Hikone Castle 410th anniversary 2017

20170322_6135Updated: April 20, 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.

Blue Impulse coming to Hikone.

Blue Impulse coming to Hikone.

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

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 Tenbin Yagura 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.

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 a later date.

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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。

Shiga food and gifts 2017

This post kicks off a new blog category named “Shiga Food & Gifts.” I’ll be trying Shiga’s food, beverages, and other products.

This post will be updated from time to time.

Setsubun Festivals in Shiga Prefecture

Ogre dancers at Taga Taisha Setsubun.

February 3 is the Setsubun Festival at many temples and shrines in Japan. It marks the beginning of spring (Feb. 4) according to the lunar calendar. They hold a religious ceremony and then throw fuku-mame lucky beans (dry soybeans) for worshippers to catch. They may also throw beans at ogre (oni) to chase away evil and bad luck (symbolized by the oni) and bring in good fortune (fuku). They usually shout, “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!” (鬼は外! 福は内! Out with bad luck! In with good fortune!). The bean-throwing is called mame-maki. Like giving New Year’s prayers, Setsubun is a popular event because many people want to eliminate misfortune and invite good fortune to come in the new year.

In Shiga Prefecture, you can see the Setsubun festival on February 3 at the following temples and shrines. There may be slight variations in how they conduct the Setsubun festival. You don’t have to be Buddhist to see or participate in Setsubun (or any other Buddhist events in Japan). Just make sure to dress warmly and enjoy one of Japan’s major traditions.

Catching lucky beans at Taga Taisha.

♦ Taga Taisha Shrine Setsubun-sai (多賀大社 節分祭), Taga, Feb. 3, 11:00 am and 2:00 pm
Shiga’s biggest Setsubun festival is in Taga. They have impressive ogre (oni) dancers from Shimane Prefecture to act as the evil demons to be chased away. They will hold two bean-throwing (mame-maki) sessions. Expect a large crowd.

It starts with a religious ceremony in the shrine’s worship hall. The shrine’s outdoor stage will then show a dramatic performance by the ogres as they are chased away by priests throwing beans at them. The main event is when over 300 people born under the current year’s Oriental zodiac begin to throw soybeans and mochi to the crowd.

The soybeans are thrown in little paper bags, so they won’t get dirty if they fall to the ground. But the mochi are hard as a rock, so watch out. The bean-throwing is fun, but potentially dangerous with beans or mochi hitting your face/head and people shoving you around. Better to not pick up beans/mochi on the ground amid the jostling. Taking pictures is pretty risky as well. One mochi even hit my camera lens. Fortunately, no damage. You should always look up and see where the mochi and beans are flying.

Directions: Taga Taisha is a short walk from Ohmi Railways Taga Taisha-mae Station on the Taga Line.
Map | PhotosVideo | Taga Taisha website

Throwing beans at Zensuiji Setsubun-e.

♦ Zensuiji Setsubun-e (善水寺 節分会星祭), Konan, Feb. 3, 1:30 pm
Belonging to the Tendai Buddhist sect, Zensuiji temple is a National Treasure and one of the Konan Sanzan Temple Trio worth visiting at any time of the year. Their Setsubun festival is somewhat unique since it is held entirely inside the temple. It starts at 1:30 pm with priests chanting and the Goma fire ritual (護摩供奉修) with a small fire inside the temple burning worshippers’ wooden prayer sticks (write your wishes on the stick, ¥500 per stick).

After the hour-long fire ritual, the Three Ogres of Poison (三毒鬼) in different colors enter the temple. Each ogre represents one of the three Mahayana Buddhist poisons. The priest introduces the ogres and explains that the blue ogre (holding a rake to gather desired objects) is greed/desire (貪), red ogre is hate/anger (瞋), and yellow ogre is ignorance/delusion (痴). (This is also when babies in the audience frightened by the scary ogres start to cry.)

Instead of chasing away the ogres, the priest uses the power of Buddha to neutralize their poison hearts. Each of the three poisons have an antidote, such as knowledge to quell ignorance. All the ogres acquiesce and are thereby converted into “good” ogres.

