Vegetarian's Japan Guide

Kōka – The Ninja, the Ceramics, and Other Fascinating Spots

Kōka City, in Shiga Prefecture‘s southwest, is well-known for ninja because one of the three most prominent ninja martial art schools was born here. While that might be the primary reason you want to visit the city, we reckon you are missing out if you give other amazing attractions in the city a miss. This is especially the case if you are also a ceramics lover because Kōka is also the hometown of one of the Six Ancient Kilns in Japan!

Apart from the ninja and pottery-themed attractions, the city also has a couple of hidden gems for cherry blossom and fall foliage hunting. So check out the below list and start planning your next trip (=゚ω゚)ノ.

Bike Rental at Kōka

Because not all attractions in Kōka City are conveniently located close to a train station, instead of being tied up by the bus’s timetable, you can rent one of the bicycles from the nearest train station or the ninja-themed Kōka Information Center (甲賀流リアル忍者館).

For the hours of service at each facility/station, please refer to the official website HERE and translate it to English with Google Chrome’s translation function at the right of the address bar.

Tip: As the number of bikes is limited, you can call the facility to enquire if you can reserve one. If you don’t speak Japanese, check with the staff at your accommodation to see if they can make the phone call on your behalf.

Guided Tour at Kōka City

If you would like a guide to accompany you during your time in Kōka, write an email to Kōka City Tourism and Community Development Association at [email protected].

Kōka City’s Ninja Attractions

As the birthplace of the Kōga school of ninja martial art, the city has a few ninja-themed attractions that might interest you. Whether you only want to browse through the ninja tools, throwing stars, and ninja armor, or would like to dress up like a ninja and undertake some ninja training, these attractions can fulfill your request!

Furthermore, the only residence in Japan which had ninjas living is also in Kōka City!

To find out more information about these attractions, please refer to our Kōka City’s Ninja Attractions Guide (=゚ω゚)ノ.

Aburahi Shrine (油日神社)

Aburahi-Shrine-Koka-Shiga-Japan
Ⓒ photo-ac.com

While there are quite a few temples and shrines that frequently appear on the big screen, Aburahi Shrine (油日神社) isn’t just a popular film shooting location where one of the scenes in Rurouni Kenshin was filmed. The splendid tower gate with a gorgeous hallway blends nicely with the surrounding scenery in beautiful nature!

For more information, please refer to our Aburahi Shrine article.

Kōka Mochifuru Sato-kan Mochimochi House (甲賀もちふる里館 もちもちハウス)

If you are after one of the most delicious mochi rice cakes in Japan, make sure Kōka Mochifuru Sato-kan Mochimochi House is on your itinerary.

Wondering what the secret to the deliciousness of the rice cake is? The mochi rice!

The Kosaji area (小佐治) in Kōka, where the rice cake maker is located, was a part of Lake Biwa three million years ago. So instead of sandy soil, Kosaji is filled with heavy clay soil, perfect for cultivating a type of gluten rice called Shiga Haputae-mochi (滋賀羽二重糯).

This type of rice received the highest rating among the 50 or so different types of gluten rice. It isn’t just sweeter but is also more sticky and stretches better when made into rice cakes. However, it is hard to grow. Its stem is so long that the rice ears drop off to the ground easily. This is why not many places in the world are able to cultivate Shiga Haputae-mochi rice.

Apart from the pre-packed rice cake sold in the shop, the most popular menu item is this freshly made mochi in the photo. As it isn’t sold every day, please plan your visit carefully with the business hours information below.

Other than the rice cake, the noodles here are all made from rice powder and potato starch, making them chewier than noodles made from wheat. If you are allergic to wheat, it is time to taste some noodles!

Mochi Desserts at Kōka Mochifuru Sato-kan Mochimochi House

Another special item on the menu is Komeko Taiyaki (米粉たい焼き). The fish-shaped cake is also made from rice powder.

Important: The savory Taiyaki and the noodle soup broth are not vegetarian.

For dessert, grab one of the green Yomogi An-mochi (よもぎあん餅). Yomogi is a kind of herb that is rich in vitamins and minerals. Kōka Mochifuru Sato-kan uses Yomogi from local farms to make their super stretchy Yomogi Mochi. The red bean paste isn’t too sweet, making it a confectionary that is hard to stop eating!

