Chikubu Island sits in the northern part of Lake Biwa within the territory of Nagahama, Shiga Prefecture. This beautiful island can be reached by ferry from the ports of Nagahama, Imazu, and Hikone. The ferry trip offers spectacular views of the northern lake area, including Mt. Ibuki.
The ferry arrives at the port on the southeast of the island from which various shrine and temple buildings can be seen ascending the steep slope. Around the port itself are several souvenir shops selling refreshments. All the temple and shrine personnel and shop employees leave the island at night leaving it uninhabited.
The two main attractions of the island are Hōgon-ji Temple, a Shingon Buddhist temple, and Tsukubusuma Shrine, also known as Chikubushima Shrine. Since ancient times, Chikubu Island has been regarded as the home of gods. Organised religion on the island was established when the mendicant priest Gyōki set up four major Buddhist deities there in the Nara period. Since that time, many of Japan’s celebrated priests such as Kūkai visited the island for ascetic practice.
With the separation of Shintō and Buddhism in the Meiji period, Benzaiten Shrine as it was known was renamed Chikubushima Shrine. Since Chikubu Island was a sacred place for both Shintō and Buddhism, much confusion ensued from the order to separate them.
Hōgon-ji Temple was repeatedly destroyed by fire and earthquakes, so the original building doesn’t exist. However, structures brought here by Toyotomi Hideyori, a son of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, can still be seen. The Kannon Hall and its gate were brought here from the gravesite of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. They originally stood in the Higashiyama district of Kyoto and are fine examples of architecture from the Momoyama period (1573 to 1603). The gate is believed to have stood at the bridge to Osaka Castle in the time of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. It’s recorded that Oda Nobunaga, who was based on the shore of Lake Biwa, visited the island.
The connecting ‘Ship Corridor’ was built when the Kannon Hall was brought to the island. It was made using timber from the Nihon-maru, a leisure ship used by Hideyoshi.
Benzaiten Hall, part of Hōgon-ji Temple, is the top-most building of the complex. It was rebuilt in 1942 with a cypress bark roof in the style of the late Heian period (794 to 1185). Benzaiten, also known as Benten, is a goddess of everything that flows, especially music and eloquence. She’s often depicted playing a lute, and she’s associated with femininity and love. The hall has a fantastic carved image of her. On her head is the Shintō god Ugajin with a snake’s body. Little red effigies of Benten have been dedicated by believers. Chikubu Island is one of three major Japanese sites devoted to Benzaiten, the other being Enoshima in Kanagawa and Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima, Hiroshima.
There’s a little museum behind the pagoda. It has a fine collection of various statuary and paintings.
Tsukubusuma Shrine is lower down the hill. Its main hall was originally the mausoleum in Toyokuni-byo, in the Higashiyama district of Kyoto. A pent roof was added to the back, and the hall is now the central structure in the shrine. The main hall is a magnificent building of the Momoyama period. At the part of the shrine overlooking the torii gate by the sea, you can purchase two little ceramic disks. You write your name and a wish on them, and endeavour to throw them between the pillars of the torii. The chances of succeeding with both of them is slight, so don’t expect your wishes to come true.
History and mystery
Chikubu Island once served briefly as a prison island. During the Warring States period, retainers of the Ōmi daimyō Azai Nagamasa confined his father Hisamasa to Chikubu Island, forcing him into retirement and establishing Nagamasa as his successor.
Between the shore at Tsuzuraozaki to the north and Chikubu Island is an archaeological site. About 140 pieces of earthenware have been lifted in fishermen’s nets from the bottom of the lake at a maximum depth of about 70 m. These are thought to range in age from the early Jomon to the Yayoi period and up to the Middle Ages. There are various theories about how the remains came to be there including villages submerged by tsunami, ships sinking, and ritual sacrifices. Due to the constraints imposed by the water depth and current, human exploration is difficult and so robotic exploration is planned. No other such sites have been found around the world, and the reason for their presence is a fascinating mystery.