At around 3 pm, the good ogres, priests, and other folks throw beans while shouting, “Fuku wa uchi! Oni mo uchi!” (福は内! 鬼も内! In with good fortune! In with ogres!). This is another unusual thing about Zensuiji’s Setsubun festival, they also welcome the ogres. But they are now good ogres. At the end of the festival, worshippers can have one of the three ogres eliminate their respective poison. The ogre taps the person to cleanse his/her poison. Very interesting Setsubun festival. Photography is permitted.

Directions: From JR Kosei Station on the JR Kusatsu Line, catch a bus bound for Shimoda (下田) and get off at Iwane (岩根). From there, walk up the hill, and follow the signs (if you can read Japanese). A small temple admission is charged.
Photos courtesy of Konan Tourism Association (湖南市観光協会).
Map | Zensuiji photos | VideoZensuiji website | Konan video

Good ogres cleanse worshippers’ poisons at Zensuiji’s Setsubun.

♦ Tachiki Jinja Shrine Setsubun Taisai (立木神社 節分大祭), Kusatsu, Feb. 3 at 3 pm, 5 pm, and 7 pm
Men and women born under the current year’s zodiac animal will throw beans three times on this day. Free ama-zake (sweet sake) and locally brewed sacred sake will be served to visitors. The shrine’s mikuji paper fortunes (sold for ¥200) will also be used in a drawing for many prizes.

Directions: 15-min. walk from JR Kusatsu Station‘s east exit (or take the Mame bus and get off at Tachiki Jinja-mae).
Map | Tachiki Shrine website

Minakuchi

Minakuchi Shrine

♦ Minakuchi Jinja Shrine Setsubun-sai (水口神社 節分祭), Koka, Feb. 3, 7 pm
Minakuchi Shrine’s Setsubun festival is mainly held in the evening from 7 pm when they hold a religious ceremony, perform a lion dance, chase away ogres, and throw lucky beans and mochi. From 3 pm to 7 pm, udon noodles and red bean soup (zenzai) will be available to warm you up. The shrine is most famous for the Minakuchi Hikiyama Matsuri in April.

Directions: 5-min. walk from Ohmi Railways Minakuchi Jonan Station. | Map

Wishing everyone good fortune this new year!

Shiga History September–December 2016

Inui Yukiko at the Olympic victory parade in Ginza, Tokyo.

Chronology of Shiga Prefecture’s major and interesting news headlines for September–December 2016 (according to the year, month, day, and time posted at GMT).

Originally posted on Twitter under Shiga Headlines by Philbert Ono. Twitter posts are limited to 140 characters including spaces and links (shortened by Twitter). Dates and times below are based on GMT instead of Japan time.

2016/9/1 7:28 Between May 1 and Aug. 28, 2016, 582 people in Shiga were taken to a hospital due to heat exhaustion. 110 of them required hospitalization.
2016/9/1 7:31 Due to poor sales and increased competition, the Otsu Parco store will close at the end of Aug. 2017 and be replaced by a new owner.
2016/9/2 15:17 Kyoto Univ. research group found relatively high concentrations of microplastics in southern Lake Biwa. How they affect fish is unknown.
2016/9/2 15:24 Kusatsu cram school teacher Yabunaka Hirofumi (籔中博文) arrested for groping a high school student & shooting nude pics of underage female teen.
2016/9/3 6:34 Mugwort-flavored soft-serve ice cream (yomogi soft cream) on Mt. Ibuki is yummy! https://t.co/L5Wj1g2XUL https://t.co/uy1GHexvfV
2016/9/5 16:09 A few members of the Shiga Kenjinkai in southern California appeared on NHK TV today singing “Hana wa Saku.”

2016/9/6 4:50 Members of the Nanka Shiga Club (Shiga Kenjinkai) in southern California wore nice T-shirts at their summer picnic!

