As a neighbour to Kyoto, Shiga is steeped in history. It has been home to the most powerful war generals and to secretive ninjas. It saw the birth of famous Buddhist sects. Lake Biwa itself is millions of years old and has nurtured life around it.
If you’re familiar with Japanese history, you will have heard of Nobunaga Oda. Oda was a war general, one of the great unifiers who turned what were a bunch of warring states into the country Japan is today. But did you know he lived in Shiga during his last years?
Our first stop of the day is Azuchi Castle, built for Oda himself; it was close enough to Kyoto and his enemies to keep an eye on, but far enough to stay away from the fires and drama of the city. Ironically, the castle would be burned down after his assassination in 1582… 4 years after the end of construction!
Apparently, Azuchi Castle was an architectural novelty when it was built. Until then, castles were military buildings, low and stout things made of stone, built to defend and protect. But Azuchi was different: it was high—6 storeys plus a basement—, the first high-rise building in Japan and likely one of the highest wooden structures in the world at the time, colourful and luxurious, made to be lived in and enjoyed, but protected by stone walls. It was the first of what we now think of when we imagine a Japanese castle. Even though the original has been lost for centuries, a reproduction of some parts can be seen in a nearby museum, and one of the whole castle exists in Mie. But that’s another story.
We start our visit of the castle ruins at the bottom of a mountain, where we can already see part of the uneven stone steps we’ll have to climb. The stone walls and beautiful vegetation makes the first area a famous photo spot. I hear the cherry blossoms look great in spring. The way up is not too brutal, but we still take a few breaks to admire the view. The last section is a peaceful wooded area, where step after step brings us to walls, carved stones, and, finally, to the ruins themselves. Honestly, not much is left, but the landscape we see from the top is green and blue with sky and water. I wonder what it must’ve been like from the top of the castle!
Leaving the ruins, you can visit the site of Oda’s grave (although his body was never found after his assassination! Mysterious!) and a few other areas before going down a different way, that brings you through more woods and a temple. Watch out for snakes and don’t bring pets!
Our descent ends right around noon, and we headed to our next destination with the hopes of finding a tasty treat or a luscious lunch.
We are at a bit of a loss for word to precisely describe La Collina. Built in 2015, the facilities are owned by a famous Japanese sweets maker and bakery, Taneya and Club Harie. In essence, it serves as their flagship store, but there are other food vendors as well as a whole magical landscape. In fact, while I had visited Shiga’s Hobbit village in the past, visiting the now-famous tourist spot is like stepping into an actual fairy tale!
The tall hedge that surrounds the compound doesn’t quite hide what’s beyond, but crossing one of the arches and seeing the large, grass-covered roof is still thrilling. Inside, people are lining up to get the famous Baumkuchen, a doughnut-shaped cake that looks like the rings of a tree. While they wait, they can observe the cakes being made through a glass, or enjoy to interesting inside architecture of the main building. We move along, intent on finding something a bit more substantial than dessert.
If we thought crossing the outer hedge was something, setting foot in the courtyard beyond it feels like an adventure. The mountain backdrop remains the same, but the space is surrounded by bizarre and beautiful buildings and vegetation. For now, we ignore them and head to the food court area. There are a few different vendors, but we decide not to have lunch here.
We have a look at the collection of baked goods and jams in a nearby hangar that serves as a gift shop. The walls are covered with licence plates from across North America, and there’s even an old car and a double-decker bus with a selection of macarons inside. You can go up to the second floor where you will find a bakery, as well. We go around and step back outside, where even more old cars and food options are waiting, as well as a few murals and a trio of custom tobidashi boys, Shiga’s very own “Children Crossing” sign.
Since we are so hungry, we temporarily fill the void in our stomachs with an amazing garlic bread toast. The perfect amount of crunchy crust and buttery garlic flavour, I dream about it to this day. After this snack, we finally turn our sight to the wide grassy area to explore a bit. There are small tunnels and tiny doors to go through, buildings to admire and lots of green to fill our sights. Unfortunately, the garlic bread doesn’t sustain us, so we leave behind the charming La Collina and drive to our next destination: Hachimanbori.
Hachimanbori is a system of canals that was built under Hideyoshi Toyotomi, another of Japan’s great unifier and Oda Nobunaga’s successor. They were orchestral to the area’s economy, serving as a kind of highway, and to the business of Omi merchants. They also divided the city between nobles and common folk. Lucky for us, the canals and the surrounding building have been conserved by the city over the last 400 years or so, and they now appear in numerous historical movies and tv shows, in addition to remaining an important touristic area.
After feasting on some Omi beef on rice (why not eat like queens after visiting a castle?), we walk from Akindo no Sato to the canal, aiming to take one of the famous boat rides. Following the water is easy, but we become unsure of our way for a moment when we get to the roof tile museum. We decide to try going through, crossing the grounds covered in beautiful mosaics, and that ends up being the right choice! Coming out on the other side, we’re dazzled by the view before us: large trees grow on each side of that canal and you can feel the history. We snap a few pictures before making it just in time to the next boat ride.
Although the prerecorded presentation is a bit loud, the 30-or-so-minute tour is quite nice and allows us to see a side of the city we couldn’t from somewhere else. The high walls give way to more open spaces, trees to bushes and flowers, and we pass by many boats and people. Too soon, we’re back to our starting point and we start exploring the area on foot. It’s a different experience, and we get to go a bit deeper, walking up to the foot of Mt. Hachiman, where you can take a ropeway to the top, then visiting more Takeya and Club Harie stores before taking one more peek at the roof tile museum and ending our day with ice cream.
While we drove that day, it’s possible to visit the Azuchi Castle ruins, La Collina and Hachimanbori with public transport. Azuchi Castle is about a 30-minute walk from Azuchi station on the JR Biwako line. Entry to the mountain and ruins is 700 yen. La Collina (free entry) and Hachimanbori are accessible by bus from Omihachiman station. The walk between the two is about 15 minutes. The Hachimanbori boat tour we took was 1000 yen (10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. in the summer, shorter hours depending on the season.)
Want to have a better idea of what our day looked like? Don’t miss watching Emily’s video!