Lake Biwa & Hikone

Many Japanese use Golden Week as their time to take an extended vacation. Many international flights were booked and expensive, so I'd decided to stay at home. Other Japanese use the holidays to come back to their hometown to visit family. A friend of mine from the Monterey Institute, Yuka, lives in Hikone. It is an important city on the largest freshwater lake in Japan: Lake Biwa. Considered the fringe of the Kansai area, Shiga Prefecture and its Lake Biwa are about two hours away from Nishinomiya. So on Thursday, I took a direct train to Hikone to stay the night with Yuka's family.

Yuka studied International Policy at MIIS, so she landed a job in Tokyo with the Japan Foundation for International Affairs. She works way too many hours, but such is life for many of us here in Japan! She was certainly relieved to have the week off and enjoy her mother's home cooking. And Yuka's mother wanted to make sure that I learned how to cook some Japanese food. Hooray! Now I can buy some different things at the supermarket instead of the same old same old. I learned how to cook tempura (deep fried ___), yakiudon (friend thick rice noodles), okonomiyaki (savory pancake), chawan mushi (steamed custard with chicken, mushroom, and fish sausage) and chirashizushi (rice with marinated vegetables, egg, and seaweed). Of course everything was delicious. I haven't found a Japanese food that I haven't liked yet. I must admit that I have avoided nattoo (fermented soybeans) to this day, but I will try it before I leave!

Yuka lives about 500 meters from Hikone Castle, a national treasure. Between the castle and her home is "old new town": a main street designed in the architectural style of 150 years ago. One these warm dry May days off, there were many people strolling the sidewalks. It made for a wonderful atmosphere. Yuka's family has a Golden Retriever, Ryu (dragon), and we walked it many times up and down that route. Ryu is very smart; he can get the newspaper and "business bag". I had a Boxer as a child and Paige never did any of that stuff. But if getting things is what Retrievers were born to do, perhaps I shouldn't be so impressed.

Anyway, we toured Hikone Castle on the second day I was there. Yuka was so kind to translate the signs for me. I wish I could have remembered all the details! But I think its a national treasure because most of the materials in the castle are original. Many tall and wood structures of Japan have a long history of getting struck by lightning and burning to the ground several times. Apparently Japan didn't have a Benjamin Franklin to invent the lightning rod. You'll see a sign that reads, "originally constructed in 782, rebuilt in 1234, 1583, 1729, 1839, and restored in 1954". Maybe I'm exaggerating a bit. Who expects a wood structure to last 1300 years? But you get the idea. Hikone Castle wasn't as tall or fortified as others I have visited, but there was an important transfer of power at the Castle before the Meiji Restoration. So that's why it's significant. Here's a view of me at the plateau before you go into what I'll call the "keep". The grounds of the Castle are lined with Cherry trees, which make for a beautiful display of o-hanami (Cherry Blossom viewing) in April.

On the first day, we drove out to a restaurant on the shores of Lake Biwa. There's plenty of rice fields outside of Hikone. Over the past few weeks, I've been noticing farmers preparing their fields for growing rice. Being from the Midwest, I've seen tilling and plowing and reaping. But rice grows in standing water. The soil must have a large amount of clay to hold that water. Ever wonder why you see pictures of hillsides terraced off for growing rice? That's so the gravity can distribute the rainwater from one level to another! This is all very "duh!" to the Japanese and other Asians, but for dry soil growers in the Midwest, its all very fascinating. So I think this tractor is loosening up the soil to plant the rice which will grow very tall by the summer.

It was wonderful to get away from the urban bustle and see only green and blue for a while. The winding mountain roads took me back to my childhood summers in Michigan. Of course if you live in the innaka (countryside) of Japan you see this everyday and die for the neon lights! But this was our time to get away, relax, and reflect. We sat on the patio enjoying takezumi kohi (coffee percolated by a bamboo charcoal fire) and me with an orange soda. The sun shimmered over the lake and Yuka taught me the word for shimmer to be "pika pika" or something like that. These home stay experiences have really helped me to learn more Japanese. Yuka is a kind teacher.

So I think I just gave you a reverse chronological narrative of my trip to Hikone and Lake Biwa. That was fun! I hope you followed along and feel confident enough to read backwards and piece it all together. Until next week, o-genki de!

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