Ōmihachiman

Ōmihachiman

This beautiful historic town merits several days’ exploration

place Area: Omihachiman access_time Published: 2020.07.16

Name in Japanese: 近江八幡

Pronunciation: ōmi hachiman

Ōmihachiman is located on the east coast of Lake Biwa in central Shiga Prefecture. It’s the site of Azuchi Castle, the first Japanese castle of the early modern period, and it’s one of the towns from which the Ōmi merchants originated.

Ōmihachiman developed as a commercial city in the early modern period. It arose from the town at the base of the castle on Hachimanyama built in 1585 by Toyotomi Hidetsugu, the nephew of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Hidetsugu deregulated the markets and guilds of his domain, promoting commerce. He also required boats traveling on Lake Biwa to pass through Hachimanbori, the moat of Hachimanyama Castle, and make a stop, which further encouraged trade.

In the 1700s, merchants from here began to peddle goods from provincial Ōmi in the large metropolitan centres, bringing back luxury goods from there to sell locally. They gradually established themselves as the business force behind many of today’s global companies.

The town is one of the few places in Japan with a strong appearance and atmosphere of olden times. Several streets are designated as Important Preservation District for Groups of Traditional Buildings. Ōmihachiman was also the home of the American architect William Merrell Vories, who left many works of modern architecture in the area. The town is often used as a location for filming historical dramas.

Hachiman is one of the Shintō gods and it’s a common misunderstanding that there’s a Shintō shrine here called “Ōmihachiman”. But the name of the shrine after which the place was named is Himure Hachiman Shrine. The shrine is one of the attractions at the heart of the city. Originally the town was called “Hachiman”, but in the Meiji period, the prefix “Ōmi” was added to distinguish it from similarly named towns in other parts of Japan.

Ōmihachiman is built on the Kotō Plain formed by rivers originating in the Suzuka Mountains. The city area is generally flat, but there are various small mountains scattered over the plain. Hachimanyama, site of Hidetsugu’s castle is one of them. Within the city area, another mountain forms the largest island in Lake Biwa, Okishima, which has a population of some 250 people.

In the northeastern part of the city, Lake Nishi, one of the subsidiary lakes of Lake Biwa, is counted among one of the eight beautiful scenes of Biwako. Ōmihachiman is one of the loveliest waterside towns in Japan, and the only one that remains substantially unchanged from the past. It was designated as Japan’s first Important National Cultural Landscape and Lake Nishi and the Chōmyōji River are Ramsar Convention wetlands. You can take a covered boat through a maze of reed beds. This kind of tour is known as the Suigō Meguri.

The Suigō Meguri originated in the days of the Warring States period when Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hidetsugu sought recreation by imitating the elegant pastimes of the Imperial Court. Historical dramas are also frequently shot here too.

You can take the cable car to the top of Mt. Hachiman, site of the castle, but there’s also a nice hike over the mountain. Within thirty minutes’ travel, there are several other mountaintop castle ruins with fascinating stories and rewarding hiking trails – Kannonji, Chōkōji, and Azuchi. There are also beautiful Buddhist temples on the mountains scattered over the plain, particularly Kannonshō-ji and Chōmei-ji.