Scenic lakes and historic castles – that is the setting of the small Japanese town of Hikone. Situated on the shores of the nation’s largest lake, Lake Biwa, in the Shiga Prefecture, Hikone is steeped in natural beauty as well as historical relevance.
Hikone is famous for its remarkably well-preserved castle, which goes by the same name as its host city. Hikone Castle is, in fact, one of the five Japanese castles designated as national treasures. This honor – “the highest designation for cultural properties in Japan” – is due to its unique combination of architectural styles.
What does this mystic destination hold in store for you? Take a step back in time as you consider this helpful Hikone travel guide, and start planning your next Japanese vacation today.
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How to get to Hikone with the JR Pass
Hikone makes a great side trip from Kyoto and other Japan’s major cities, whether your itinerary will allow you to spend an afternoon or an entire day in the small town. It is also a good stop over on the extended trip between Kyoto and Tokyo. Access to this pleasant location is easy and affordable when you use your Japan Rail Pass.
From Tokyo to Hikone
Hikone Station is located on the JR Tokaido Main Line and can be reached in one of two ways. From Tokyo Station or Shinagawa Station, you may take the JR Tokaido Main Line directly to Hikone. Near Hikone, this line is often known as the Biwako Line, named for the nearby lake.
Alternatively, you may take the direct Hikari train on the JR Tokaido Shinkansen Line to Maibara Station. At Maibara, you will transfer to the Tokaido Main Line and take a four-minute train ride to Hikone Station. This is the fastest way: the trip lasts about two hours and it’s fully covered by the JR Pass.
From Kyoto to Hikone
From Kyoto Station, take the JR Tokaido Main Line or the JR Haruka Express eastbound to Hikone Station. The route is direct, and the trip lasts only 45 minutes. If traveling from Kyoto to Tokyo, or viceversa, you will be passing through Hikone, making this town an excellent day trip on your journey.
From Osaka to Hikone
From Shin-Osaka Station, take the Tokaido Shinkansen or a JR special rapid train to Hikone Station (like the Haruka Express). Depending on the train, your journey will last between 40 and 80 minutes.
Getting around Hikone
Hikone is well suited to walking. Hikone Castle is located a mere 15 to 20-minute walk from Hikone Station. Most of Hikone’s other points of interest, including the Castle Road, Genkyuen Garden, and museum are within walking distance of the castle. Taxis are also available from Hikone Station to assist you in your travels.
Hikone’s most popular attraction is its namesake castle. Known as Hikonejo in Japanese, construction of the castle was completed in 1622. It served as a governmental seat for the li daimyo feudal lords until 1868. Unlike many Japanese castles, Hikone Castle is in its original state; it never suffered damage at the hands of war or natural disaster as many castles have. Therefore, only the upkeep of the structures has necessitated minor reconstruction.
The castle is unique in a number of original elements that can be viewed on the grounds, including the main castle keep of three stories, the inner moats, protective walls, guard houses, stable, storehouse, and gates.
The Hikone Castle Museum not only exhibits artifacts from the castle grounds, but features reconstructions of its interior as well. These reconstructions are based on archeological excavations of the site, and include gardens, tatami rooms, and corridors.
Other points of interest
Beyond the castle’s moat is the Genkyeun Garden. This landscape garden, based on a Chinese palace garden, was built in 1677 by one of the castle’s feudal lords, for the purpose of entertaining guests and family. It features a central pond, four islands connected by footbridges, tea houses, and a walking trail. Rakurakuen Palace can be seen from the garden. This complex housed the feudal lord and his family. Palace tours will resume when renovations on the wooden buildings are completed in 2025.
The Edo Period atmosphere continues down the Yume Kyobashi Castle Road. The architecture of this modern shopping street has been designed to resemble historic structures, with white walls, black roofs, and black lattice doors similar to those of the castle itself. On the Castle Street, you will find souvenir vendors, boutique shops, restaurants, and cafes.
A stopover in Hikone is well worth the time. When traveling between Tokyo and Osaka or Kyoto, consider adding this rich historical site to your itinerary.