Nagahama Castle stands in the pleasant Hōkōen Park close to Lake Biwa. The small, white castle tower is conspicuous from the road that hews close to the northern end of the lake in Ōmi. Today’s castle is a replica housing an interesting museum, but the original castle built on this site played an important role in the history of the region.
The Nagahama Castle Historical Museum has exhibition rooms on the second and third floors. The rotating second floor exhibits look at the history of Nagahama and Kohoku, the region at the northern end of Lake Biwa, while the third floor presents the life of Toyotomi Hideyoshi and his relationship with Nagahama. Exhibits include dioramas and panels showing how the castle was built and its likely appearance, weapons and armour, artefacts that hint at the daily life of the inhabitants of Nagahama, and illustrated scrolls. The labels are in Japanese, but the exhibits speak for themselves, so there’s plenty to enjoy.
The fifth floor is a belvedere offering an amazing 360-degree view of Nagahama, Lake Biwa, and the surrounding mountains.
The original castle on this site was built by Hideyoshi Hashiba, later renamed Hideyoshi Toyotomi. At that time, Hideyoshi was the vassal of Oda Nobunaga. The Kohoku region had been the territory of the Azai clan for several generations. Their base was Odani Castle, in the mountains about ten kilometers north of Nagahama Castle.
In 1573, Hideyoshi Hashiba defeated Azai Nagamasa and was rewarded by Oda Nobunaga with the Azai’s territory. Recognising the strategic potential of the location, Hideyoshi decided to establish his base there. He changed the name of the town from Imahama to Nagahama, in honour of Nobunaga. Using building materials from Odani Castle and timber that he had secretly hidden on Chikubu Island in advance, he began to build a castle.
It took about four years to complete the new castle. The stone walls were built into the lake allowing boats to come and go directly from a water gate. The castle town was simply transferred from Odani Castle. It was the first castle built by Hideyoshi, and it was also the place where Hideyoshi learned the management of a castle town.
In 1581, Hideyoshi was absent on the Chūgoku expedition, and Oda Nobunaga appointed Hori Hidemasa lord of Nagahama Castle after he defeated Araki Murashige and the Ikkō sect in Echizen.
After the insurgency at Honnō-ji Temple and the death of Oda Nobunaga in 1582, it was decided at the Kiyosu conference that Shibata Katsuie would take control of Nagahama. Katsuie’s nephew Shibata Katsutoyo entered the castle as its constable, but at the end of that year, Hideyoshi who had fallen into conflict with Katsuie attacked Nagahama, and Katsutoyo surrendered with the castle. After the Battle of Shizugatake in 1583, Yamauchi Kazutoyo took over the castle and stayed there for six years. In 1586, the castle was completely destroyed by an earthquake, and Kazutoyo’s only daughter died.
In 1606 Naitō Nobunari and Nobumasa took over the castle but in 1615, they were transferred to Settsu, and Nagahama Castle was abandoned. Most of its materials were used in the construction of Hikone Castle. The celebrated balance turret of Hikone Castle was moved from Nagahama Castle. The Daidokoro Gate of Daitsū-ji Temple in Nagahama City was originally the main gate of Nagahama Castle and it still shows the marks of arrowheads. The front gate of Chizen-in Temple in Nagahama was originally the Karamete Gate of the castle.
A part of the original castle still remains submerged in Lake Biwa.
The current castle tower is a reconstruction made in 1983 based on Inuyama Castle and Fushimi Castle.