Sengoku Taiga Kinomoto-kan

Until Dec. 28, 2014
♦ Kuroda Kanbe’e Expo
Nagahama, 9:00 am – 5:00 pm
Yet another “expo” (an overkill name) based on another year-long NHK Taiga Drama. This is the third such expo held in Nagahama in recent years. The drama this time is Gunshi Kanbei airing on NHK-G on Sunday evenings until Dec. 2014. The subject is Kuroda Kanbe’e (also called Kanbei and Yoshitaka), a samurai daimyo and brilliant military strategist for warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi during the 16th century. Although he was from Himeji, the Kuroda clan supposedly came from Omi (Shiga). This thin connection prompted Nagahama to hold year-long, small-scale exhibitions in Kinomoto and central Nagahama.

The main exhibition is in Kinomoto. It’s in a western-style, former bank building called Sengoku Taiga Kinomoto-kan (戦国大河きのもと館). A short walk from JR Kinomoto Station. The building, nicknamed Drama-kan, has exhibits introducing the characters in the Taiga Drama. No English captions. The display layout is very similar to the last expo held there in 2012. Admission is 300 yen for adults, free for kids. Open every day. Map

Also, a 10-min. walk from Kinomoto Station is the Kuroda Clan gravesite (黒田家御廟所) for six generations of the Kuroda Clan who lived in this area for 200 years. Nearby is a resthouse. Free admission. Map

The second exhibition venue is Nagahama Castle near JR Nagahama Station. Called Rekishi-kan, it mainly explains the historical background, slanted toward Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Admission is 400 yen, and 200 yen for elementary and jr. high kids (free for infants). Open every day. Map

If you plan to visit the venues in both Kinomoto and Nagahama, it is cheaper to buy the “set ticket” costing 500 yen. Expo tickets are sold at all the venues. The “set ticket” includes a bus tour called the Oku-Biwako Omotenashi Bus leaving Kinomoto Station and Takatsuki Station on weekends. It tours northern Nagahama to the Drama-kan in Kinomoto, the Kuroda Clan gravesite, and a few Kannon temples and museum in Takatsuki. Bus departure times are on the pamphlet here (in Japanese).

A minor venue is the Nagahama Hikiyama Museum. It just has a few panel displays about Kuroda and the Taiga Drama. It’s in the lobby area and free. Pay the admission if you want to see Hikiyama Matsuri floats. Map
http://kitabiwako.jp/kanbee/

December 1, 2014
♦ Tarobogu Shrine Fire Festival, Higashi-Omi, Noon – 4:00 pm
Held annually on the first Sunday of December, the Tarobo Shrine Fire Festival burns a big pile of 100,000 wooden prayer tablets called goma (護摩) collected from believers all over Japan. The tablet is written with the believer’s name, address, and prayer wish. The fire burns as a prayer for family health and safety. After the fire settles down, barefoot priests walk over the hot ashes. Very dramatic festival (photo here).
Short walk from Ohmi Railways Tarobogu-mae Station. Map
太郎坊宮お火焚大祭
http://www1.ocn.ne.jp/~tarobo/

For art and museum exhibitions in Shiga, see Kansai Art Beat’s exhibition schedule for Shiga museums.

Shiga Prefecture at Tourism Expo Japan 2014

TourismExpo_en

ツーリズムEXPOジャパンでの滋賀県のインパクトは少々と思いました。

Updated: Sept. 30, 2014

Great fun and entertainment at the huge Tourism Expo Japan trade show held on September 27-28, 2014 for the public at Tokyo Big Sight. The expo had tourist booths from all 47 prefectures and 150 countries. A great place to pick up travel information, ask travel/sightseeing questions, see traditional Japanese crafts, and enjoy dances and entertainment from around Japan and the world. For the first time this year, they combined the domestic travel fair and the international travel showcase to create this new trade show. So it’s now one of the world’s largest travel/tourism trade shows. About 150,000 attended the expo (admission ¥1,300 for adults).

Lots of local food and entertainment too. Besides three large performance stages to showcase Japanese dances and festivals, many booths had their own mini stages for cultural entertainment like hula dancers at the Hawaii booth. I thoroughly enjoyed the expo and hope to see it every year from now on. Regretfully, I didn’t get to see everything in one day. So much stuff and so many things going on.

