Omihachiman (近江八幡) is an Edo Period merchant town located close to Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture, a short 30 minute train ride from Kyoto. The main claim to fame of Omihachiman is it was the home of the famous Omi merchants called “Omi Shonin”, who were recruited to the town from nearby Azuchi.
The castle town of Omihachiman was established by Toyotomi Hidetsugu (nephew and adopted son of Toyotomi Hideyoshi) in 1585 when he built Hachiman Castle on top of Mount Hachiman. The castle only had a short history, but the castle town at the foot of the mountain flourished and prospered during the Edo Period.
After the fall of Oda Nobunaga’s mighty Azuchi Castle, the merchants of the area needed a new place to apply their trade, so Omihachiman was chosen as the ideal location. The town became one of the post towns of the Nakasendo Road and was a hub of craftsman and merchants from around Japan. Omihachiman was strategically important as it was a junction between Western and Eastern Japan. The Nakasendo Road was the highway that connected Edo (modern-day Tokyo) to Kyoto. The road was used by nobles, samurai, merchants and commoners to cross the nation from West to East.
The Omi merchants became some of the richest merchants in Japan, travelling throughout the country selling their wares. Today you can visit their well-preserved Edo Period houses in the old part of town called Shin Machi Dori. The houses are open to the public and walking down the street feels like taking a step back in time. The quaint street features beautiful buildings with lattice windows, pine trees protruding from gardens, and “udatsu” (unusual shaped roofs). These roofs were a sign of wealth and position amongst the rich and wealthy. I recommend a visit in the evening when the natural light starts to dim and the old fashioned street lights come on, making this place magical.
The Hachiman Bori Canal located close to Shin Machi Dori served as a moat around the castle town for protection. The canal also was a hub of ship transport in the area as it connected Lake Biwa (Japan’s largest lake) to the merchant town. The Omi merchants used the canal to transport their goods to Lake Biwa, where the cargo boats would sail across the lake.
Today the canal still remains and you can enjoy pleasant strolls along its banks soaking up the amazing atmosphere. The scenery is just beautiful with white walled storehouses and Edo Period houses along the canal. In more recent times some of the houses have been transformed into shops and restaurants that are a must see while visiting the town. The houses continue to the torii gate of Himure Hachimangu Shrine and Hakuun Bridge.
Omihachiman with its famous Omi merchants and Edo Period houses offers visitors a taste of Japan’s past, and is a must see off the beaten track destination in Japan. It makes a great day trip from Kyoto for any fan of Japanese history and culture.