When Toyotomi Hideyoshi appointed his nephew and heir Hidetsugu lord of Ōmihachiman, Hideyoshi built a castle on Mt. Hachiman and moved the castle town from the burned out Azuchi Castle a few miles to the new site. The carpenters, blacksmiths, tatami makers, gunsmiths and other craftsmen set up shop in their respective areas, and the merchants established premises in theirs. As was normal for a castle town, the streets were laid out in a grid. Hidetsugu’s enlightened economic policies ensured that Ōmihachiman thrived, although he himself met a grim fate at a young age.
The grid of streets below Hachimanyama Castle survived very much as it was in the Edo period, particularly the street known as Shinmachi. Their condition is such that they’re a nationally designated Important Traditional Building Preservation District. 180 buildings and 93 structures are identified as traditional buildings in the area. Shinmachi is lined with the residences of wealthy merchants, who sold products from Ōmi such as tatami mats and mosquito nets in Edo and Ōsaka, and brought back luxury products from the metropolis to sell in Ōmi. Eventually these Ōmi merchants expanded overseas, establishing Japan’s global trading houses.
As you stroll northwards up long, straight Shinmachi street, Hachimanyama is framed in perspective by the rows of low wooden houses along the street. You can see the cable cars moving back and forth. Luxuriant pine trees sprout from gaps in the roofs. Some of the houses are now museums, and when you enter, you can see that the pines grow in small gardens that are only visible from inside the house. These gardens have concealed gates, which were only opened for particularly valued customers. The general run of customers used the larger commercial entrance through which goods also passed. The wooden frontages of the houses feature exquisite but subtle woodcarving.
This small area of cross streets is packed with architectural gems from the Edo to the modern period. The Ōmihachiman Tourism Association has posted signs in English explaining what each of them was. There are numerous buildings built by William Merrell Vories including the offices of his Ōmi Brotherhood and a church. There are also some good places to eat, and several museums.
Several of the buildings on Shinmachi have been converted into museums, while maintaining their original appearance.
Name in Japanese: 旧伴家住宅（八幡教育会館）
Pronunciation: kyū banke jūtaku
The Ban family were Hachiman merchants who sold linen, tatami mats and mosquito nets in Tōkyo and Ōsaka during the Edo period. The current building was completed in 1840. In the Meiji period, the house was donated to the town when it was used as an elementary school, a government office, then a girls’ school and a library. Today it houses a museum with exhibits on the history, festivals, and daily life of Ōmihachiman.
Name in Japanese: 郷土資料館
Pronunciation: kyodō shiryokan
This building was completed in 1886 in the Meiji period as a police station, and it was heavily remodelled in 1953 by the Vories architectural office. One of the visual clues to this design is the chimney with the simple arched cover, a feature of many of Vories’ buildings. Exhibits include the story of Toyotomi Hidetsugu, and items related to the business of the Hachiman merchants.
Name in Japanese: 歴史民俗資料館
Pronunciation: rekishi minzoku shiryokan
Located behind the Hometown Museum, this building dates from the late Edo period and houses many furnishings and household items from that time. Of particular interest are the contemporary kitchen stove and what looks like a well, but is actually a piped water supply. The stylish dark red coating of the walls in the living room is achieved with iron oxide. There’s a collection of items that merchants carried when they went peddling goods, including a very uncomfortable-looking folding pillow.
Name in Japanese: 旧西川家住宅
Pronunciation: kyū nishikawa ke jūtaku
This house was built in 1706 in the early Edo period, in the style typical of Kyōto. A large portion of the frontage was hinged at the top and could be swung in and up to allow a cart to be brought inside for loading and unloading. At night, the many servants and labourers slept on one side of this loading bay, while shutters completely separated the quarters of the merchant family. There are fascinating exhibits that illustrate the rich yet rigorously disciplined lives of the merchants. An extensive doll-sized set of kitchen utensils was used to prepare the girls of the household for a future as brides in other merchant houses. Behind the residence is a large, well-tended garden. In one corner stands a white-plastered storehouse. This is one of the few three-storey storehouses in Japan.
Ōmihachiman and the region around it repays several days of exploration, and the beautiful, traditional surroundings of Shinmachi make it the perfect base. On Shinmachi street itself, there’s a refurbished townhouse called Mon that you can rent. It’s ideal for couples or small families. Machiya Inn, once part of a sake brewery, has rooms of various types and sizes. Little Birds Hostel offers budget rooms with a pleasant communal area.