2016/9/7 14:06 Shiga Univ. Education Dept.’s primary school teacher Yamashita Tomoyoshi (39, 山下那義) arrested for groping a 16-year-old girl on a Kyoto train.
2016/9/7 14:07 Voter turnout among 18 & 19-year-olds in Shiga in the July Upper House election was only 50.57%, lower than Shiga’s overall 56.52% turnout.
2016/9/7 14:12 Lake Biwa is plagued with the most water bloom ever recorded. Found in 12 locations for a record 32 days as of Sept. 6, 2016.
2016/9/13 16:10 As of Sept. 1, 2016, Shiga had the most centenarians ever at 637 (as old as age 110), 38 more than in 2015. Only 66 of them are men.
2016/9/13 16:17 As of July 2016, 24.7% of Shiga’s pop. of 1.4 million was age 65 or older. Taga had the highest percentage of 33.3%, then Takashima at 33.3%
2016/9/14 15:15 Ritto native, paralympic swimmer KIMURA Keiichi won the silver in the 50m freestyle & bronze in the 100m breaststroke in Rio!
2016/9/21 18:35 For 8 years in a row, Shiga’s average land price has fallen. As of July 1, 2016, it fell by -0.4%. Higher in the south, but not in the north
2016/9/24 23:58 Nagahama Hikiyama Matsuri (Sanbaso dancer ) at Tourism Expo Japan at Tokyo Big Sight yesterday. Musicians also played. https://t.co/jyDeMr4Y3z
2016/9/25 9:36 In Otsu yesterday, Shiga Lakestars lost their 1st basketball game in the new B.League against SeaHorses Mikawa, 78-83.
2016/9/30 22:46 Lake Biwa Museum’s website remains offline after a 2nd DDoS attack on Sept. 24 supposedly by anti-whaling Anonymous. http://www.lbm.go.jp/ 
2016/9/30 22:54 Renovated Otsu Station building reopened today with a capsule hotel, tourist info center, free rental bicycles, eateries, & outdoor terrace.
2016/10/1 13:42 Shiga’s 6th graders and 3rd-year jr high students scored lower than the national average on scholastic achievement tests in April.
2016/10/3 11:08 Paralympic swimmer KIMURA Keiichi from Ritto awarded Shiga’s sports honor award for winning 4 medals in Rio, his 3rd Paralympic Games.
2016/10/6 15:51 Nango Jr. High in Otsu has started English classes conducted only in English. All of Otsu’s Jr. high schools will have such classes by 2019.
2016/10/7 13:34 Shiga natives KIRYU Yoshihide (w/IIZUKA Shota) and synchronized swimmer INUI Yukiko appeared in the Olympic parade in Ginza, Tokyo today. https://t.co/dXnDZAd1V7
2016/10/11 8:38 Otsu mayor Koshi prayed today on the 5th anniversary of the bullied 13-year-old jr high school student’s suicide. https://t.co/vyAtmguM1O
2016/10/11 8:44 Maibara Station’s east side now rents out bicycles. Cycle Station has 60 bicycles of various types. Rental rates start from ¥3,500 per day.
2016/10/14 11:29 A lack of oxygen in the mud due to sedimentation of old lotus plants stunted the growth of lotus flowers at Karasuma Peninsula this summer.
2016/10/17 14:36 Remains of large Kofun-Period structures & evidence of iron-making found at Inabe ruins in Hikone. Possibly related to the Yamatai Kingdom.
2016/10/17 14:47 Shiga Prefectural Personnel Committee recommended a raise for over 18,000 pref. employees that will cost an additional ¥1.1 billion/year.
2016/10/21 14:44 Today’s M6.6 earthquake in Tottori also shook Shiga at M2 or M3 which caused no damage.
2016/10/27 6:20 11-year-old boy in Shiga was taken into custody by police for sending a bomb threat letter to Ohara Elementary School in Maibara on Oct. 19.
2016/11/1 2:25 A record 20 million foreign tourists visited Japan in 2016 as of Oct. 30, and the number visiting Shiga is also increasing, but still low.
2016/11/2 13:55 20 Shiga prefectural employees logged over 1,000 hours of overtime last fiscal year. Further measures to be taken to reduce overtime.
2016/11/10 3:43 Trump won sister-state Michigan by 0.3%, 47.6% of the popular vote vs. 47.3% for Clinton, about 12,000 votes more out of 5 mil+ votes cast.
2016/11/10 3:45 Hidden Buddha at Eigenji displayed for the 1st time in 30 years until Nov. 27. Ishiyama-dera’s hidden Buddha also on display until Dec. 4.
2016/11/22 11:12 A man (28) from Kora died 3 days after choking on his 5th onigiri at an onigiri eating contest held by JA Higashi Biwako in Hikone on Nov.13.
2016/11/24 10:32 Eigenji temple in Higashi-Omi showing hidden Kannon for the 1st time in 30 years until Nov. 27. Serene, golden face.

