Did you know that Shiga Prefecture used to be called Omi? In those days, Japan was divided into many more pieces than it is today. The area around Lake Biwa was called Omi, and had various rulers over different parts of it. It was an important place politically because of its proximity to the old capital, Kyoto. Because of this, whenever someone wanted to capture the capitol, they first had to conquer Omi. Most famously, Oda Nobunaga took control of the region in the 1570s and built Azuchi Castle on Lake Biwa’s eastern shore.
But he’s not the only one to leave an architectural mark—virtually every emperor or daimyo (feudal lord) who spent much time in Omi built himself a castle or a palace to hang out in. Some of them have been destroyed by time and wars, but some are still around for you to visit. Several of them are right next door to JCMU, including of course…
Besides sharing a name with the town JCMU is based in, Hikone Castle also boasts appearances by Hikonyan, several gift shops, and the best view around. It’s also one of the oldest original castles in Japan, dating from 1622. Many others were dismantled in the Meiji era to make way for modernity, destroyed by earlier battles, or bombed in World War II. But Hikone Castle, which was built by Ii Naokatsu (son of Ii Naomasa), remains as a testament to history and craftsmanship. You can visit it throughout the week, and admission is free with a JCMU student ID.
The nearby city of Nagahama had a famous castle of its own, once upon a time. The central keep was notable for being built on a flat plain rather than on a mountaintop as was more common. It was home to Nobunaga’s successor Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Today, the castle grounds exist as a park and the keep has been reconstructed to serve as a museum. You can get to Nagamahama by train and walk to the castle to visit.
On top of a hill only a few minutes away from JCMU once stood Sawayama Castle. Home first to Ishida Mitsunari and then to Ii Naomasa, it was given as a reward to Naomasa for his help in defeating Mitsunari in the 1600 Battle of Sekigahara. He later destroyed it and used its bricks to build Hikone Castle. These days, there’s nothing but a pillar left to mark the spot where Hikone’s original castle stood. However, you can hike up the steep trail all the way to the top, where you get an amazing view of the surrounding landscape.
Dating from the 1570s, Azuchi Castle in modern-day Omihachiman was one of Nobunaga’s proudest achievements. Rather than a military keep, he envisioned it the center of a prosperous castle town, surrounded by temples and businesses. The construction of the central keep (the tall, recognizable part) was also unique—its different layers were octagonal, rather than square, and they were decorated with bright paintings of dragons and birds. Unfortunately the keep was burned down soon after Nobunaga’s death, but you can visit the mountain site it was at.
Again, this is less of a castle and more of the remains of a castle. It wasn’t destroyed by battle—it was an earthquake that collapses part of the construction, and the salvageable pieces were then taken to other construction sites or sold to nearby temples and shrines as important cultural artifacts. Perhaps Tokugawa Ieyasu was tempting fate when he ordered it constructed with only four stories, an unlucky number. These days, it’s a popular site to visit during spring for cherry blossoms, and you can walk around town to see the original gates in their separate locations.
There are lots of things to see and do in Japan, and visiting ancient buildings is only one of them. While many castles aren’t around any more in their original state, there are always historical museums, special local foods, and beautiful scenery to see whether the structures are still standing or not. So hop on a bike, bus, or train, and go castle-hunting!