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The City of Hikone stands on the eastern shore of Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture, near the center of Japan.

Hikone is a city of 110,000 inhabitants, one distinguished by a rich historical legacy and culture. The city is also a university town; three universities – The University of Shiga Prefecture, Shiga University and Seisen University – as well as a Japanese language learning centre for American university students, make the city their home.

Since October 1992, Hikone Castle (Hikone-jo) has been on the tentative list as a UNESCO World Heritage.

Hikone is a prototypical example of an administrative city of the Edo Period, a town which developed around its castle. The development of the castle town was nourished by its surrounding natural environment, including the mountains and ample water of Lake Biwa, fostering a relationship of harmony with nature. Water from the lake, rivers, and underground currents were used to create moats and canals for defence, transportation and cultural activities.

Physically, Hikone Castle and castle town were arranged in several quasi-concentric circles or rings. Three distinct circular regions for the castle town proper were shaped by three moats, and the castle itself was surrounded by palaces, stables and samurai residences.

The innermost region of the town stands on a hill facing Lake Biwa and is surrounded by the first moat. A topographically secure location was an important element in the defense of the castle and castle town. Several architectural structures are located in this inner region: a high keep, which functioned as a symbol of power and connected with other strategic points on the surrounding mountains overlooking the Hikone territory; palaces for the public affairs rituals for forging loyalty between the lord and vassals and which also accommodated a noh theatre; the lord’s private residence, along with tea ceremony houses; and attached gardens for rituals, and educational and cultural activities.

In the middle region of the town, the ring of land circumscribed by the second moat, stood the houses of upper-class samurai vassals, gardens and a han-school. And in the outer ring of land, the region of town encircled by the third moat, were the residences of middle-class samurais and workplaces of the artisans and merchants who served the lords and samurai. These artisans and merchants were expected to participatein the event of an outbreak of war (a war never, in fact, occurred over the three centuries of the Edo Period). Beyond this third ring of the town, in the regions located outside of the third moat, stood the residences of lower-class samurais (ashigarus), artisans and merchants.

The castle town, Hikone, is located within the concentric rings of land formed by these moats and surrounding the castle. Residence within the city was limited to samurais and their immediate attendants – to those inhabitants who were indispensable to the functioning of the town – and dwellings and neighborhoods were deliberately and thoroughly arranged to reflect social status and role.

The basic structures of the castles and castle towns of the time were modeled on the Edo Castle (the seat of the Shogun’s rule) and the city of Edo. In fact, based in this underlying template, many castle towns came to acquire their own particular characteristics under the influence of the surrounding natural environment, local culture and the status and function of the castle lord within the shogunate.

Approximately 180 cities emerged in Japan during the first half of the 17th century, after more than 100 years of incessant warfare. Japan was unified and placed under the central rule of the Tokugawa Shogun and semi-autonomous local warlords. The new cities were conceived of and created all over Japan—each with a centrally-located castle that functioned as the headquarters of local government. Local lords carried out the civilian administration of their domains while preparing for war by building castles equipped with high-rise structures such as a main keep, turrets with stone walls, mounds, and surrounding moats.

Hikone has retained well the entire form of the castle, including its fortifications, two moats, palaces for political and administrative decision-making outfitted with the noh theatre, the central stable, and the lord's residential area and gardens with tea ceremony houses. The castle town has evolved into modern urban districts, but the layout of the streets retains the framework of the old castle town, and the roads are lined with numerous old houses.

Hikone Castle was of particular strategic and administrative importance to the Shogunate. The Ii Family maintained unbroken possession of the castle and jurisdiction of the Hikone throughout the Edo Period, or for almost three centuries. This continuity of reign was rare among local lords. The family’s continuous administration of the town, including the education system, allowed for the preservation of rare historical materials and architectural structures which exhibited the design, materials and building techniques developed during the Edo Period. The development and consolidation realized during the Edo Period laid the the groundwork for Japan’s modernization in the subsequent Meiji Era.

Hikone Castle and portions of the castle town within the second moat still exhibit, today, all the elements characteristic of the governance of the lords in the Edo Period in its authentic form. The castle and castle town represent unparalleled cultural resources, examples testifying to the depth of architecture and civil engineering that existed during the Edo Period. In ways that can be seen nowhere else, the castle and the core parts of the castle town demonstrate the construction and full range of functions―military, administrative, economic, cultural, and educational―of a city built by the samurai to establish stable rule.

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