2016/11/26 14:06 Ishiyama-dera in Otsu showing its hidden principal object of worship, a huge seated Kannon statue for the 1st time in 33 years until Dec. 4. https://t.co/e4SoFZs8FN
2016/12/1 1:18 Nagahama Hikiyama Matsuri now officially a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage along with 32 other float festivals.
2016/12/7 20:47 Nagahama policeman Yasuda Kazushi (33, 安田一司) arrested for hugging a woman (20s) from behind on a Hikone street and attempting obscene acts.
2016/12/7 20:58 The last leg of the Hokuriku Shinkansen to be built from Tsuruga to Shin-Osaka will be decided soon. Shiga is pushing for the Maibara route.
2016/12/8 5:25 Due to low enrollment, Omi Brotherhood Elementary School will stop recruiting from 2018 & close in March 2023 after the last class graduates.
2016/12/13 15:09 Gamo-Higashi Elementary School head teacher Arikawa Tomoaki (50, 有川智章) arrested twice for extortion for trying to force two women to meet him.
2016/12/13 16:08 Dec. 11: North Korean Otsu man Nakagawa Akihiro (中川晃) on the JR Shin-Imamiya Station platform in Osaka pushed a 63-year-old woman onto the tracks who survived.
2016/12/13 16:12 Nakagawa Akihiro (中川晃大、本名、裴晃大) arrested for attempted murder for pushing a 63-year-old woman onto the tracks. Mother in Otsu cites mental problems.
2016/12/13 16:15 Shiga Blog: Renovated Otsu Station building reopens with The Calendar and other eateries. https://t.co/qptLBQ2R8y
2016/12/14 11:26 The Obama-Kyoto Route has been chosen for the Hokuriku Shinkansen from Tsuruga to Shin-Osaka citing faster travel times and cheaper fares.

2016/12/25 14:58 Near Hikone Castle on Xmas morning, a 100kg wild boar attacked 4 male tourists on a sidewalk, causing minor injuries. Boar was later killed.
2016/12/26 15:24 Plans have been announced to renovate the 100-year-old Ohmi Railways Hino Station. Donations are being solicited to help cover the cost. https://t.co/mXGDmuUybO
2016/12/27 15:35 Gov. Mikazuki has stated that since the Hokuriku Shinkansen won’t go through Shiga, there’s no reason for Shiga to help bear the cost.
2016/12/28 15:35 A Japanese novel about William M. Vories titled, “Yane wo Kakeru Hito” 屋根をかける人 was written by Kadoi Yoshinobu 門井慶喜 & published in Dec. 2016.

Shiga History May–Aug. 2016Chronological History of Shiga | Shiga History Jan.–April 2017

Renovated Otsu Station building reopens

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After a few years of uncertainty and about a year of major renovations, a new lease on life has been bestowed on the JR Otsu Station building that reopened on Oct. 1, 2016. I dropped by in late Nov. 2016 to check it out.

The train station platforms look the same, but when you get to the turnstiles at the north exit, the place looks cleaner and more spiffy, including the restroom. After passing through the turnstile, you see a new 7-Eleven on the left. To explore the new Otsu Station building, you now have to go outside. Walk outside the building to see the new 1st floor restaurants or enter The Calendar entrance to go upstairs to the 2nd floor. The long corridor and stairways that were inside the building are now gone.

Ground floor restaurants

See ground floor restaurants from outside the building.

On the outside, the two-story station building has a new paint job and looks basically the same structurally, but the interior has been totally gutted and replaced mainly with restaurants on both the 1st and 2nd floors. Besides 7-Eleven, the 1st/ground floor now has Starbucks, Japanese bank ATMs (Sumitomo-Mitsui and Resona), Otsu Tourist Information Center (rental bicycles), and three Shiga-original restaurants: Okaki for Omi beef, Chanpontei for ramen, and Konkian for soba noodles. The renovations have also made the building more earthquake-resistant.