How to Cook the Mochi Rice Cake at Home

Ⓒ photo-ac.com

If you have grabbed a few bags of pre-maid plain mochi to bring home, here is how to cook them. The rice cake will slowly inflate as it is heated up. It is like making a ballon with the rice cake!

After the rice cake is cooked, you can either dip it in soy sauce or enjoy it with other sweet paste you may have at home. On a cold winter day, you can eat the rice cake with soup.

  • By small oven toaster: heat for 4 – 5 minutes and leave the rice cake in the toaster for another 1 – 2 minutes. The mochi should be crispy outside and chewy inside
  • By microwave: put the rice cake in hot water and heat it for 1 – 2 minutes. The outcome should be similar to the freshly made mochi
  • By a hot plate: flipping the rice cake while heating it up for 5 – 6 minutes
  • By grilling over a charcoal fire: place the rice cake on a net. With the heat coming from the charcoal fire below

Kōka Mochifuru Sato-kan Mochimochi House’s Business Hours and Access Information

  • The shop is open from 8:30 am to 5:30 pm from Tuesday to Sunday
  • The restaurant is open from 10:30 am to 4 pm on weekends and public holidays
    • The last order for light meals is taken at 2 pm
    • The freshly made mochi rice cake is only available on weekends
  • The Komeko Taiyaki is sold at
  • From JR Terashō Station (寺庄駅), take the Kōka City Community Bus’s (甲賀市コミュニティバス) Sayama Line (佐山線) and get off at Kosaji Kōminkan (小佐治公民館)
    • As the number of services is limited, please refer to the timetable HERE to plan. As the timetable only comes in Japanese, please use the Japanese characters of the bus stop to read
  • You can also rent a bicycle from Terashō Station

Tamura Shrine (田村神社)

Ⓒ びわこビジターズビューロー

If you feel like nothing goes smoothly regardless of what you have been doing recently, you may want to stop by Tamura Shrine when you visit Japan next time.

The shrine is known for its power in helping pilgrims get rid of their bad luck. At the same time, it is also a popular place to pray for a safe upcoming trip.

For more information, please refer to our Tamura Shrine article!

Minakuchi Castle Ruins (水口城跡)

If you love visiting different castles in Japan and Tamura Shrine is on your itinerary, making a brief stop at Minakuchi Castle Ruins might be worthwhile. The castle was built in 1634 as an accommodation facility for the third lord of Tokugawa Shogunate, Tokugawa Iemitsu (徳川家光), for his trip to Kyoto.

Minakuchi Castle’s History

Before his trip, Iemitsu ordered Kobori Enshū (小堀遠州) to build a castle at Minakuchi. The castle used the Nijō Castle (二条城) in Kyoto as a model and was constructed by 100,000 workers. So if it was still with us, we could expect a splendidly decorated interior.

Although the castle was originally built solely to accommodate the shogun when they needed to travel to Kyoto, after Ieymitsu’s stay in 1634, the shoguns after Iemitsu had never traveled to Kyoto again. So the castle became a fort on the Tōkaidō Road (東海道), with a feudal lord rostered yearly to station at the castle.

In 1682, Katō Akitomo (加藤明友), the lord of Iwami Province (石見国), entered the castle and established the Minakuchi Domain.

During Akitomo’s time, the scale of the castle was expanded. As a result, the closeby villages and temples were relocated. Even one of the five government roads Tōkaidō had to re-route! Because the castle’s moat was filled with fresh spring gusting out, Akimoto named it Hekisui Castle (碧水城).

In 1874, the castle was sold to different buyers and dismantled. For example, some of the paving stones on the Ohmi Railway were originally the castle’s stone wall. The main quarter of the castle, Honmaru (本丸), became a school’s playground.

In 1972, as a part of the preservation movement, Minakuchi Castle was recognized for its historical value and became a prefectural historical site. Consequently, one of the turrets and the main quarter of the castle were restored.

In 1991, the castle’s interior was opened to the public as the Minakuchi Museum. Materials related to the castle and the history of Minakuchi Domain are exhibited.

