Biwako 琵琶湖

by Daniel Simmons

Proximity to Kyoto is both a blessing and a curse for Biwa-ko, Japan’s largest freshwater lake and one of its most beautiful. On the one hand, you can hop on the train at Kyoto station and arrive at Otsu on the lake’s southern shore in a mere 10 minutes! On the other hand, few travelers actually do so. Though much admired in old Japanese poetry, and celebrated in art through the ages (notably in Hiroshige’s famous “Eight Views of Omi” ukiyo-e prints), Biwako’s loveliness too often goes unsung these days. This is because most travelers, domestic and foreign alike, bypass Shiga prefecture altogether, preferring instead to explore further the embarrassment of riches in the ancient capital.

But frankly, there are only so many temples and shrines and beautifully raked gravel gardens one can see before fatigue starts setting in, and the reed-lined shores of Biwako are the perfect antidote. Uncrowded and mostly unspoilt, Biwa’s attractions remain off the beaten path… and are all the better for it.

The most famous of Biwa’s attractions is the lakeside castle town of Hikone, which boasts one of Japan’s four National Treasure keeps and is well worth a day’s wander. But don’t limit yourself only to Hikone. Further up the eastern shore is Nagahama, which has a pretty castle of its own and plenty else besides: machiya shop-lined streets and canals, beautiful glassware exhibitions in and around the galleries and ateliers of Kurokabe Square, and cruises from the port to view the blooming cherry trees along the shore or to check out the tiny island of Chikubu. Train fanatics will appreciate a visit to Japan’s oldest surviving station house. Toy and anime enthusiasts will enjoy what’s on display (and on sale) at the Kaiyodo Figure Museum. Nagahama has also got a clutch of temples: visit the magisterial Gobou Daitsu-ji temple in the carefully preserved old downtown area, breathe in the scent of the peonies at Soji-ji in April, and head to the hills for the autumn leaves at Omi Kohou-an.

In mid-April Nagahama hosts one of Japan’s three great float festivals: its 400-year-old Hikiyama Matsuri features young boys performing kabuki on its floats in a constantly-moving diorama of color and sound.

Closer to Biwa’s southern end, Ishiyama-dera should draw devotees of the proto-novel “The Tale of Genji,” for it is said that Lady Shikibu Murasaki started penning her masterwork here on a moonlit August night in 1004. The temple commemorates this occasion with a “Genji Room,” featuring an elegant life-size figure of the author and also, a bit jarringly, a small Lady Murasaki robot in traditional dress which chirps aloud a history of her association with the locale. The boulder-strewn temple grounds are gorgeous in any season (it is nicknamed “the Temple of Flowers”), but we recommend visiting for the lovely spray of plum blossoms in the early spring.

Biwako visitors looking for a walk on the truly wild side should head to the lake’s western shore for an enchanting, exhilarating, and often-terrifying clamber amid the gullies and cascades of Yatsubuchi-no-taki. A trail (of sorts — follow the red marks on the rocks) crisscrosses the water multiple times as you head upstream, making your way across slippery ascents via chains and rickety metal ladders.

There are times when floods of icy water will be plunging inches from your head. Bring boots, and gloves, and maybe a helmet, and also a fatalistic sense of humor, and finally a good insurance policy in case you and the waterfalls become one. Lonely Planet’s Hiking in Japan guide has a detailed overview of the hike, which will reward you with beautiful ridge-line vistas of the lake if you survive the first couple of hours in the canyons.

Whether you stay in or simply pass through the Lake Biwa area, make sure to sample the region’s delicious Omi beef and (for the more adventurous) funazushi, or fermented lake carp. A cup of local sake will help wash everything down.


Nagahama is roughly 70 minutes (and ¥1280) from Kyoto via special rapid train (with one transfer at Maibara); the shinkansen will get you there quicker. Ishiyama-dera is a 10-minute walk from Keihan Ishiyamadera station. To get to the start of the Yatsubuchi-no-taki hike, catch a Kurodani-bound bus from Omitakishima train station.

You’ll want to start fairly early in the morning to make sure you don’t get trapped in the mountains when night falls.









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