As you may know, the Go and Azai Sisters Expo is in full swing in Nagahama. Their visitor count has exceeded expectations, thanks to the popularity of the current NHK Taiga Drama, Go–Himetachi no Sengoku.
If you like the TV series or like Japanese castles, be sure to take advantage of the guided tours of Odani Castle being offered during the expo period until Dec. 4, 2011. The easiest way to get to Odani Castle (if you don’t have a car) is to buy a 1,000 ticket for the expo and shuttle bus at Nagahama Station on the west side. For 1,000 yen, you can ride the shuttle bus round trip and enter all three expo pavilions. Or if you don’t have time to enter the pavilions, just pay 500 yen for the roundtrip shuttle bus ticket.
[Update Nov. 2021: More info on how to get to Odani Castle here.]
From Nagahama Station, take the shuttle bus to the Odani pavilion (Go no Furusato-no-Yakata) taking about 35 min. with a few stops along the way. The bus leaves twice an hour between 9:20 am and 5:10 pm. (Bus schedule in Japanese here.) From the Odani pavilion, there’s a shuttle bus going up to Odani Castle, one of Japan’s five most famous mountain castles. This shuttle bus costs 500 yen roundtrip and it includes a 60-min. guided tour. The Odani pavilion has a bus ticket booth nearby.
You can also hike up to Odani Castle on the paved road for free, but taking the shuttle bus halfway up (to the Bansho) saves you a lot of time and sweat. When the expo ends on Dec. 4, the shuttle bus service going up to Odani Castle will end I’m told. This means that getting to Odani Castle will be a lot more troublesome via public transportation since you will have to take the train to Kawake Station (JR Hokuriku Line) and then rent a bicycle or walk to Odani Castle (20-30 min. to the foot of Mt. Odani). I don’t know why they won’t provide better public transportation to such a major sight in Shiga.
In early May 2011, I took the shuttle bus from the Odani pavilion to Odani Castle and went on the guided tour. The bus goes up to the Bansho area which is pretty high up. The tour guide uses a megaphone to explain the points of interest (no English), and the guided tour takes about 60 min. The castle trail is not strenuous, so young and old can enjoy the tour. But it is a dirt trail and a little rocky, so wear shoes and avoid rainy days. High heels is not good, and wheelchairs won’t work unless you have people who can carry it on some rocky slopes/steps. Lots of flying insects in the warmer months too, so a paper fan to fan them away would be handy. Note that the shuttle buses to the castle might not run during rough or snowy weather.
The tour takes you all the way to the Honmaru which is the focal point of the castle and where the main castle tower (tenshukaku) stood. Then they take you back to the bus. The main points of interest are indeed between where you get off the shuttle bus at the Bansho (guard house site) and the Honmaru, but the castle ruins go well beyond the Honmaru along the mountain ridge. It was my second visit to Odani Castle, and I wanted to go beyond the Honmaru so I left my tour group and went on my own. I had never gone beyond the Honmaru.
It turned out to be an easy walk all the way to the Sannomaru which is on the edge of the main castle grounds before it goes down and up to the peak of Mt. Odani. I turned back at Sannomaru. There are a number of “maru” castle baileys or enclosures beyond the Honmaru and each have an explanatory sign (but no English). There are also remains of a sword-washing pond and a large stone wall. If you have the time, I recommend going all the way to Sannomaru. It won’t take long.
You can also visit the place where Azai Nagamasa committed seppuku at the Akao-yashiki residence near the Honmaru. The guided tour does not take you there. I have now revamped my Odani Castle photo gallery with new photos and English explanations of the points of interest.
For my return trip on the shuttle bus back to the Odani pavilion, I joined a later tour group and asked if they had room on the bus. They did, so I showed my bus ticket and got on the bus. You can do this too. You can return with a later tour group and take a later shuttle bus back to the Odani pavilion. But make sure the later tour group has room for you. They won’t allow you to stand in the bus. Only 25 people can sit in the bus. And the last shuttle bus leaves the castle at 4:45 pm. If you miss the last bus or if they don’t have enough room for you, you will have to walk back down (which isn’t so bad since you are going down and there are a few scenic lookouts along the way). It’s too bad that they don’t have buses going from the Odani pavilion to Sugatani Onsen, a noted hot spring near Odani. It was Ichi’s (Nagamasa’s wife and mother of the three Azai sisters) favorite spa while she lived in Odani Castle. The hot spring waters is a muddy brown color.
One thing you have to understand about Odani Castle is that, the castle atop the mountain was mainly for military purposes. Most people did not normally live atop the mountain. They normally lived in the adjacent Shimizu Valley on flat land where it was more convenient logistically. Hauling up water to the mountain top must’ve been tough. The Azai family (sisters included) normally lived in Shimizu Valley below. There are now stone markers indicating the location of the palace or Oyashiki residence where Nagamasa, Ichi, and Azai sisters lived and the location of the residence of Azai’s samurai retainers. If the shuttle bus tour to the castle is canceled due to bad weather, they will offer an alternate bus tour to the Shimizu Valley area. (They call it the “B Course,” while the castle tour is the “A Course.”) I haven’t seen the places in Shimizu Valley yet. Perhaps next time. Google Map
Go and Azai Sisters official site (no English): http://www.azai-go.jp/
Tourist map related to Azai sisters in Shiga: http://www.azai-go.jp/pdf/sengokumap.pdf
Tourist map of Nagahama: http://www.azai-go.jp/pdf/eria_map.pdf
Tourist map of central Nagahama: http://www.azai-go.jp/pdf/town_map.pdf