Minakuchi Castle Ruins’s Opening Hours, Admission Fees, and Access Information

  • The opening hours of the museum are 10 am to 5 pm from Saturday to Wednesday
    • The museum will close from the end of December to the beginning of January
  • The admission fee to the museum is
    • 100 yen for adults
    • 50 yen for elementary and junior high school students
  • From Ohmi Railway’s (近江鉄道) Minakuchijonan Station (水口城南駅), it is a 5-minute walk
    • If you are taking a JR train, change at JR Kibukawa Station (貴生川駅) for Ohmi Railway

Daichi-ji Temple (大池寺)

One of the best temples to visit in Kōka is Daichi-ji. The temple erected by Gyōki (行基) has a gorgeous garden and a torii gate almost submerged in a lake!

When Gyōki visited the area, the locals were troubled by the lack of water supply for their crop fields. So he had four large lakes made to resolve the problem. If you check out the lakes on the map, the word “heart (心)” is formed by the lakes. This is why they are collectively known as the Lake of Heart (Shinji no Ike, 心字の池). More than 1,250 years have passed since then, but the locals still benefit from the lakes created by Gyōki to irrigate the surrounding rice fields!

In the middle of the lakes, a temple was built with a Gautama Buddha carved by Gyōki enshrined. This is known as the origin of Daichi-ji.

Regarding the Gautama Buddha that Gyōki carved, he did it with his highest respect. For each carving he did, he performed the Buddhist bow three times. No wonder the statue miraculously survived the civil war in 1577.

Daichi-ji’s History after Erection

Initially, the temple belonged to the Tendai sect (天台宗). But from the Kamakura period (1192 – 1333) onward, it has been a Rinzai sect (臨済宗) temple. In 1577, the worship halls were destroyed during the civil war between Oda Nobunaga and Rokkaku Yoshikata (六角義賢). Fortunately, the temple was revived between 1667 and 1670 and had its name changed from the previous Seiren-ji (青蓮寺) to the current Daichi-ji.

If you have seen the family crest of the Oda clan, you might recognize it when you are at the temple. Daichi-ji is using Oda Clan’s family crest because one of the supporters that restored the temple was Oda Masanobu (織田正信), Nobunaga’s nephew. Not only was he the lord of the region at the time, but he also donated the most money.

Daichi-ji’s Scenic Garden

The gorgeous Japanese garden at the east of the Shoin Hall (書院) is called Hōrai (蓬莱). It is a dry garden featuring Satsuki azalea. The garden was designed by Kobori Enshū (小堀遠州), the same samurai who constructed the Minakuchi Castle.

The white sand symbolizes the ocean, with the long azalea grove representing the waves, big and small. In the middle, the rectangular grove mimics the treasure boat floating on the ocean with Seven Lucky Gods onboard. And their destination? Mt. Hōrai (蓬莱山), formed by the rocks placed in front of the tea room.

From mid-May to mid-June, the “waves” and “boats” are decorated with pink azalea flowers. Fall is another recommended season to visit Daichi-ji when the green, white, and red colors beautifully contrast each other.

The Torii Gate in a Lake

Ⓒ びわこビジターズビューロー

If you have time, follow the promenade and stroll around the lakes surrounding Daichi-ji.

What you don’t want to miss out on is the torii gate in Benten Lake (弁天池). If the weather conditions are ideal, the torii gate and the nature behind it will be beautifully reflected on the lake.

In summer, the lotus flowers bloom in the morning so remember to adjust your itinerary accordingly!

The Fall Foliage Season at Daichi-ji

The fall season is from late October to early December and peaks around mid-November.

Daichi-ji’s Opening Hous, Admission Fees, and Access Information

  • The temple is open from 9 am to 5 pm. In winter, it will close early at 4 pm
    • The temple is closed from the 25th of Dec to the 1st of Jan and from the 11th to the 17th of Aug
  • The admission fee is
    • 400 yen for adults
    • 300 yen for junior high school students
    • 200 yen for elementary students

Tōkaidō Tenmakan Museum (東海道伝馬館)

Tsuchiyama Town (土山町) has been a transportation hub since ancient times. In the Edo period (1603 – 1867), it was the 49th post town on Tōkaidō, one of the five major government routes at the time.

