Saturday, March 22, 2014

Hikone Castle Cherry Blossom Festival (Hikone City, Shiga)

滋賀県彦根市彦根城:彦根城桜まつり Hikone Castle Sakura Festival, Hikone City, Shiga Pref.

(BGM: "Sakura Drops" by Utada Hikaru)

(This blog entry is dedicated to my Mother).

Have you ever lived in a place so breathtaking that it hurts to remember its beauty?

Shiga Prefecture is that way to me. It is both my muse and my ghost. I've put off writing about Shiga (pronounced shee-gah) for an entire year now, simply because I feared the waves of sadness that would drown me should I try to recall the details of the place. With all my heart I loved living there. And with all my heart, I hated having to leave it. I remember it as sweetly and as pained as if recalling my mother's scent. By the familiar fragrance of cherry blossoms in warm spring air, my senses conjure up the memory of Shiga's Hikone Castle automatically, without my mind's permission.

At times like this, I guess the only thing to do is to give in to the memory and savor it.

Hikone Castle (彦根城, Hikone-Jou)

One of Japan's few remaining original castles, daimyo Ii Naokatsu's masterpiece watches proudly over Hikone City atop its hilltop perch. Completed in 1622, this national treasure plays annual host to one of Shiga's most glorious events: the Hikone Castle Cherry Blossom Festival (彦根城桜まつり, Hikone-jo Sakura Matsuri), where the castle seems to float on billowing clouds of light pink petals.

Majestic Hikone Castle with Cherry Blossoms (C) 2011, Genkilee, Gen. All Rights Reserved.

As residents of Hikone City (pronounced hee-koh-neh), my family and I received bi-annual complimentary tickets to Hikone Castle and its exquisite environs (including Genkyuen Garden and the Hikone Castle Museum), in both spring and autumn, when the sites are at their most bewitching.

Pleasure Cruises around the Outer Moat of Hikone Castle (C) 2011 Genkilee, Gen. All Rights Reserved.
Between April 1 and April 20, depending on how the sakura (cherry tree) season rolls along, the 1200 cherry trees surrounding Hikone Castle explode in poufs of white and pale pink, transforming this Special Historic Site into a fairytale dreamworld. The trees come alive with the soft humming of honeybees as petals drift down like snow to decorate the watery moats below in pink confetti.

Nature's Spring Party Favors!
Many varieties of Prunus serrulata (Japanese Cherry) can be enjoyed within the castle grounds, but the undeniable diva of this show is the Yoshino Cherry (染井吉野, Somei-Yoshino, Prunus x Yedoensis). Older than any of us alive today, these regal trees arch gracefully like masterful ladies of the dance, waving their fluffy flower pompons in the slightest breeze. It's truly a spectacle to behold.

The Somei-Yoshino variety of flowering cherry is the most popular in Japan.
The trees spiral from the base of the hill all the way up to the top like pink frosting on a wedding cake.

Somei-Yoshino trees blooming at the foot of a turret.

A vivid pink Shidarezakura  (Weeping Cherry) near the plum gardens.
In contrast to the dominating snowy white, Weeping Cherries dot the landscape with occasional sharp bursts of bright pink. Even the most macho American male would fall helplessly captive to their soft, feminine wiles.

Two gentlemen admiring a Weeping Cherry inside the stables.
 A blushing couple taking their first stroll as husband and wife. They were very kind to pose just for me. :-)
For the festival, the outer moat is edged with paper lanterns: some strung, some standing, but each one painted with the name of an official sponsor to commemorate the event. The strung lanterns glow softly at night for the festival's illumination.

Note the snow of fallen blossoms on the grass.
Makeshift vendor stalls called yatai (屋台) pop up near the gardens, lulling revelers with temptations of food, drink and souvenirs. The mouth salivates helplessly as the delectable aroma of grilled world-famous Ohmi Beef (native to Hikone), yakitori chicken and okonomiyaki  (savory pancake) wafts through the air.

Vendors at the Festival
Whenever we go to a festival in Japan, Hubby and I always seek out the "Yakisoba Guy." It just doesn't seem like a celebration in Japan without a heaping plateful of thick, oily noodles fried up with cabbage, carrots and onions, coated in tangy, savory sauce. Maybe it's because we spent so many years in the greater Kanto area, where yakisoba is standard festival fare. It's one of those dishes that's really hard to screw up, so we know it'll be delicious anywhere we go. It's darn good in Hikone, too!

Our Yakisoba Guy doing it right!
It is possible in some designated parts of the park to spread out a plastic tarp for a day of picnicking under the cherry trees, in the charming tradition of hanami  (花見, "flower viewing"). But most visitors to the festival choose to stroll casually around the grounds in sober contemplation.

