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Friday, June 24, 2005

NO PLACE LIKE OMI

A prize catch for travel merchants


Special to The Japan Times

First impressions of a Japanese provincial town can be so thoroughly dispiriting as to make you inclined to believe that the developer of the station area set about his task grimly determined to bring a whole new meaning to the concept of drabness. And so it is upon alighting at Omi Hachiman Station and coming face-to-face with its small-scale urban clutter the natural instinct is to clamber back on the train and check out the next stop along Lake Biwa.

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Depicting a canal scene

With Omi Hachiman, though, it is well worth the effort in getting to see the other side of town. Probably because it lacks a single must-see sight, Omi Hachiman tends to get scant mention in English-language guidebooks to Japan. And yet among Japanese, this place in Shiga Prefecture has no small reputation. Back in the Edo period (1603-1867), Shiga was known as Omi and it was from this region, and in particular from Hachiman, as this town was then known, that the famed Omi merchants would trek across the country, hauling their wares.

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The former Nishikawa residence

Traveling as far as Hokkaido, the Omi merchants dealt in such commodities as fertilizer, medicines, cloth and cosmetics. They also took with them a strong entrepreneurial spirit and a reputation for shrewdness and honesty. They may have begun as humble merchants, but eventually they set up complex trade networks far and wide. More than a few commentators see Japan's modern system of trade and industry as having its roots in the Omi merchants, with such huge corporations as Seibu, Marubeni, Takashimaya, Itochu and Daimaru tracing their origins to these early entrepreneurs from the shores of Lake Biwa.

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Dango gets a grilling

As you might expect, evidence of the town's old merchants is not hard to come by in Omi Hachiman. The town's tourist office, located in Haku-un House, itself an exquisite former school building dating back to 1877, charts something of the history of the Omi merchants. Not far from here is the town's historical district, where many of the old mercantile families built comfortable houses for themselves.

Notable among these is the handsome former residence of the Nishikawa family, today classed as an Important Cultural Property. Though they started off hawking mosquito nets and tatami matting, the Nishikawas eventually made the list of millionaires in Edo (former Tokyo).

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Lanterns at the doorstep of an eatery

In this area, too, is the History and Folklore Museum, which, with its reconstructed merchant's bureau on a tatami floor and with sliding screens and andon lanterns, offers a glimpse of office life in the days before green tea was brought in by short-skirted OLs.

Hachiman came to be known for its merchants, but it was founded by a warrior, Toyotomi Hidetsugu, nephew of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the warlord who ruled Japan at the end of the 16th century.

Area's best-known dish

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A shrine beside the canal

Before being obliged by his uncle to take the seppuku knife at the age of 28, Hidetsugu built himself a castle in strategically important Omi, above Hachiman. For this castle, he dug a defensive moat, and this quiet willow-lined waterway is today one of the most attractive features of Omi Hachiman. As you walk beside the delightful canal, tourist boats gently chug on by, artists stop to capture the scene on canvas and you can almost ignore the fact that its posts and fences are made of concrete trying hard to look like wood.

This moat eventually connects with Lake Biwa, which supplies the fish that go to make this area's best-known dish. Crucian carp from the lake are used to make funazushi -- a concoction that might charitably be described as "idiosyncratic" or, more accurately, as "unfit for human consumption." In funazushi, the fish are preserved for two or three years, and the result is an aroma more evocative of a clogged-up JR toilet than something that a person would ordinarily regard as food. Call me a wimp, but I could only manage two tiny bites of funazushi -- and that after having laid out 2,000 yen for the thing -- before giving it to the restaurant's cat.

If funazushi is its less-wholesome aspect, Lake Biwa itself is a fine stretch of water, with the lakeside here being fortunately far less developed than at its southern end. In Omi Hachiman, the lake is visible only from atop Hachiman-yama, where Hidetsugu built his castle. That castle, though, is no more, and the loss is unfortunate. On the high hill with Lake Biwa as the blue backdrop, the castle in its heyday would have had one of the most spectacular sites of any in the land.

Getting there: Omi Hachiman is 40 minutes from Kyoto on the JR Tokaido Line


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