The station building is now named “Vierra Otsu” (ビエラ大津). According to the building’s developer, JR West Real Estate & Development Co., the word “Vierra” was created with the Spanish words “vida” (life) and “tierra” (land or earth), so it supposed to mean “a place for convenient, everyday living.” But why Spanish? There’s nothing Spanish in the building. It’s not even a real Spanish word so no one will understand what it means. In English, we only know “Vierra” as a surname.

Calendar

Ground floor with ATMs on the left and the entrance to The Calendar.

Stairs

Stairs to The Calendar on the 2nd floor. No elevators.

The building’s biggest and most dramatic change is upstairs on the 2nd floor. It’s where they have “The Calendar,” a unique combination of different and almost seamless spaces for a restaurant, cafe, bar, open-air rooftop terrace (barbecue and beer garden), bookshelves selling books, 60-bed capsule hotel, and even a ping-pong table. The open-air terrace was built on an existing rooftop, covering one-third of the station building.

before renovation

Before: Otsu Station building’s 2nd floor in Oct. 2013 before renovations, where The Calendar is now.

restaurant

After: The Calendar restaurant on the 2nd floor.

Indoors, the 2nd floor now looks to be one large room with various spaces. It replaces the old restaurants and offices on the 2nd floor. Very dramatic change if you know what the 2nd floor looked like before (photo above) with a long corridor in the middle of the partitioned restaurants and offices.

capsule

In this corner, the door to the capsule hotel. Phone: 077-526-9080

The capsule hotel, named Calendar Hotel, is on the east end of the building and accessible through an obscure door in a corner of the restaurant. Only hotel guests can enter the small door to the capsule hotel. They don’t allow people to tour the capsule hotel, so I can’t review it unless I stay there. The hotel has separate quarters for men and women with 36 capsules for men and 24 for women, starting at ¥3,000/night. There’s also free Wi-Fi. Not all capsules are equipped with a TV which costs extra. Capsule rates also vary depending on the day of the week (most expensive on Sat. nights). You can also request breakfast and/or dinner. The hotel supposed to be geared for foreign tourists so they should have information in English and other languages.

Compared to the old station building, Vierra Otsu offers a much better choice for dining and hanging out. Good to see restaurants that originated in Shiga. After seeing the Otsu Station building shuttered and almost abandoned for a significant period before the renovations started in Nov. 2015, it was a welcome sight to see it finally reopen. Next we have to wait for the new supermarket (and condominium) slated to replace the AL Plaza mall now being torn down next to Otsu Station.

The whole idea is to revitalize the sleepy Otsu Station area, attract more people (including foreign tourists), and provide a place to dine, rest, and hang out. Attracting more tourists might be quite difficult since the Hama-Otsu area at lakeside is where the action is with a shopping mall, restaurants, cruise boat port, and hotels. There’s not much near Otsu Station except for the prefectural government office.

shuttered

Otsu Station building shuttered and in limbo in 2014. This corner space now occupied by Konkian restaurant.

Built in 1975, the Otsu Station building was originally managed by a public corporation in Otsu that contracted with JR (Japan Railways) to lease floor space to businesses. When this public corporation dissolved, the city took over the building’s management from 2010. However, the aging building was in need of major repairs, especially to the air-conditioning system which would be a major expense. After March 2014, the city of Otsu quit managing the Otsu Station building that it had been sub-leasing to tourist offices, shops, and restaurants. It had been paying JR, the building’s owner, ¥16 million annually to lease the building. They cited the old air conditioning that would cost ¥200 million to renovate. JR also told the city that the building’s commercial potential was too low to justify a reconstruction.

After a few years of discussions and negotiations, the city of Otsu and JR finally came to agreement on the building’s renovations and how much of the bill both would foot. The city agreed to bear two-thirds of the cost while expecting subsidies from the central government, and JR would pay one-third. The total cost was reported to be at least ¥700 million.

Outdoor terrace

Outdoor terrace on part of the west-end rooftop.

As soon as I entered The Calendar restaurant on the 2nd floor, a friendly young waitress greeted me and asked whether I was there to eat or just drink. I was there for lunch so she told me where I could order and pay the cashier in advance. I stood in a short line to order the daily lunch special (¥850) and paid. I was given a beeper that would alert me when my order was ready. I was told that I could sit anywhere so I spent the waiting time touring the 2nd floor looking at everything except the off-limits capsule hotel. Went outside to the terrace and sat in different chairs.

