Name in Japanese: 彦根城お掘り巡り
Pronunciation: hikone jō ohori meguri
Hikone Castle was completed in 1622 as the seat of the Ii family. The peaceful Edo period began in 1603, and although Hikone Castle was built for war, the succession of Ii lords enjoyed a bucolic existence in their castle and its palace. Thanks to the energetic service of Ii Naomasa, the first lord of Hikone, at the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, the Ii family became the most trusted vassals of the Shogunate in Edo.
When Hikone Castle was finished, it sat at the centre of a huge complex of moats and lakes that were joined with nearby Lake Biwa. It’s not surprising that the lords of Hikone spent some of their leisure time boating on these pleasant waterways. The lords rode in yakatabune, elegant wooden boats with a low roof to provide shelter. They were usually powered by a single large oar that extended from the back of the boat.
Today the castle has only two moats, and the big subsidiary lake northeast of the castle was filled in long ago. But you can take a ride in a yakatabune on the inner ring of the moat. The boats are powered by very quiet electric motors, so you can easily hear what the English-speaking guide is saying. Swans that live in the moat glide up to the boat and are greeted by name by the boatman.
As you make your way around the moat, you slide under a couple of bridges with little room to spare. Various defensive features reveal themselves, such as the stone walls that climb the steep slopes of the hillside to prevent attackers from moving freely around the hill. There’s a water gate where rice stored by the Shogunate was loaded and unloaded. At intervals, the ornate tower of the castle reveals itself between the trees.
When the boat comes to a weir and turns around, the guide explains that today the moat is higher than the water level of Lake Biwa, which is controlled by dams, so it’s no longer possible to head out into the lake.
In the Edo period, the feudal lords were required to go to Edo every two years. The lord of Hikone was on very friendly terms with a lord from Kyūshu, and to spare his friend the long walk around Lake Biwa, the lord of Hikone would pick him up by boat and enjoy the cruise with him to the north of the lake. At such times, the number of oars could be increased to four, turning the yakatabune into an Edo version of a speedboat.
This is a very pleasant way to finish a visit to the castle. Whatever the season, there’s something different to enjoy. A gentle cruise around the moat in the manner of a feudal lord is an experience you should try at least once.