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American volunteer tour guide in Japan enchanted by historical Hikone Castle, surroundings

Lee Andrus enjoys showing tourists around Genkyu-en Garden, which faces the keep of Hikone Castle. (Mainichi/Yuko Murase)

An American's love of Hikone Castle, a Japanese national treasure, has inspired him to become a volunteer tour guide around the historical city in Shiga Prefecture in western Japan.

    Lee Andrus, 61 moved to the Shiga prefectural city of Hikone in 2015 from his homeland. Andrus was immediately fascinated by the beauty of Hikone Castle. He is now a member of the Hikone Volunteer Guide Association, where all his colleagues are Japanese. Andrus enjoys guiding foreign tourists around his favorite places, and helping his colleagues improve their English.

    Andrus has studied Japanese history and culture at the University of Washington in the U.S., and worked as an English teacher at language schools in both Okayama and Wakayama from 1996 to 2001. He married a Japanese woman, Chika, 47, who was originally from Hikone. They lived in both Guam and Seattle, then moved to Hikone to live with Chika's mother in 2015. Andrus' love for the historical city of Hikone led to him starting a job as an English tour guide.

    Crowds observe a performance by Hikonyan at Hikone Castle in Shiga Prefecture, on Feb 11, 2020. (Mainichi/Yuko Murase)

    Hikone Castle, a magnificent 400-year-old structure, is his favorite site. It is one of only 12 Japanese castles that still retains its original keep. "It has a unique combination of defensive structures," explained Andrus. "The castle grounds are encircled by what was once a triple moat and remains today as a double moat. There is also a river outside the moat, so the castle once had a fourth layer of defense." Moreover, there are vertical stone walls called "Nobori-Ishigaki" which are rarely seen in Japanese castles. This type of wall was built along the mountain slopes to prevent enemy attacks, and Hikone Castle has five of them. He also pointed out that the keep was built on the mountain to make it appear larger than it actually was. "It's about 20 meters long, but when you look at the side, it's only half of that. It's designed to fool the enemy."

    What amazed Andrus was the beautiful condition of the keep in spite of its age. "Tourists can go inside, and even climb up the steep stairs within the keep. Many tourists are surprised to see a 400-year-old castle that is in very good condition." The windows from the castle's top story provide a beautiful view of Lake Biwa, the biggest lake in Japan.

    In springtime, around 1,000 cherry trees that surround the castle bloom at once, which creates a fabulous sight. "The trees are illuminated at night each year. It's magnificent. I enjoy walking along the moat with my family at night every spring." His 15-year-old son, Kai, goes to a junior high school that is located inside the moat. "He can see the castle everyday while studying. It is such a unique experience for him," laughed Andrus.

    When speaking of Hikonyan, the city's famous feline mascot character, Andrus said, "It is amazing to me how many people love that white cat." Hikonyan was created to mark the 400th anniversary of the castle's construction in 2007 and became incredibly popular. Now there is a department of around 10 public servants at the municipal office that work for Hikonyan. Additionally, the city hosts the annual character festival and thousands of people come to see more than 100 mascots from all over Japan; all of which stemmed from Hikonyan's popularity.

    "Hikonyan is a big reason why Japanese people come to Hikone besides the castle. It's amazing to see hundreds of people watching Hikonyan's performance at the castle. Most foreign visitors do not know about the mascot, but once they get to see Hikonyan at the castle, they are like "Oh, so cute!!" and want to stay longer to see the performance," he laughed.

    Andrus joined the Hikone Volunteer Guide Association last May hoping to learn more about Hikone. There are 85 volunteer storytellers who guide tourists around Hikone Castle and downtown Hikone with its rich history and tradition. Some 14 of them can speak English, but Andrus is the only native speaker. Takashi Hayata, 64, the head of the English guide group said, "Thanks to Andrus, we are improving our guiding skills. He has taught us more natural ways to explain things in English. We really appreciate his help."

    Andrus' favorite rock garden at Ryotanji. The white sand garden is patterned after Fudaraku Mountain, the spiritual home of Kannon the goddess of mercy. (Mainichi/Yuko Murase)

    Andrus said, "One problem is that most foreigners do not know much about Hikone, only the castle. I would love to take them to other sites, like Ryotanji, a Zen temple that has a beautiful rock garden. To see Hikone, you must spend a day, but most foreigners I have guided spend only 2 hours." He sighed. "We expect many tourists will come to Japan this year due to the Tokyo Olympics. I hope more tourists come to the countryside of Japan like Hikone, and discover the beauty of it."

    (Written by Yuko Murase, Osaka Regional News Center)

    Hikone Volunteer Guide Association:

    One of the Systematized Goodwill Guide Groups registered with the Japan National Tourism Organization. There are 85 local volunteer guides, and 14 of them provide information in English. The guide fee is free, but 1,000 yen is charged per group (and the group can be as small as one person) for the guide's transportation. For more information, visit the website https://visit.hikoneshi.com/en/guide/

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