Ⓒ 滋賀県

At Tōkaidō Tenmakan Museum, there is a wealth of information about the Tōkaidō route, Tsuchiyama post town, and the Tenma system (post-horse system). The facility was renovated from a traditional private residence and opened in 2001.

In front of the main dwelling, the Toiyaba (問屋場) is reproduced with a 1:1 scale figure. A Toiyaba is like a general office in the post town that organizes everything required to enable the government official to have a smooth trip.

On the first floor of the main house, models and paintings of the township will give you a rough idea of what the post town used to look like centuries ago. You can choose to watch the video at the rear of the first floor for more insight into Tsuchiyama post town. There is also a corner selling local specialties and a space exhibiting the handicrafts made by the locals.

The second floor is dedicated to Tōkaidō with small paintings and models imaging the route’s regions. There are also traditional traveler’s clothes that you can try on for some photography sessions.

The storage is probably the most exciting area in the entire complex. A complete feudal lord’s procession is shown with dioramas. It is just amazing to see the scale of the procession!

In the stable, life-size models show the scene of a local official taking care of the post-horse.

The Denba System

In the Edo period, the Denba or post-horse system was formalized. At each post town, a certain number of people and horses were stationed to assist the government official in getting to the next post town. In all post towns on Tōkaidō, 100 workers and 100 horses were always ready to carry baggage and belongings brought by the official forward.

As you can imagine, having 100 people and 100 horses ready to travel at any given point in time would be a large burden to the town. So annual tributes to the Tokugawa Shogunate were excepted for the post towns. On top of that, the locals derived income from courier and accommodation services to the travelers.

Tōkaidō Tenmakan Museum’s Opening Hours and Access Information

  • The museum is open from 9 am to 5 pm daily except Tuesdays and from the end of December to early January
  • There is no admission fee charged at this facility
  • From JR or Ohmi Railway’s (近江鉄道) Kibukawa Station (貴生川駅), take Kōka City Community Bus’s (甲賀市コミュニティバス) Tsuchiyama Route (土山線) and get off at Ōmi Tsuchiyama (近江土山)
    • The bus trip will take around 30 minutes
    • HERE is the timetable for services heading to the museum
    • HERE is the timetable for services going back to Kibukawa Station

Cherry Blossoms in Ayukawa Village (鮎河の千本桜)

Ⓒ びわこビジターズビューロー

One of the best cherry blossom destinations in Kōka is in a small village called Ayukawa, close to the border of Mie Prefecture.

Along the Ugui River (うぐい川), which has a fresh stream flowing from the Suzuka mountain ranges (鈴鹿山系), around 200 Yoshino cherry trees were planted on the banks. The scenery here is so gorgeous that it has ranked 2nd among all cherry blossom spots in Shiga Prefecture!

In fact, Ayukawa Village has around 1,000 cherry trees that are looked after by the local elderly. Thanks to their effort, we get to enjoy the stunning view in spring with Suzuka mountain ranges as backdrops.

During the cherry blossom season, the area will be lit up at night, making the view even more alluring!

The cherry blossom season at Ayukawa usually peaks from early to mid-April. Depending on when the flowers are predicted to reach full bloom, a cherry blossom festival is held on a weekend.

The trees here were planted around the 1980s as a part of the local elementary school graduation celebration. So it is still a relatively new destination.

In the early summer (June to early July), the fireflies are another reason people gather at Ugui River. With little light pollution, more fireflies have recently been spotted at night!

In autumn, when the foliage of the cherry trees turns red, Ugui River becomes a hidden gem for fall color hunting!

How to Get to Ayukawa Village

  • The easiest way to get to Ayukawa Village is by car. During the cherry blossom season, temporary parking lots will be available
  • If you are coming by train, get off at Kibukawa Station (貴生川駅). From there take Kōka City Community Bus’s (甲賀市コミュニティバス) Tsuchiyama Route (土山線) and get off at Ayukawa-guchi (鮎河口)
    • The bus trip will take around 40 – 50 minutes
    • HERE is the timetable for services heading to Ayukawa
    • HERE is the timetable for services going back to Kibukawa Station

Oozuchi Dam (青土ダム)

If you have time, you can trek upstream to the Oozuchi Dam. There will surely be less of a crowd, and you get to enjoy the cherry blossom scenery with the dam lake as the background!