Shiga Prefecture had a medium-size booth and a 30-min. slot on one of the large entertainment stages.

One of the food courts also held a donburi (bowl of rice with a topping) contest where Shiga had a booth. Sixteen donburi booths sold donburi from various parts of Japan for ¥500 and we could vote for our favorite donburi. Very popular place for lunch.

Here are some photos of Shiga at Tourism Expo Japan 2014.

booth

Shiga Prefecture’s booth.

Shiga’s booth represented only Hikone, Maibara, and Nagahama. But I didn’t see anything related to Maibara. Even Otsu wasn’t there. No Lake Biwa, no ninja either. Very puzzling. Perhaps the other cities did not have the budget for a booth. Or maybe the cities are taking turns at this expo, which still doesn’t make sense.

booth

Shiga booth

booth

Inside Shiga’s booth.

Shiga’s booth was mainly occupied by this space, supposedly for some kind of entertainment. But there was no schedule of who or what would appear. Hiko-nyan supposed to appear, but the staff I asked couldn’t tell me any specifics. At one small corner of the booth, they gave out brochures. Caffy was there too, but only sporadically. The booth’s emphasis was on Hikone Castle billed as on the “World Heritage Site Tentative List” which is really nothing to brag about. And Nagahama Hikiyama Matsuri being included in Japan’s application for inclusion in the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list (to join Kyoto’s Gion Matsuri floats). This is also nothing to brag about, not until it actually makes the list. Really couldn’t understand this booth.

滋賀の出展ブースはよく分かりませんでした。ほとんどのスペースがなんかのミニステージと見えますが、なにが出るか不明でした。スタッフに聞いても詳細が分かりませんと。看板に「米原」も大きくあったけど、米原関係のものが見当たりませんでした。長浜と彦根で一色。なんで湖北だけに限定されたのか訳が分からない。大津抜きで滋賀を紹介できるの??

P1090092

Nagahama Hikiyama Matsuri musicians on stage.

P1090093

Nagahama Hikiyama musicians on stage. Extreme left is the mayor of Nagahama. They all looked too serious and glum.

On September 27, 2014, Shiga had a 30-min. slot on the large Stage A from 2 pm. First the mayor of Nagahama gave a short speech, then these musicians from the Nagahama Hikiyama Festival played while the large screen above projected a video of the festival.

来場者は政治家の挨拶なんか一番聞きたくないのです(有名人や人気者は別です)。こういう時は、着物姿のミス長浜などが登場して挨拶と祭りの説明をすると効果的と思います。市長も皆さんも固い表情であまり真面目な顔していてアピール度が全然ダメでした。明るく笑顔でSMILEしましょうよ!こんな暗い顔、葬儀みたいよ。やはりプロの演出家の起用が必要かも。皆さん、明るいスマイルを!出る前に鏡の前で練習しましょう。「イイイ」とか「チーズ」言えますか?スマイル!スマイル!

Nagahama Hikiyama singer was excellent.

Nagahama Hikiyama narrator-singer was excellent.

P1090105

Nagahama Hikiyama Festival kabuki dancer (Sanbaso).

Following the Nagahama Hikiyama musicians, this young kabuki dancer performed with live narrator-singers. He was very good. But I wish there were at least two or three of them.

この子がよく頑張りました。ご苦労さんでした。でも一人だけの大きなステージで寂し(小さ)かった。2〜3人の子がいたらもっといい存在感と印象がするでしょう。なぜ囃子の方々があんなに大勢だけど目玉の歌舞伎役者が一人だけ?ちょっとアンバランスな演出と思いました。

P1090106

Hiko-nyan’s turn on stage.

Hiko-nyan promoting mascot character festival.

Hiko-nyan promoting mascot character festival.

Following the Nagahama Hikiyama Festival introduction was Hiko-nyan’s appearance. Still a shutterbug’s darling, he only had to walk left and right on stage and pose for cell phone photos. Although Kumamon and Funasshi have overtaken Hiko-nyan in terms of fame and popularity, Hiko-nyan remains popular. Disappointed that nothing from Maibara was featured on stage. They should’ve brought Maibara’s taiko drum dancers.

