Today, I’d like to introduce you to the former merchant town of Omihachiman. Found on the shores of Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture, this picturesque hamlet looks just as it would have 400 years ago. Back during the Warring States period (1467–1603), Omihachiman first developed as a township centered around Hachiman Castle. Once the country was unified in the early 1600s though, Omihachiman went on to be a bustling hub due it being located on an important interstice. This connected Omihachiman both with the Sea of Japan via Lake Biwa as well as other parts of the country (like the commercial city of Osaka) via the Nakasendo trade route and thus established the merchant town as a famous center of commerce.
Thanks to much of the infrastructure being preserved, visitors to Omihachiman today can experience what life would have been like centuries ago. A number of the old buildings in this merchant town exist exactly as they did during Japan’s Edo period (1603–1868). As I’ll explain later in this piece, the best way to take in the local vibe is by a boat ride through Omihachiman’s waterways and canals. Especially during mid March when the cherry blossoms are out, this spectacle will leave you breathless. In addition to its long history though, Omihachiman also boasts some of the best bovines in all of Japan so should you ever find yourself here, be sure to try some Omi beef!
By the way, you should make a memo that Omihachiman can also be rendered in English as “Omi-Hachiman” so consider using both nomenclature should you be doing more research on your own. For context, the moniker is a combination of “Omi” which is the former name of what is now Shiga Prefecture and Hachiman, a reference to the regional Himure Hachimangu shrine complex. It seems that much of the English world has settled on using Omihachiman so for the sake of the search engines, I’ll be using that term throughout this piece. After all, I need to get that sweet, sweet Google traffic, don’t I?
Anyway, all things considered, Omihachiman is a great addition to any standard Japan itinerary that includes Kyoto. It is an easy add-on that can be completed in around half of a day due to the town’s close proximity to Japan’s ancient capital. Moreover, the more rural atmosphere is a welcomed reprieve from the legions of tourists that again can be found at famous sightseeing spots like Kiyomizu-dera and Ginkaku-ji (the A.K.A. “Golden Temple”) .
How to Get There
Before I get into what to see and do in Omihachiman, let’s take a quick break from the history lesson and cover some key logistics. For starters, you’re either going to want to be in Kyoto or make your way to Maibara Station on the bullet train (the Tokaido Shinkansen) should you be coming from Tokyo. From there, you’ll need to take the local JR Biwako Line that runs along the east side of the largest lake in Japan. Your destination will be Omihachiman Station but be sure to refer to a service like Jorudan before hopping on a train. There are a variety of different express trains that run to and from Kyoto (and beyond) so you’d be wise to double check which one you should ride.
Once you arrive at Omihachiman Station, you’ll need to make a choice. You see, much of the action is located around twenty minutes away at the base of Mt. Hachiman. To get there, you’ll either need to try to figure out the buses or walk the two-kilometer trek to the foot of the mini mountain. As long time readers probably already know, I opted to hoof it but those who aren’t up for walking long distances are encouraged to take the bus down to the Shinmachi stop. From there, the preserved portions of Omihachiman and its iconic canals are just a few minutes away on foot.
The Omihachiman Riverside District
Truth be told, the main thing to savor while in the Omihachiman riverside district is the quaint vibe. As you stroll about the merchant town, you’ll quite literally feel as if you’ve been whisked away to a bygone era of Japanese history. I think I ended up spending a solid few hours just meandering about during my most recent visit and I highly suggest that you do so too. At the same time though, it wouldn’t be one of my Japan area guides without a bit more information about what to see and do.
The following list of locales is what I consider to be the “musts” while in Omihachiman…
- Hachiman Bori Meguri
By far, the best way to take in the sights of Omihachiman is by cruising around the Hachiman Bori Canal. Prior to the advent of the modern era, this network of waterways was the primary way that goods were moved around the town. There are several companies that offer Hachiman Bori Meguri (meaning boat tours) so hop aboard and don’t sleep on this activity!
- Himure Hachimangu Shrine
Found directly at the base of Mt. Hachiman, Himure Hachimangu is the town’s namesake. As you may be able to guess by the moniker, the sanctuary enshrines Hachiman, the patron god of war. Himure Hachimangu is known across Japan for having one of the country’s most dangerous festivals. Known as the Omihachiman Sagicho Fire Festival, this fiery mid-March celebration is something you ought to check out if the timing works for you.
- Mt. Hachiman
Located directly behind the aforementioned shrine, Mt. Hachiman was the former site of Hachiman Castle. Completed in the late 1500s, the structure was soon demolished after Toyotomi Hideyoshi ordered his nephew and heir to commit ritual suicide for allegedly plotting a coup. While the Zuiryu-ji temple compound today sits where the castle once did, there are also some nice walking trails atop Mt. Hachiman that offer great views of Lake Biwa and the canal below. Note that the round trip cable car fee will set you back around 900 yen.
- The Kawara Museum
This facility is dedicated to all things kawara (Japanese roof tiles). Inside you’ll learn all about their history and connection to the former merchant town of Omihachiman. The property itself sits on the site of an old kawara factory and consists of multiple buildings.
- The Nishikawa Residence
This family domicile is emblematic of the old houses in the city and previously belonged to the most prominent of all of the Omi merchants. The space is open to the public and offers a great glimpse of what life would have been like for the more wealthy townsfolk during Omihachiman’s time in the limelight.
Dating from the late 1800s, this European-style building now serves as the local tourist information center. Inside, you’ll find some exhibitions and a souvenir shop. While not a “must visit” by any stretch, the exterior is at least worth looking at.
While you don’t need to make the rounds to all of these spots, it is entirely possible to do so in around half a day. If you’re looking to tackle ’em all, be sure to get an early start!
Before Going Back to Omihachiman Station
On the eastern side of Mt. Hachiman, you’ll find the peculiar building pictured above. Known as La Collina, this oddity is Taneya Club’s flagship store. The entire premise was designed to blend seamlessly with the surrounding nature. As you can see above, the whole roof is covered with emerald moss, thus giving the compound an aesthetic rarely seen elsewhere. If you venture inside, you’ll find a number of cafes, restaurants and whatnot that sell an assortment of both Japanese and foreign patisseries (try the baumkuchen).
Like with the canal area, this part of Omihachiman can be reached either via bus or on foot. Should you opt to walk it, the journey to this part of the city will only take around ten minutes or so. That said, there really isn’t any scenery to note on the way nor can you see Lake Biwa from the road. If you’re feeling lazy, definitely consider taking the bus over. Note that I suggest you make this your final destination as you can take the bus directly back to Omihachiman Station.
Other Nearby Attractions
In addition to all of the allures in the Omihachiman riverside district, the surrounding area also has a few other spots to check out too. Of the options on the menu, I highly suggest that you consider the ruins of Azuchi Castle. This medieval Japanese stronghold sits on the outskirts of the city and was one of the warlord Oda Nobunaga’s seats of power. The crafty daimyo purposely put Azuchi Castle in a place where it was close enough to Kyoto to quickly mobilize should there be a need but also far enough away to not get caught up in any political drama. The original structure was sadly demolished but the ruins are still worth exploring today.
Seeing as Kyoto has already been done to death elsewhere on the internet, I am going to go out on a limb and suggest that you head up further north into Shiga Prefecture. Here, you’ll find amazing locales such as Hikone, Chikubushima and Nagahama that all combine well with a visit to Omihachiman. In fact, seeing as Shiga will always be a prefecture that is near and dear to my heart, I absolutely urge anyone looking to see a different side of Japan to add these hidden gems to their itineraries!
Until next time travelers…