Just like the Ugui River, from mid to late November, Oozuchi Dam remains a secret place for the vivid fall color.

How to Get to Oozuchi Dam

From Ugui River, it is around a 5-minute drive or a 30-minute walk.

Kōshinsan Kōtoku-ji Temple (庚申山広徳寺)

Another hidden scenic spot in autumn is Kōshinsan Kōtoku-ji Temple. Situated at the top of Mt. Kōshin (庚申山) at an altitude of 420 meters, you can also get a panoramic view of Kōka county and the surrounding mountain ranges from the observation deck.

The temple is known for the view where the fallen ginkgo leaves cover the precinct in late November. But you can already enjoy the vivid fall color as you hike or drive up the mountain!

The Fall Foliage Season at Kōshinsan Kōtoku-ji Temple

The foliage color will start changing in early November, with the season peaking in late November, which can last until early December.

The History of Kōshinsan Kōtoku-ji Temple

Kōtoku-ji was founded by Saichō (最澄) in 783 when he was seeking good quality wood to build Enryaku-ji in Mt. Hiei. One day, he noticed some bright purple clouds fluttering on the mountaintop of Mt. Kōshin. When he arrived at the summit, lightning was striking above a large rock. Sensing the light was coming from a Blue-Faced Vajra (大青面金剛), he carved a statue of the Blue-Faced Vajra and enshrined it in a small worship hall.

In 1593, a poor farmer from the foot of Mt. Kōshin fasted and prayed for the prosperity of his family. Upon completing the ritual after 17 days, a young boy appeared at night and taught him how to make an alloy that mixes zinc with copper.

In 1599, the farmer traveled to Kyoto and became a metallurgist. Following the method taught by the young boy, he successfully made an alloy with a golden luster. It is said that this is the origin of brass smelting in Japan.

Since then, the poor farmer became a rich guy and rebuilt the main worship hall in 1616 to express his appreciation. The brass smelting industry has since worshiped the Blue-Faced Vajra.

Unfortunately, the worship hall was burnt down by a fire caused by leakage currents. The new worship hall was completed in 2017.

How to Get to Kōshinsan Kōtoku-ji Temple

  • From Kibukawa Station (貴生川駅), it is around a 90-minute walk/hike
  • From Kibukawa Station (貴生川駅), you can also take Kōka City Community Bus’s (甲賀市コミュニティバス) Kibukawa Loop Route (貴生川巡回線) and get off at Yamagami (山上)
    • Please note there are only two services per day. Refer to the timetable HERE to plan ahead
    • From the bus stop, it will be a 40-minute hike
  • If you plan to drive, please be aware the road to the summit is narrow

If you want a place to enjoy a relaxing afternoon tea, consider Gallery & Cafe ENSOU! The tart specialist is so popular among the locals that it can be fully booked out a month in advance. And the reason is apparent.

The café, with a traditional-style appearance, has its tarts on pottery and is gorgeously decorated with fresh flowers, fruits, and sometimes even ice cream. The visual presentation is just too perfect for eating!

And let’s talk about the taste. After all, if it just looks nice but isn’t delicious, it probably isn’t worth our time. But at Gallery & Cafe ENSOU, everything is perfect! The crispy tart base with seasonable fruits placed above is so delicious that if you don’t make a reservation in advance, you might not be able to try the most popular tarts!

The potteries used in the cafe are all made at the workshop attached to the cafe by the owner. He is the fourth generation of a pottery-making family in Kyoto’s Kiyomizu. Not only the plates and teapots used in the cafe were made by the owner, but the larger ceramic outdoor furniture is also artwork made in the workshop.

Other than tarts, the café also sells cakes. What is worthwhile to mention is their cheesecake. Because the facility is also a pottery workshop, the cheesecake is baked in pottery, which you can bring home.