The Calendar has a wide variety of seating and spaces. First you have to decide whether to sit outdoors on the terrace or stay indoors. The weather may easily decide that for you. The outdoor terrace is very spacious, airy, and well furnished with many comfy chairs. Large groups would like the large sofas and tables. It was built on an existing rooftop covering the ground floor. Too bad there are no nice views. Only buildings.

If the neighbors don’t complain, I would like to see live entertainment on the terrace. Perhaps Otsu Matsuri musicians can perform here before the festival as a PR ploy. Or have upcoming local singers, musicians, or hula dancers (especially in summer) to perform. Great place for private parties. I hope they can find a way to use the terrace even in the colder months. It looks like they can install a tarp-like roof over the entire terrace for cold or rainy weather. That space is just too big for it not to be used in the colder months. All that furniture has to be protected from the elements too.

terrace

Chic furniture on the terrace. Train platform on the left.

lounge

Reclining lounge chairs. If we could only see the lake from here.

Indoors, you will find single seats in front of the main picture window, small tables for couples and small groups, and tables for larger groups. There’s even a sit-on-the-floor room next to the ping-pong table in the corner room. This is where I decided to have lunch. It looks like a Japanese-style room, but the floor is varnished wood instead of tatami mats and the cushions are super thick to make it comfortable even for people not used to sitting on the floor. This room seemed popular among couples and families with small kids. It also had a view of passing trains at Otsu Station. I liked this room (and the cushion) as well.

singles

For singles.

couples

Window seating for couples or small groups.

Floor

Where I had lunch. On-the-floor seating next to the ping-pong room.

Ping-pong

Ping-pong room. Close the sliding doors before playing. Paddles and balls provided.

lunch

My lunch: Daily special (hi-gawari lunch) served 11 am–2:30 pm for ¥850 includes soup, rice or bread, and the drink bar (coffee, tea, juices).

My beeper sounded and I went to get my food. The lunch special was okay, but not especially delicious. Main dish was chicken. While I had lunch, a few boys eating in front of me played ping-pong. To play ping-pong, you have to close the sliding doors so the ball doesn’t bounce out. They seemed to have fun, but I wondered how popular it would be among customers. It’s a novel idea to have a ping-pong table, but that room was about the same size as the adjacent sit-on-the-floor dining room where 10 people and I were eating. The ping-pong room is only for 2 or 4 people at the most, and it could seat at least 12 people as a dining room. If they wanted to offer something unique, I think it would be more practical and attractive to convert the ping-pong room into a kids’ playroom where parents can easily watch over their kids while dining. Instead of going to the neighborhood park to socialize with other moms and kids, they could all come here, especially in the colder months. The noisy kids wouldn’t really bother the other customers because the room is set apart from the rest of the restaurant. Great place for kids’ birthday parties too.

The Calendar restaurant is nice and I felt good vibes, but it didn’t make me feel like I was in Otsu. What was missing was localized decor. At the top of the stairs, there were modern posters on the wall, but none were apparently related to Otsu. There is some artwork on the walls here and there (even inside the restroom), but they have nothing to do with Otsu or Shiga. Even the books on the bookshelves, I couldn’t find any Otsu- or Shiga-related books or magazines. How about installing Otsu-e paintings, pictures or paintings of Otsu Matsuri, Otsu-juku, Omi Hakkei, the lake, etc? Promote Otsu. There’s lots of wall space and it needs some local flavor since there aren’t any views of the lake.

Bookshelves

Bookshelves of books for sale. Couldn’t find any books about Otsu.

Central

Central area of The Calendar restaurant. The place was abuzz even well past lunch time. Open from 7 am to 11:30 pm.

Together with the Otsu Tourist Information Center, The Calendar also holds activities such as craft making, cooking, shogi, sake brewery tours, daily exercises, etc. This is good, to have community and cultural activities. They should add foreign language classes for tourist/restaurant/hotel staff if they want to welcome foreign visitors.

