Hikone castle

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The main tower keep at Hikone castle.
The stables at Hikone castle
  • Japanese: 彦根城 (Hikone-jou)
  • Type: Flatland-Mountain
  • Founder: Ii Naokatsu
  • Year: 1622

Hikone castle is a hirayamajiro and was built on the site of Ishida Mitsunari’s Sawayama castle in present day Shiga prefecture (in the former Omi province). After Mitsunari’s defeat by Tokugawa Ieyasu at the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, Ieyasu’s forces advanced on Sawayama. The castle was being defended by Mitsunari’s brother, Ishida Masazumi. The castle was laid to siege by Ii Naomasa leading a force of 15,000. After only a day, the castle defenders struck a deal with the Ii. Masazumi was to commit suicide and the rest of the defenders would go free after handing the castle over to Naomasa. Before this could be put into effect, the castle tenshu was set aflame and all of Ishida’s relatives committed seppuku in the ensuing chaos.

Ii was given the fief of Sawayama by Ieyasu. As part of Ieyasu’s plan to weaken the tozama lords by draining their coffers, he ordered them to help Ii rebuild and expand the castle after Naomasa had petitioned him for permission in 1602. It was decided to move the castle from Sawayama to Hikoneyama, and the fief was subsequently known as Hikone. This construction was started in 1603 by Ii’s son Naokatsu. The castle tenshu was completed in 1606. Refurbishing work on the castle from 1957-60 uncovered unused mortises and carpenter’s markings on the wood that showed it to have been part of Akechi Mitsuhide’s Otsu castle, which had been located at the base of Lake Biwa. The dismantled five story Otsu tenshu was reconfigured into the present three story tenshu of Hikone. Stones for the ishigaki were gathered not only from the Sawayama site, but also from the ruins of Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s Nagahama castle and Oda Nobunaga’s Azuchi castle. Construction on the castle proceeded at a leisurely pace and was not completed until 1622 by Ii’s heir Naotaka. It became an imposing reminder of Tokugawa authority astride the Nakasendo road.

In an era where fief transfers were the rule, the Ii were one of the exceptions. They retained control of Hikone until the Meiji Restoration. Ii Naosuke played an important part in the opening of Japan during the 1850’s. He paid for this with his life, being assassinated by anti-Shogunate rebels outside the Sakurada-mon of Edo castle in 1860. Only a request from the Emperor Meiji spared the structure from the wholesale castle destruction of the times. (Just prior to this, the castle suffered a major fire on 1858/9/29 which also destroyed 207 homes and other buildings in the castle-town;[1] repairs were made to the castle soon afterwards, however.)

Today, the inner portion of the castle remains largely intact (although the outer two lines of castle defenses were dismantled). The original tenshu, moat, ishigaki, gateways, and three turrets still stand. The tenshu, while smaller than most others of its era at three stories with a basement, is quite stylish. It is built in the Momoyama style and is heavily influenced by other Zen Buddhist structures. In many ways, it resembles the residential style of the Golden and Silver Pavilions in Kyoto. The tenshu features cusped windows known as kato mado and an upper story balcony. The tenshu’s stone base is only five meters tall, and the structure itself rises another sixteen meters. The Sawaguchi tower was originally the entrance to Sawayama castle and still serves that function for Hikone. The Tenbin tower lies between Sawaguchi and the tenshu, and features a very convoluted approach. First, the path crosses under a bridge leading to the tower. The path then loops around and climbs the stone foundation walls on the right. The bridge itself is then crossed. Other features of the complex are the 80-meter long stable and Keyakigoten residence. Located just within the Sawaguchi tower and containing space for 21 horses within its L-shaped structure, the stable (umaya) is the only one of such size surviving from the Edo period at any castle in Japan, and as such it has been designated an Important Cultural Property. Another smaller stables was maintained outside the entrance to the Omote-goten (main palace building) for the use of guests to the castle. The Keyaki-goten ("zelkova wood palace") was built by the fourth lord of Hikone, Ii Naooki, in 1677. Built of zelkova wood, it survives today, though it has been repaired many times. The 12th lord, Ii Naoaki, built an addition onto the palace in the early 1800s, called the Rakuraku-no-ma. As a result, the house and its associated gardens came to be known as the Rakuraku-en.

The Hakkei-tei ("Tea House Of The Eight Views") within the garden was a popular spot for the Ii to entertain important guests and relax. It was also known as the Rinchikaku ("Tower Next to the Pond"). Another garden in the compound, the Genkyû-en, was built by Ii Naooki in 1677, and was meant to emulate one enjoyed by the Tang Dynasty Emperor Xuanzong. The castle uses water from Lake Biwa to fill its moat and the layout of the Hikone castle town is still much the same as it was in the 1600’s, featuring staggered streets that limit the field of vision of anyone in the town. Ii Naosuke expanded the tea rooms of the main residence (omote goten) to the Genkyû-en when welcoming tea ceremony officials known as sukiya bôzu.

Hikone is one of the most popular locations for filmmakers, and the castle has appeared in scores of Japanese films and television shows. Perhaps its best remembered appearance was as (along with Himeji castle) a stand-in for Osaka castle in the American miniseries James Clavell's Shogun. The scenes of the Western ship pilot John Blackthorne (played by Richard Chamberlain) doing his mad dance in order to cover Lord Toranaga’s (played by Mifune Toshiro escape made good use of the bridge and Tembin Tower. The grounds were also used for Blackthorne’s second interview with Toranaga by the lake, Blackthorne’s recruitment of ronin, and other scenes.



  • Kodama Kota & Tsuboi Kiyotari, editors Nihon Joukaku Taikei-20 Volumes Tokyo:Shinjimbutsu oraisha, 1981
  • Hinago Motoo Nihon No Bijutsu #54:Shiro Tokyo:Shibundo, 1970
  • Schmorleitz, Morton S Castles In Japan Tokyo:Charles E Tuttle Company Inc, 1974
  • Nihon no Meijo Kojo Jiten 1989
  • Signs and plaques on-site.
  1. Ishin Shiryô Kôyô 維新史料綱要, vol 3., 73.