こんなポスターを見せても文字が小さくて読めへんよ!ひこにゃんの顔も隠さないでください!皆は写真を撮っているから!!(上のスクリーンにご当地キャラ博の様子と開催日時を上映すればよかったのに。)こういう時も着物姿のミス彦根城大使などが登場して話をするといい。またはプロの司会者やアナウンサーが望ましい。

Shiga donburi

Shiga donburi

An eatery in Shiga had this donburi booth (left) for lunch. Unfortunately, it was right next to the super popular Kobe beef booth (right) which always had long lines. As you can see, the Shiga booth wasn’t crowded at all. It served a rice bowl with a topping of Omi beef, pork, and chicken.

P1090062

Shiga’s donburi

この「近江三大肉丼」はあまり人気ではなかったね。問題は誰も聞いたことない「三大肉丼」の名。隣の焼き肉丼は「神戸牛」の有名なキーワードで客が絶えずに殺到された。もっと大胆に「近江牛」や「赤こんにゃく」などの有名なキーワードを看板にしないと集客力が弱い。

僕はこの「近江三大肉丼」と「神戸牛の焼き肉丼」を食った。両方とも量が少なくてまずまずでした。味はいいけど、神戸牛は油っこい。

P1090076

Hikone butsudan maker

The expo had a traditional crafts area with traditional crafts people giving live demos. Shiga had two two crafts booths. One was this Hikone butsudan (Buddhist altar) maker. I had a nice talk with this master craftsman from Hikone. He builds the altar doors. The sculptured wooden parts are made in Maibara (Samegai). He makes several hundred butsudan every year. He even makes altars for Buddhist temples and repairs butsudan too. Seems very busy. He said I could visit and see him work in Hikone. Yep, I will do so. The butsudan on the left behind him showed a price tag of 1,641,600 yen.

彦根仏壇の職人さん。とても面白い話を聞かせてもらいました。丁寧に質問などを答えてくれてとてもいい人でした。彦根の工房をぜったいに訪れます。外国人の知人とね。

Omi jofu hemp cloth

Omi jofu hemp cloth 近江上布

Besides the butsudan maker, there was a booth for weaving Omi jofu (hemp cloth) from Aisho. Happy to see not one, but two crafts people from Shiga. You could try and weave the cloth yourself.

伝統的工芸品の職人さんのコーナーではなんと二件の滋賀出身の職人さんもいました。嬉しい。伝統的工芸品の職人さんは大好きですね。専門の専門で熱心に仕事をして常に自分の腕を磨きながら新しい品物を造ったり開発したりする。とてもクリエイティブな仕事。

Miss Sansa Odori from Morioka, Iwate.

Miss Sansa Odori from Morioka, Iwate.

I wasn’t too impressed with Shiga’s booth and stage presentation. They need to have better spokespersons on stage like these two Miss Sansa Odori from Morioka, Iwate Prefecture. They had bright, smiling faces and a welcome tone of voice. Not only that, they could dance too. Sansa Odori is a native dance of Morioka performed in August. The tourism expo was like a virtual tour of Japan at one place. Highly recommend it.

Sansa Odori dancers from Morioka, Iwate.

Sansa Odori dancers from Morioka, Iwate.

参考のために岩手県盛岡市のミスさんさ踊りのステージです。明るい表情と笑顔と優しい声でさんさ踊りを紹介。そして実演。太鼓の連中も笑顔です。言うまでもなくアピール度が高い。これを見て私も本当にさんさ踊りを一度見に行きたい気持ちが湧きました。

滋賀のステージで長浜の秋の祭りも紹介して欲しかった。きもの大園遊会とか。曳山祭りの4月はまだまだ先。そしてなぜステージで米原を紹介しなかったの??太鼓踊りでもやったら迫力あるよ。むしろ秋に太鼓踊りがある(あった)。

自己PRには滋賀ってどうしても下手です。イモっぽくていいんですが、まず基本的なこと、常識なことをしっかり整って欲しい。こんな国際的な場にも外国語の紹介も必要。UNESCOにもアピールしたいやろう?(機会翻訳は通じへん。)

毎回同じパターンではなく、想像力(創造力)を生かしてもっと面白い、新鮮なアイデアを生み出そう。職人さんのようにもっと熱心的になって細かいところまでこだわること。細かいことは大体重要なポイントで質と印象ががらんと変えるもの。PRの職人さんになろう(または雇おう)。

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