If you love the potteries that are used to hold your order, you can purchase them from the gallery next to the café (^_-)-☆.

How to Make a Reservation at Cafe ENSOU

To reserve dine-in, or a particular tart, please give them a call at +81-748-83-1236 between 10 am and 5 pm from Monday to Saturday. If you don’t speak Japanese, kindly check with the staff at your accommodation to see if they are happy to make the phone call on your behalf.

Even if you plan to take them away, the tarts/cakes may be sold out or reserved on the day of your visit. So it is still recommended to make a booking. Note that reservation is taken up to one week before your visit for takeaway.

Gallery & Cafe ENSOU’s Business Hours and Access Information

  • The Cafe is open on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.
    • From 1 pm to 2:45 pm and from 3 pm to 4:45 pm for dine-in
    • From 12:30 pm to 5 pm for takeaway
  • The gallery will open from 12 pm to 5 pm
  • From Shigaraki Kohgen Railway (信楽高原鐵道)’s Shigarakigūshi Station (紫香楽宮跡駅), it is a 3-minute walk
    • To get to Shigarakigūshi Station, change train at JR or Ohmi Railway’s Kibukawa Station (貴生川駅)

MIHO MUSEUM (ミホ・ミュージアム)

A hidden gem in Kōka is the MIHO MUSEUM buried deep in the mountain at the city’s west. Precisely like the architecture design concept, when you step onto the museum’s ground, it is like stepping into a utopia.

The museum is largely divided into two parts. Unlike most museums and galleries, MIHO MUSEUM has its reception and exhibition area in separate buildings. The Reception Pavilion is next to the car park where you purchase the admission ticket and enjoy lunch.

The Museum Building where the exhibition rooms are located is at the other end of a 500-meter approach. Along the promenade, cherry trees are planted, making this approach a less-known but breathtaking place to visit from early to mid-April and in November.

MIHO MUSEUM’s Exhibits and Restaurants

Around 250 – 300 items out of the 3,000 collections the museum holds are exhibited in the exhibition space. Apart from the Japanese tea ceremony utensils and traditional Japanese artworks, you will also find paintings and sculptures from Egypt and other parts of Asia, such as China.

For more information on what is on display, please refer to their official website HERE.

Another reason we recommend the museum is because, different from many facilities in Kōka, MIHO MUSEUM is English friendly. Underneath the Japanese descriptions of the exhibits, an English translation is provided. Moreover, English audio guide machines are available for just 600 yen!

Lastly, the ingredients used at the museum’s cafe and restaurant are organic. Their vegetable-rich menus are also good news for us vegetarians. But just to ensure there aren’t any meat/seafood added to the dish you are looking to order, please utilize the phrases in our Essential Japanese Travel Phrases for Vegetarians and Vegans article to confirm with the staff.

MIHO MUSEUM’s Opening Hours, Admission Fees, and Access Information

  • The museum is open from 10 am to 5 pm from Tuesday to Sunday. The last admission is at 4 pm
    • Due to COVID, the museum closes early at 4 pm
      • The last admission is at 3 pm
    • If Monday is a public holiday, the museum will close on the next business day
    • You can also refer to the museum’s calendar HERE to ensure it won’t be closed on the day of your visit

Important: Please note currently, a reservation is essential to enter the museum. For more information, please refer to HERE and translate the website to English by Google Chrome’s translation function at the right of the address bar.

  • The admission fee is
    • 1,300 yen for adults
    • 1,000 yen for high school and university students
  • To get to MIHO MUSEUM, please get off at JR Ishiyama Station (石山駅) and change for Teisan Bus. For more information about the bus service, please refer to HERE

The Fascinating Shigaraki Ware Attractions in Shigaraki Town

Ⓒ びわこビジターズビューロー

If you are passionate about pottery, what attracts you to Kōka is probably not ninja attractions but its ceramic industry. Housing one of the Six Ancient Kilns in Japan, Shigaraki ware (信楽焼), you can often spot a chubby ceramic raccoon dog here and there in the city!

If you want to know more about the pottery-themed attractions in Kōka, please refer to our article on the Fascinating Shigaraki Ware Attractions in Shigaraki Town.

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