One confusing thing is that they have so many different names for the spaces they have: Restaurant, cafe, bar, Japanese-style multipurpose room, Calendar Hotel, capsule hotel, Lobby & Lounge (and Lobby Lounge), Terrace Restaurant, BBQ Terrace, Beer Garden, Book Cafe, Book Store & Cafe, and ping-pong lounge. Some things like the hotel and terrace are obvious, but the restaurant, cafe, lounge, lobby, and bar all look to be in the same room. I don’t know why it was named “The Calendar” either. Couldn’t see any obvious connection nor find any answer.

The Calendar is very spacious and quite big (maybe too big), and it looks like a great place for locals and tourists to hang out. Even the restroom was very modern and chic. I think it has great appeal and potential for people who live or work near Otsu Station. It’s certainly a great improvement over the old building. But Otsu Station is still only restaurants and no shops except for 7-Eleven. It’s going to mainly cater to local residents and workers. It’s great for them, but I don’t think normal tourists would get off the train just to dine here. The simple truth is that there are no major tourist attractions near Otsu Station except during major festivals like Otsu Matsuri. Central Otsu’s attractions are mainly along the Keihan Line which is not connected to Otsu Station on the JR Tokaido Line.

tourist

Otsu Tourist Information Center on 1st floor.

Information

Inside Otsu Tourist Information Center.

After lunch, I dropped by the Otsu Tourist Information Center on the 1st floor. The location and space are great improvements over the old office on the 2nd floor (and in the temporary quarters during the renovations). They still need to have a large sign inside the train station near the turnstiles to point the way to the Center.

I entered the new Otsu Tourist Information Center and expected the usual and polite “Irasshaimase” (Welcome!) that I’m so used to in Japan. But the three women staff never even paid attention to me. Another man soon walked in, and they never said anything to him either. It was like we were invisible to them. They just continued to whisper amongst themselves with their backs facing outward. How can you work there and totally ignore walk-in visitors when you’re not even busy? It’s common sense and standard procedure to greet visitors, especially if you’re in the hospitality industry.

I walked around the room and saw some local products on sale (they need to sell more products unless 7-Eleven already has an Otsu section), a large video monitor, and tourist pamphlets. But the atmosphere was strange. The place was nice enough, but it lacked soul and warmth (人情), at least when I was there in late Nov. I didn’t feel any welcoming vibes, and it was a silent, cold space compared to the many other tourist information centers I’ve been to in Japan. Yes, you could call me a tourist information center connoisseur.

When one of the women finally faced outward, I went up to her and asked a simple question about Ogoto Onsen. She said they didn’t have the answer to my question, so she would give me the phone number for the Ogoto Onsen tourist/ryokan association for me to call them and find out for myself. I was flabbergasted.

“What?? You want me to call them?!” (For information that they should’ve known in the first place.) She said yes, and I shook my head in disbelief and walked out. I didn’t want to start an argument. Like what prevented her from making that call and asking for me?? She could’ve learned something new in the process. If they don’t know the answer, it is THEIR job to try and find out for the visitor. Perhaps if I spoke in English, they might have been more helpful. But it shouldn’t have made a difference.

They need to understand that they are representing the city of Otsu, that they are the city’s front-line ambassadors who give tourists their first impressions of the city. They give the city a human face. Their job might be mundane at times, but tourist information staff are actually very important. (More important than the largely ceremonial Miss Biwako-Otsu Tourist Ambassadors.) It seems the company (BALNIBARBI Co., Ltd.) operating The Calendar is also managing the tourist information center. The restaurant staff were good, but the tourist information staff need to receive better training in both local tourism information and customer service. Please note that I don’t criticize to embarrass people. I criticize to help them improve their product, service, attitude, knowledge, skills, effectiveness, efficiency, professionalism, etc. Because I care about them.

I’m also amused that, as of this writing, Otsu’s official tourist information website does not mention The Calendar in their list of hotels nor in their list of Otsu restaurants even though they are right next door and co-organize tourist activities with The Calendar. Japan is a land of ironies, is what I always say.

Good luck to Otsu Station. Just because the renovated station building has reopened doesn’t mean that the job is done. It’s only the beginning, a stepping stone. They still need to keep brainstorming and working on how to attract more people to the area and the city. The new station building is only a small part of it.

*For detailed restaurant hours, menus, hotel reservations, etc., see The Calendar website in English or in Japanese.

*Additional reading: Top 20 train stations in Shiga

PR posters for the reopened Otsu Station building.

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