• 13 . 05 . 05
  • A day trip out to Biwa Lake and Hikone Castle.

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Biwako And Hikonejou

Biwa lake is the largest lake in Japan and probably holy for some reason or another. It’s also a lot closer than I thought, – my Japanese geography (like my English geography), leaves a lot to be desired. One of the perks of Gifu is its central position which allows easy access to almost everywhere in Japan. Today, me and Eric took advantage of this and made the one hour journey to Hikone, a small castle town right next to the lake.

Hikone Castle is one of Japan’s four castles that are registered as National Treasures. It’s not incredibly big, but it is original, having survived earthquakes and the War. The first line of most castle descriptions in Japan usually reads like: “—- Castle, originally built in 16–, destroyed by an earthquake in 17–, bombed by America in 194-, rebuilt in 195-”, so it’s nice to see an original one that has stood the test of time. Having been built sometime between 1603 and 1622, it’s about 400 years old and still going strong. One reason for this is that the castle was designed specifically with earthquake protection in mind, using millions of tiny stones as shock absorbers. I’m not sure that this would have been effective, given that we can’t prevent buildings from falling down in earthquakes even nowadays, but it’s still standing after 4 centuries so credit to the designers I guess!

It’s particularly admired for its use of naturally shaped wood as beams, which weren’t sawn into straight logs. The resulting internal roof structure kind of looks like it’s alive as the beams twist together. The main keep is situated on a large hill set overlooking beautiful gardens and also offers a great view of Biwa Lake. In Spring the cherry blossoms here are regarded as some of the best in Japan (although that seems to be said about everywhere).

Biwa Lake itself is, well, a lake. It was really windy and you could only just about see across to the other side but once we’d seen it, that was it really. You can take a boatride on it from certain towns, but there were none close by and in any case I’d left my sealegs at home. I’m pretty sure that it was saltwater because you could taste it in the air, but maybe that was just the yakitori shops.

With a few hours to kill before we left, we made our way to Ryoutanji, a small temple in the corner of the town. We found it in a guidebook and it was a little trek to get there, but it was worth it when we did. The tea room of the temple was set between two beautiful gardens and was totally silent. One of the gardens was based around a pond which came right up to the edge of the room, and it felt like you were virtually sitting on the water. It was so relaxing I nearly fell asleep!

This rounded off a great weekend for me – excitement one day and culture another. This was really the reason I came to Japan in the first place, so it feels nice to be taking advantage of it again.

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