Many Japanese still dress up for flower-viewing in traditional kimono.
Hikone Castle: Genkyuen Garden (玄宮園)

Constructed by the Hikone Clan's fourth lord Ii Nao-oki in 1677, this naturally enclosed circular garden is more famous for its elegant balance of pine and maple trees than for spring blossoms. But a single glorious Somei-Yoshino cherry tree brings a welcome splash of spring brightness to this otherwise demure oasis of calm.

A stroll around the gardens with grandma.
Visitors to Genkyuen can enjoy a calming, expertly-whisked cup of frothy matcha (抹茶, green powdered tea) and traditional Hikone mochi confection for 500 yen. The tea master there is a living treasure trove of information about the history, art and flowers surrounding this enviable refuge of the Ii family.

Hikone Castle at Night

Night falls, and Hikone Castle slips into a stunning kimono of shimmering pale pastels on a backdrop of smooth black satin. The effect is too magical, too much for words. (It was apparently too much for my camera, as well).

Tiny Hikone Castle, an illuminated dot reflecting in the waters of the outer moat.
A Time for Reflection (C) 2012, Genkilee, Gen. All Rights Reserved.
A friend of mine told me the other day that "it's good to sit and reflect on past achievements." I'd like to take his idea one step beyond his original thought; it's good to work through memories, both painful and pleasurable. Though getting stuck in the past is indeed a risk, learning from experiences, and realizing you derived happiness and joy from them, can be an incredible instigator of growth and learning. By recalling the beauty of Hikone Castle in spring, I learned that my fears of pain were all for naught, and that I can be truly thankful for the opportunity of having lived in such an amazing place. Instead of sorrow, I have only gratitude. Many more posts about lovely Shiga to come in the near future. Stay tuned!

Hikone Castle Cherry Blossom Festival Information: 
Festival Dates: April 1st through April 20th.
Open Hours: The outer moat and walking trails are open all hours, though lights go out around 8pm. The inner moat and all castle-related facilities are open from 8:30am to 5:00pm. You'll want to be in the outer moat area after sunset anyways because the herons and thousands of crows nesting in the overhead trees will surely bomb you with guano if you linger. 
Holidays: The castle is open every day. The museum is closed from December 25th through the 31st for the New Year holidays.
Transportation Access:
(By Car): From Otsu, take the Meishin Expressway to the Hikone IC exit. Get on the Nakahori-Tozai Dori highway and keep driving west towards Lake Biwa until you intersect with Highway 25. Turn right and you'll find parking just inside the outer moat of the castle. The kind folks at the toll gate can give you a map with instructions to Hikone Castle.
(By Train): Take the Tokaido Shinkansen from Kyoto to Maibara Station (20 minutes, 2060 yen) and transfer to the JR Tokaido Line. It's only 5 minutes from Maibara Station to Hikone Station.
(On Foot): Clear instructions on how to walk to Hikone Castle from JR Hikone Station can be found in detail here. Maps detailing popular tourist attractions are available here.
Parking: Free parking available by the public library. Paid parking is otherwise available around the entire castle complex until 5:00pm.
Address: 1-1 Konkicho, Hikone, Shiga 522-0061
Admission Fee: 600 yen (for castle and Genkyuen Garden). 1000 yen (for castle, Genkyuen Garden and the museum).
Available Facilities: Public restrooms (western and J-style), gift shops (on top of the hill beside the castle), soba shop (inside Genkyuen), tea house (inside Genkyuen), ice cream and steamed bun vendors (near the museum), ice cream and drink vending machines (situated around the park), baseball field, tennis courts, walking courses, public library, museum.
Other Points of Interest in the Area: Yume-Kyobashi Castle Road (with traditional tea houses and gift shops), Lake Biwa (a 15-minute walk west of the castle), Kampo No Yado Hot Springs, Seri River and Zelcovia Tree Road (with many sakura trees), Hanashobu Lane, Ginza shopping lane, Hirata River (with even more sakura trees), Bell Road (with modern restaurants and shops), Nanamagari Butsudan district and countless surrounding streets with beautifully preserved temples, shrines, shops and houses.
Insider's Tip: Bring binoculars or a really good camera. Hikone Castle is home to many different kinds of birds from swans, teals, ducks and herons to white-eyes, thrushes and bulbuls! It also has resident tanuki (raccoon dogs) that often come out at night, competing with local cats for handouts and food scraps.

Copyright 2014 Genkilee, Gen. All rights reserved. No part of this blog (written or photo content) may be reproduced or reprinted without the expressed permission of the author.

No comments:

Post a Comment