Kōga is well known for its ninja history (Kōga ninja clan), unique ceramics and position on the Tokaido Road. The Kōga ninja clan were rivals of the nearby Iga ninjas. Unlike the Iga ninja, whose power was well-known, the Kōga clan are said to have used stealth and deception to mask their size and power, creating fake rivals for themselves. In 1581, the two clans joined forces against Oda Nobunaga, but were defeated by Nobunaga's overwhelming forces, and the surviving members of the Kōga ninja went into retreat.
The ceramics produced in Kōka, known as Shigaraki-yaki, have been prized across Japan for centuries. Today you will see many small pottery shops lining the streets near Shigaraki Station.
The Tokaido Road was for centuries the main route from Kyoto to Edo (present day Tokyo). The road passes through the heart of Kōka, and two famous rest stations, Tsuchiyama and Minakuchi, are located here.
In 2004 the towns of Minakuchi, Shigaraki, Tsuchiyama, Kōga and Kōnan merged to form Kōka City.
This is a rural area with few English speakers. Indeed, when we arrived at the station to go to the Ninja Village, there was nobody around to ask. Fortunately there was an equally confused Japanese couple with small children who called for the bus. Some Japanese language capability is needed to find sites.
Kōka has five stations on the JR Kusatsu Line. The largest station, Kibukawa, is about a 45 minute ride from Kyoto.
From JR Osaka or Kyoto Station, get on any regular, rapid or special rapid train headed for Kusatsu, Yasu, Maibara, Nagahama or Tsuruga. Get off the train at Kusatsu. From Kyoto this takes about 15-20 minutes. Do not exit Kusatsu station, and transfer to any train bound for Kibukawa or Tsuge (Keep in mind that trains bound for Tsuge will stop at all stations in Koka City, while trains bound for Kibukawa will only stop at Kibukawa). The train from Kusatsu to Kibukawa takes about 25 minutes.
Along with the JR train line, Koka has 4 stops on the Omi Railway and 5 stops on the Shigaraki Kogen Railway. Both of these railways can be accessed at JR Kibukawa Station. Koka also has an extensive bus network, with many buses departing from Kibukawa Station.
Ninja Village (忍術村) - Similar to the once hidden ninja villages that existed in the area, the Koka Ninja Village exhibits a number of transplanted ninja estates. With a plethora of contraptions and a throwing star training room, this is the place to go for a hands-on ninja experience. The attached museum offers an extensive 1,400 piece collection of ninja artifacts. Ninja uniforms are available for trying on and trying on and kids will enjoy the obstacle course of walls and ropes. Take the JR Kusatsu Line to Koka station. There is free bus/minivan pickup from the station to the Ninja Village. (394 Oki Koka-cho, Koka-shi; 9:00am-5:00pm, closed Mondays and 12/27-1/1. Admission ¥1000 adults, ¥800 children ages 13-18, ¥700 ages 6-12, ¥500 ages 3-6.)
Koka Ninja Estate (甲賀流忍術屋敷) - This estate was built over 300 years ago for the famous ninja leader Mochizuki Izumonokami. From the outside, this estate looks the same as the other homes in the area, however the inside clandestinely reveals the characteristics of a ninja residence. You will see a number of trap doors, false walls and hidden rooms that were designed to protect the home from potential intruders, . You will have an opportunity to see a display of actual ninja weaponry and other historical artifacts, You can even take a try at throwing ninja stars. The gift shop sells small souvenirs, and everyone can sample a specially blended health tea that the ninjas often prepared. Take the JR Kusatsu line to JR Konan Station. The Ninja Estate is a 20 minute walk from the station. (Ryuhoji Konan-cho, Koka-shi; 9:00am-4:30pm, closed 12/27-1/1. Admission ¥600 adults, ¥300 children ages 6-12.)
Shigaraki-yaki Ceramics (信楽焼) - Shigaraki is home to one of the oldest and most famous schools of pottery in all of Japan. As you exit Shigaraki Station and walk along the main road, you will see dozens of small shops selling ceramics that range from ornamental to practical. "Shigaraki-yaki," as the pottery is known, was first produced in the Kamakura period during the 12th century. Several centuries later, during the Muromachi period, Shigaraki-yaki gained prominence as an ideal ceramic for the traditional Japanese tea ceremony. Recently, some of the most recognizable pottery from Shigaraki are tanuki (a racoon-like animal) statues. Of course cups, plates, bowls and a number of other goods are also available.
Tsuchiyama Tokaido Museum (東海道伝馬館) - This Japanese style estate offers various displays and exhibits about the history of Tsuchiyama and the Tokaido Road. The Tokaido Road is the famous route that for centuries served as the main link between Kyoto and Edo (modern day Tokyo) The museum also offers hands on activities and a small shop selling locally made goods.
Minakuchi Castle (水口城) - Minakuchi Castle was built in 1634 as a way-station for Tokugawa Iemitsu in his travels between Tokyo and Kyoto. The current reconstruction dates from 1991. Minakuchi Castle can be accessed by the Omi Tetsudo Line, a five minute walk from Minakuchi Jonan station.
Miho Museum (ミホ・ミュージアム) - The Miho Museum, located in the heart of Shigaraki, is one of Koka City's true gems. Exhibits in the expansive museum change every several months and generally include art and artifacts from the Silk Road area. The design of the museum is just as noteworthy as the exhibits. It was conceived by world famous architect I.M. Pei, who is known for also designing the John Hancock Tower in Boston, the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.
Many of the above sights offer a number of activities that go beyond simply "looking." Furthermore, Koka is an excellent destination for cherry blossoms (early to mid April), hiking and autumn foliage
Ceramics - Koka is famous for its Shigaraki-yaki pottery, which comes in many shapes, sizes and prices. Handmade cups, bowls and ornaments often start at only several hundred yen. Larger, more elaborate ceramic items are also sold. There are dozens of small pottery shops around Shigaraki Station. To get there, take the Shigaraki Kogen Railway from Kibukawa Station.
Tea - For the last 650 years, Koka has also been a large producer of fine quality teas. Tsuchiyama-cha, with its bold flavor, and Asamiya-cha with its mild taste are especially famous.
Miso - Koka’s Kafuka Miso, made from Shiga soy and rice, is prized as being some of the tastiest in Japan.
Koka offers a number of lodging choices, ranging from top quality hotels to traditional Japanese ryokan inns.
Diamond Shiga – This a large hotel located in Tsuchiyama, the eastern section of Koka. They have a brand new natural hot spring, as well as a golf course, tennis courts, food services and a fitness room. Phone: 0748-68-0211
Hotel Lake Villa – Located in Shigaraki, the western section of Koka. Ryokan hotel accommodations with rotenburo. Services also include indoor baths, swimming pool, Japanese and Western style food and a massage room. Phone: 0748-85-0250
Kamoshika – Simple, inexpensive accommodations administered by Koka City. Includes rotenburo and food service. Located in Tsuchiyama. Phone: 0748-69-0344
Shiono Onsen – Very traditional Japanese accommodations located in Konan, the center section of Koka. Includes a special kind of rotenburo unique to this region. Phone: 0748-86-2130
Miyano Onsen – Another traditional Japanese ryokan located in Konan. Like Shiono, Miyano also has the special kind of rotenburo unique to this region. Phone: 0748-86-2212
Ogawatei – Located in Shigaraki, this is another traditional Japanese style ryokan. Also includes the special kind of rotenburo unique to this region. Phone: 0748-82-0008.
Iga, Koka's neighbor to the south, is also famous for its ninja history.