Nagahama-rama Pt. 1 長浜へ行こう、その一

Blue Lights Nagahama

Once upon a time, I was graciously invited to visit Nagahama on some short group tours. I had never visited before, so it was all rather exciting. Nagahama, like the rest of Shiga, is a really interesting place, steeped in history, and where many ancient Japanese cultural practices still thrive.

Kinomoto Station

We all met at Kinomoto station on a cloudy morning and, after a few introductions, we were on our way to our first destination: Marusan Hashimoto, makers of silk strings. More specifically, they make strings for traditional Japanese instruments, as well as other traditional Asian instruments. They’re one of only few factories in the world to still make them today and have clients all around the globe. Our guide was the current Mr. Hashimoto himself, the fourth one to head the company.


He explained a few things about the strings—their history, what they’re for—before starting our tour. We first made our way into a room filled with shelves and musical instruments. Roll upon roll of white silk were stacked in display cases, next to drawers containing the finished products. Strings for each instrument were stored together, ready to be shipped or added to an instrument on-site. In the centre of the room lay a koto, a 13-string Japanese zither, that Mr. Hashimoto graciously showed each of us how to play. Imitating our teacher, we took turns to put the pick on our thumb and try playing Sakura Sakura… or just to experiment. As someone who has never formally studied music and had seldom interacted with real instruments, I was surprised by how tight the strings were.


After we each had our turn, we went into the main factory room. We weren’t allowed to take pictures here, to preserve trade secrets, so I won’t get into the details of how it all works, but I will tell you that there was a lot of twisting and pulling. We walked around various machines, up to threads being manually and mechanically separated. The few workers around greeted us happily. Our guide explained how everything works and showed us raw glue. The strings are put together with glue made from mochi (a soft rice cake), which is hardened and then rehydrated. One of my more courageous or gluttonous touring companions said it didn’t taste very good.


We then headed downstairs, where Mr. Hashimoto’s parents were working at assembling the finished products, rolling yellow string and tying it with Japanese paper. In the olden days, the silk was naturally yellow, but now they dye it. Yellow strings are used for Japanese instruments.

We finished the tour in a large room with an unusual smell—glue again. This is where they would normally dry the strings, but they were at a different part in the process. Mr. Hashimoto explained that, since this is a small factory, they usually only take care of one step at a time.



We bid Marusan farewell and took a short historical walk. Long ago, Kinomoto was a post town on the Hokkoku Kaido, one of Japan’s ancient highways. Many of the old buildings still stand today, although they may not have the same function as before. We passed by ancient guesthouses and current sake shops. The brown cedar balls hanging from the latter announced the age of the current sake batch. When new sake is made, a new, green, cedar ball is put up.


Arguably the most famous spot on our walk was the Jizoin Temple. People will come here to pray for good ocular health. Unfortunately, we had to grab a bus, so we didn’t have time to visit the temple grounds, but we did get a glimpse of its large Buddha and the hundreds of offerings.


The bus took us to the Kitaoumi Resort, where we had a delicious lunch, including the famous shrimp tempura. In addition to restaurants, the Resort has an onsen, spas and some reception halls, plus the remnants of the Egyptian pavilion from the international exhibit in Nagoya. I was pleased to see my old pals Morizo and Kiccoro from my time working at the Expo.


After lunch, we were off on the bus again. Our destination: the old Nagahama train station and its neighbour, Keiunkan.


Over the Garden Wall

The old Nagahama train station, built in 1882, is just down the tracks from the current one. While it’s no longer in use, except as a museum, it’s actually the oldest preserved station building in Japan. At the time, people would apparently arrive in Nagahama and then have to take a boat to Otsu. Its first station master, whose office you can visit, later became Tokyo station’s first, when it opened in 1914. There was lots more to see, but we had somewhere else to be.


After crossing the street, we were in the Keiunkan’s gardens. This pavilion was built over three months as a rest stop for a travelling emperor… who only stayed for 45 minutes! Today, it houses the yearly bonbaiten, a plum bonsai exhibit, which takes place when the trees are in bloom during winter (January-February). After a short tour of the room where the emperor rested (beautiful view of the garden, by the way!), we got to handle our very own plum bonsai trees. Bonsais get a lot of care over a year—and throughout the years!—and we tended to only one of many steps: repotting. Every couple of years or so, the roots of bonsai trees have to be pruned, and the soil changed, to allow the tree to grow and prevent rot. This is usually done after the leaves have fallen, when the plant is dormant, but they expedited the process a bit to accommodate us. While listening carefully to an expert through our intrepid interpreter, we cut our trees’ anchors and started removing the old soil. We then cut the excess root before replanting the bonsais in new soil. We had to make sure to preserve their “humps”, apparently one of the most attractive parts of plum trees.


We finished the day by crossing the train tracks and walking to the current Nagahama station. We had a bit of time, so we managed to get a few gifts from Heiwado and a few pictures of Mount Ibuki and the lavender sky before riding back into the sunset.



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