Lake Biwa is Japan's biggest lake, and it lies almost in the center of the country. The city of Hikone is on the eastern side of the lake. On the other side is a mountain range, and beyond that range is the ancient city of Kyoto. Hikone's unique location made it a hub for lake shipping, and a political and military center after the beginning of the 17th century.
Hikone Castle was the most important feature in the city, and is famous in Japan today. Construction began in 1603, and continued for 20 years. The main tower rising up from the top of the hill has always served as a symbol for the town. Buildings were not tall in the Edo period, when the castle was built, so people viewing the town from any direction must have found the castle an impressive sight.
In the old days, only the elite were allowed to enter the castle, but now the doors are open to everyone. After you pass through the front gate, which is the main entrance to the castle, you will come to a long series of stone steps. You'll be surprised how hard it is to go up them--each step is irregular in depth and height. I saw some elderly tourists catching their breath on the stairs. A tour guide was telling them, "The stone steps were laid like this on purpose, to make them difficult to climb. You see, even if enemy soldiers got this far, they couldn't rush straight to the top." As you struggle up the stairs, you realize that the entire castle was built primarily for defense.
After catching my breath myself, I finally reached the main tower. It was beautiful! Black roof tiles, white walls, details decorated in gold. The tower bewitches everyone with its simple but powerful beauty. The view of the town below is most impressive too, with the roofs of the houses spreading out around the castle.
In Japan, a city that developed around a castle is called ajoka-machi(castle town). Wherever there's a castle, there's bound to be ajoka-machi, too. Hikone is no exception, of course. Let's see how the town was laid out.
The main tower (tenshukaku) is the heart of the castle. Three moats were constructed around the castle to keep invaders out. Between the inner and middle moats lived the feudal lord and his family, his councilor, and his important retainers. This area was the center of local government, and the luxurious houses here belonged to the most important people in the province. The higher ranking samurai lived between the middle and outer moats. Beyond the outer moat were the homes of foot soldiers calledashigaru. These concentric layers of defense protected the castle and the town from enemy attack. Commoners also lived and worked in the area between the middle and outer moats, and beyond the outer moat.
The entire castle town was thus an early example in urban planning, and served as a kind of fortress in the event of a battle. The emphasis on defense is obvious if you walk through the old section of Hikone and examine how the streets are laid out. At first glance the town layout seems quite regular, but actually, lanes zigzag, and adjacent T-junctions and numerous dead-ends make getting to your destination quite confusing. To make matters even more complicated, the streets are narrow and it's not easy to see where you are. In ancient times, if enemy soldiers had managed to get this far, they probably would have run one way and then another, completely disoriented. The labyrinth of narrow lanes can make you lose your way, unless you know the town well.
Castle towns are fascinating in another respect as well. In the old days, artisans who practiced the same trade lived in the same district, so castle towns throughout Japan all tended to have district names likedaiku-machi (carpenters' quarter),shokunin-machi(craftsmen's quarter), andkajiya-machi(blacksmiths' quarter). Hikone too has such old names for various districts, and others likeaburaya-machi, where oil was sold, andkonya-machi, where dyers worked.