The Rural and Aquatic Heart of Shiga in the East of Kyoto
Biwa-ko is the largest lake in Japan in the heart of Shiga prefecture in the Kansai area. While neighboring the very touristic Kyoto, Lake Biwa offers excursions far from the crowds, to enjoy all year round a bucolic landscape suitable for leisure activities. The quaint cities on its shores provide beautiful cultural and historical walks.
With a 670 km² superficies, an about 235 kilometers circumference and a shape reminding of a traditional Japanese lute, Lake Biwa (Biwa-ko in Japanese) is the largest natural fresh water lake of Japan. The lakes Kasumigaura in Ibaraki and Saroma on Hokkaido Island respectively come 2nd and 3rd.
The Higashiyama mountain range separate Kyoto from Biwa-ko, but the southernmost side of the lake is accessible in only 10 minutes by JR train 🚅 from the former imperial capital. Built during the Meiji Era (1868 – 1912), the Lake Biwa Canal also connects Kyoto by waterway. It is now a very popular sakura 🌸 viewing spot for the locals, but at the times it was used for transporting freight to Keage Incline.
Historical heritage strewn around the lake
Biwa-ko is surrounded by Shiga prefecture, whose main cities are therefore settled around the lake:
- Otsu, the prefecture’s modest capital. It is of an easy access by train from Kyoto and is particularly interesting for its remarkable temples nestled on its heights, such as Ishiyama-dera, Enryaku-ji and Mii-dera. It is also renowned for its local gastronomy with the mellow Omi beef (named after the former province);
- Omihachiman, an old and lovely feudal merchant city that remained almost the same since the Edo period (1603 – 1848). The Hachiman-bori cruise on its waterways is a good way to discover its rich past;
- Hikone, a small castle-town renowned for its authentic keep (one of the last 12 original castles in Japan) and its vibrant koyo 🍁 in autumn. The top of the hill where the fortress is built offers a panoramic view on the blue water of the lake;
- Takashima, on the north-western bank of Biwa-ko is worth the detour for its beautiful floating torii ⛩️ at Shirahige-jinja shrine, and it provides an access to Chikubushima island.
The shores of Lake Biwa are also surrounded by Kusatsu, Moriyama, Yasu, Higashiomi, Maibara andNagahama, and the body of water is also home to Oki-shima and Takei-shima islands.
Refreshing resorts a stone’s throw away from Kyoto
Lake Biwa is pleasant all year round and a resort destination offering various outdoor and sport activities. Kyoto inhabitants love to go for a getaway weekend in the countryside. The heights of the lake’s surroundings are indeed blessed with:
- Ski resorts on the surrounding mountains such as Biwako Valley, Hakodateyama Ski Resort and Gransnow Okuibuki ideal in winter;
- Trails with wonderful panoramic views from several observatories (Yumemigaoka and Biwako Ohashi); and,
- Several golf courses.
On the waterside, one can:
- Swim and relax on the artificial sand beaches in summer (Omi-Maiko and Omi-Shirahama);
- Board a ship cruising around the lake (ferry Michigan) or serving the small islands on the lake (Chikubushima Cruise);
- Enjoy waterside activities such as paddling and kayaking.
The destination also has a large range of lodging facilities including:
- Luxurious hotels 🏨 with panoramic views on the heights of the lake;
- Ryokan traditional inns, such as in Ogoto Onsen ♨️; or,
- Campsites open in July and August.
Ideal on a one-day trip or for a few days getaway from Kansai’s big cities, Lake Biwa offers season a varied landscape at each and is always imbued with tranquility.