"I stepped out into town in the early morning. I was surprised that it was brighter than the lakeside, which was still in the dark. Shaded areas here and there in the street corners looked graceful. It is still February. I smelled winter morning in the lingering smoke coming from burning dead leaves. The castle stone steps proved awkward for me. Breathing heavily while climbing, I glimpsed a group of dozen men coming down spread out evenly. They all looked around 50 years of age or older, all clad in plain suits and coats, speechless, yet keeping pace together and breathing in unison. 'Clansmen,' I muttered."
- from "Strolling in Omi", by Ryotaro Shiba
February is almost over. March is taking its time arriving but will most likely hurry along. Then what? A sudden burgeoning of cherry blossoms without mercy! You don't have a month. Are you ready? Time's up!
I had a bitter-sweet experience. Our San Diego Business Fellow Veterans gather every mid-April. The secretariat by turn picks the venue and invites us. We usually meet in Kyoto and Osaka and I take the Shinkansen (bullet train) from Kitakyushu to be in time for the gathering. Last year, the venue was at Hikone in Omi District. The Shinkansen doesn't stop at Hikone and you have to take a local train from Kyoto, which may take an hour.
I was late in making hotel reservations and found no vacancy in decent Hikone hotels. I panicked. Then I changed my strategy. I searched the satellite towns, near Hikone. It worked. I got a hotel in Minami Hikone (southern Hikone), which happened to be very close to the station. Hikone was all hustle and bustle the following day with thousands of visitors viewing the cherry-blossoms planted around the moat and inside Hikone Castle.
Now the story starts in 1590 from the Battle of Sekigahara near the current Ogaki City in Gifu Prefecture between two great clans, Tokugawa and Toyotomi. General Hideyoshi Toyotomi died shortly after his retreat from Korea without accomplishing his wild dream of conquering the Ming Dynasty. Tokugawa claimed his turn and opened hostilities. Mitsunari Ishida, Hideyoshi's administrator, raised an army in support of Hideyori, Hideyoshi's son, but he could not mobilize enough supporters. Ieyasu Tokugawa won the battle by forming a coalition of warlord and their followers.
Naomasa Ii, who served as Ieyasu’s page, valiantly fought and defeated Mitsunari and was endowed with the Hikone land, including Sawa Castle owned by Mitsunari, the defeated. It was his son who established Hikone as a strategic stronghold, since Sawa Castle was a mountainous castle, and the Ii Clan had to face off not only western Japan Daimyos, but supervise Lake Biwa seaway transportation on behalf of the Tokugawa clan. Hikone was the main route and gateway for eastern Daimyos to enter into Kyoto.
The historians exaggerated it as a decisive war of the nation which attracted troops from all parts of Japan. Yes, soldiers assembled, but as fence sitters to see which way the wind would blow. Mitsunari Ishida lacked actual battle experience and the cunning Ieyasu Tokugawa took advantage to enlist opportunists.
Hikone Castle took 20 years to complete, with carpenters and masons mostly mobilized from the east. Stones, towers and gates were transplanted from the old local castles and temples, like Otsu, Nagahama, Sawa, etc. Hikone Castle survived 400 years as one of the four designated national treasures, the others being Himeji, Matsumoto and Inuyama.
There were three crises during which Hikone Castle could have been lost. The first one was the decommissioning crisis, when Naosuke Ii (1815-1860), the 13th generation, Chief Minister of the Tokugawa clan, responsible for signing the Harris Treaty without imperial sanction, carried out the so-called Ansei Purge to quell opposition, inviting grudges. He was assassinated by enemy Samurais, and the Ii clan was discredited from the Tokugawas.
The second was when it escaped the Meiji Restoration War, because the Ii Clan was left out of the war altogether. The Aizu Clan, replacing Ii Clan as the Kyoto safeguarding agent for Tokugawa, ran the gauntlet of Meiji Restoration Troops and eventually lost its castle in Aizu-Wakamatsu in Fukushima in the fire.
The third time was when castles in the country were all being demolished when the Tokugawa period ended. Emperor Meiji, who stayed at Hikone Castle, wanted to preserve it because of its true beauty.
We Japanese are really blessed to be able to see the original Hikone Castle today.
Accompanied by two volunteer guides, we took tours of the four hectare (10 acres) castle area including Genkyuen Garden. Before entering the front gate, we saw a hall turret and a flat Edo stable, which is the only stable of this kind existing today.
Coming down, we entered Genkyuen Garden, at the opposite base of the castle, leading to the Konki Children Park where the statue of Naosuke Ii stands. Genkyuen is one of the best three Daimyo Gardens*, which offers the pleasure of Japanese landscapes for every season - new life of spring, deep green of summer, brilliant foliage of fall and quiet snow of winter. Modeled after a detached palace of Emperor Genso of the Tang Dynasty in ancient China, this Chisen-kaiyu style garden (landscaped around a large pond) was constructed in 1677. It incorporates the Hoshodai Guesthouse built on an artificial hill, and trees and rocks imitate the famous Eight Views of Omi region, Biwa Lake, Chikubujima Island and the White Rocks of Oki.
The 400th Annivesary of Hikone Castle was held in 2007 from March to September with a variety of cultural celebratory events such as cherry blossom festivals, music concerts, guided historical city walk tours, clean-up movement, etc. 760,000 visitors were recorded during a 250 day period, well over the targeted half a million, bringing a rippling effect on Hikone's economy.
Getting back to the San Diego Business Veterans Meeting - about 40 members participated last spring and after the tour we had a great luncheon party at Hikone Castle Hotel facing the moat surrounded by beautiful cherry trees.