During Japan’s fall colors season, you can visit Genkyuen Garden in the evenings for its autumn illumination. In this post, we’ll share photos from this annual November event, thoughts on the experience, and whether it’s worth your time and money.
By way of background, Hikone is a small city near Lake Biwa, the largest lake in Japan. If our visit was any indication, it’s a sleepy little town that is a tourist draw almost entirely for Hikone Castle. This is one of four castles in Japan designated as a national treasure, and one of the few that’s actually an original castle.
Located along the Shinkansen line between Tokyo and Kyoto, it’s a fairly easy stopover between the two legs of a trip. We did Hikone as a side trip from Kyoto on the last evening that our Japan Rail Passes were valid, and found that worked out pretty well, too. The question that we’ll try to answer here is whether it’s a worthwhile side trip simply to see the fall colors and autumn illumination at Hikone Castle and Genkyuen Garden…
First, let’s offer some quick background about Genkyuen Garden. This is a traditional Japanese landscape garden, built on the grounds of Hikone Castle in 1677 for the entertainment of the local lord’s guests and family. The garden was designed after a palace garden in Tang, China.
The garden features a central pond with several islands in its middle. A walking trail circles said pond, and has a number of bridges that connect everything. These bridges and the path are incredibly narrow, and feature uneven stone terrain in places. (During the nighttime illumination, a couple of the bridges were closed, and I’m guessing this was for guest safety in the darkness.)
I mention this because I almost pulled a Michael Scott and about fell into the pond a couple of times while walking it during the autumn illumination. Tread with care. Despite, or perhaps because of, its intimate pathways that meander over bridges and along the water, there’s a sense of intimacy and serenity at Genkyuen Garden.
As with many Japanese landscape gardens, Genkyuen Garden makes use of the art of shakkei, or “borrowed scenery.” Here, it’s both with Hikone Castle in the distance, as well as some trees, castle walls, and a couple of rolling hills and a teahouse and other entertainment buildings, such as Rakurakuen Palace (the former residence of the lord’s family).
In other words, Genkyuen Garden is a lot like other landscape gardens you’ll surely encounter on a visit to Japan. While we found the garden to be quite pleasant and charming, similar experiences can be had pretty much anywhere you go. Visiting for the garden alone would be silly when you’ll no doubt have comparable offerings much nearer to Kyoto.
Likewise, Kyoto has no shortage of autumn illuminations, so the real reason to visit is for the combination of the illuminated garden with Hikone Castle in the backdrop. Now this is an experience that cannot be replicated in Kyoto, and is the reason you should consider visiting Hikone.
As far as logistics go, the autumn illumination runs from mid to late November every evening at Genkyuen Garden from 6 p.m. until 9 p.m., with the last admission at 8:30 p.m.
I wish I had precise dates, but I cannot locate any precise English-language resources on that (even the Hikone Sightseeing Association’s page lacks dates). November 18 through November 27 seems to be the consensus, but I’m not certain on that.
The cost is 700 yen per person, which is fairly steep compared to fall foliage illuminations in Kyoto. Purely from a monetary perspective, I do think it’s worth it, as there’s a fairly large area that’s illuminated. You also benefit from a relative lack of crowds here as compared to the Kyoto spots, making for one of the few intimate nighttime illumination experiences.
Of course, this does not factor in the cost of transportation, which is a minimum of 1,000 yen from Kyoto if you take the Tokaido-Sanyo Line or more like 3,000 yen if you take the Shinkansen. If you’re paying out of pocket for transit, I’d say the Hikone Castle/Genkyuen Garden autumn illumination is not worth it. Even if you add other things to your visit, it’s still tough to justify.
You pretty much need to be using the Japan Rail Pass for this side trip to make sense. Presumably, most people reading this post will be doing exactly that.
Whether it’s worth your time is potentially a different issue. We scrounged for other compelling things to do while in Hikone, but came up empty in our research prior to visiting. As such, we decided just to go for the evening, on a weekend night that was otherwise bonkers at all of the tourist spots in Kyoto.
Although we spent nearly 90 minutes wandering Genkyuen Garden during the fall illumination, this was primarily because I had my tripod and was spending inordinate amounts of time taking photos. The average visitor will need less than an hour here, which is about half the amount of time round-trip transit from Kyoto will take.
Despite that, we felt vindicated by our decision to visit Hikone. We worked on the Shinkansen ride and encountered zero crowds on the streets of Hikone. Even in Genkyuen Garden, it felt like there were only a couple dozen people scattered around the grounds. This is a stark contrast to what we would’ve encountered at Kyoto’s popular fall foliage spots on the same evening.
Granted, we’ve seen a lot in Kyoto and have the luxury of time, but for us, we felt that visiting Hikone Castle and Genkyuen Garden during the autumn illumination was worth it. If you’re in more of a time crunch with less than a week in Kyoto, we’d have a very difficult time recommending Genkyuen Garden. That is, unless you really want photos of one of Japan’s castles with illuminated fall foliage in the foreground. That’s a pretty iconic scene, and the allure of photographing that might be enough to draw some of you out to Hikone no matter how much time you have in Japan. (I can’t say I blame you!)
If you’re planning a visit to Japan during autumn, check out our Guide to Fall Colors in Japan, which highlights what to expect from several locations. Also check out our other posts about Kyoto for ideas of things to do (or not do) while there.
Have you visited Hikone Castle? Would you recommend it as a day-trip from Kyoto, or destination unto itself? Any thoughts on Japan’s fall colors season? Additional tips that we missed? Hearing feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!