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.

Bicycle 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 bicycles is limited, you can call the facility to ask 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 dress up like a ninja and undertake some ninja training, these attractions can fulfill your request!

Furthermore, the only residence in Japan with 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)

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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 Japan’s most delicious mochi rice cakes, make sure Kōka Mochifuru Sato-kan Mochimochi House (甲賀もちふる里館 もちもちハウス) is on your itinerary. The facility is basically a rice cake workshop with a shop and a restaurant attached. Thus, you are guaranteed that the mochi you purchase or order are fresh!

For more information, refer to our article on Kōka Mochifuru Sato-kan Mochimochi House!

Koka-Mochifuru-Sato-kan-Mochimochi-House-Koka-Shiga-Japan

Tamura Shrine (田村神社)

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If 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 the Minakuchi Domain are exhibited.

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

  • The museum’s opening hours 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 200 yen for adults.
  • 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 (大池寺). The temple erected by Gyōki (行基) has a gorgeous garden and a torii gate almost submerged in a lake! It is quietly tucked in in Shiga Prefecture‘s countryside. Not known by many people, it is a great spot to visit if you are after the beauty of Japan’s natural scenery with the minimum level of crowds.

For more information, refer to our article on Daichi-ji!

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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.

Ⓒ 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 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 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 time would greatly burden 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.
    • As the number of services is limited, please refer to HERE and click (土山本線(上り)and 土山本線(下り underneath the 2nd map.

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

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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.
    • As the number of services is limited, please refer to HERE and click (土山本線(上り)and 土山本線(下り)underneath the 2nd map.

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 can 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).
    • As the number of services is limited, please refer to HERE and click 貴生川巡回線 underneath the 1st map.
    • 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, 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 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 fill in the webform HERE. You can also call them 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 from Thursday to Saturday.
    • For dine-in, from 1 pm to 2:45 pm and from 3 pm to 4:45 pm.
    • 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 trains at JR or Ohmi Railway’s Kibukawa Station (貴生川駅).

Miho Museum (ミホ・ミュージアム)

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A hidden gem in Kōka City in Shiga Prefecture is the Miho Museum (ミホ・ミュージアム), buried deep in the mountain at the city’s west. Precisely like the architectural design concept, stepping onto the museum’s ground is like stepping into a utopia. While the bus trip from Ishiyama Station takes around an hour, you won’t regret making the trip after seeing its incredibly built buildings surrounded by breathtaking natural scenery.

For more information, refer to our article on Miho Museum!

The Fascinating Shigaraki Ware Attractions in Shigaraki Town

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 Fascinating Shigaraki Ware Attractions in Shigaraki Town article.

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