Otsu should theoretically be a very attractive city:
- It was an ancient capital of Japan (for five years, in the second half of the 7th century);
- It is the main port of Lake Biwa, the biggest lake in Japan (674 km²); and
- It has easy access from Kyoto in only a couple of minutes.
However, once there, the city looks rather like a soulless, almost gloomy, countryside little town, at least as far as downtown Otsu is concerned. The city is caught between the lake and Kyoto’s huge touristic shadow. Incidentally, the two cities are connected by the Lake Biwa Canal running through Keage.
After a short visit to a dull tourism information center, which was located in a tiny prefabricated building, we headed to the boardwalk. The boardwalk is praised as the most interesting attraction in the area, but is nevertheless reminiscent of a sovietic countryside landscape. The big, ageless Hotel Biwako stands above Nagisa Park. Aggressive mosquitos; pollution, both visual and audible from the high-speed way nearby; and the surrounding dusty industrial landscape don’t help to produce appreciation for the location. The bus shuttles for the hotel are frequent but are always empty.
This five-kilometer space is essentially the departure point for the numerous cruises on Lake Biwa. The Michigan, a paddlewheel boat offering 1–2.5 hours of cruising, is the most popular, despite its incongruous appearance that is totally in contrast with the rest of the landscape. The boat is located here because Otsu is the twin city of Lansing, Michigan, in the United States.
On the pier, some fishermen wait half-heartedly for the fish to bite. The port, a little bit farther, is easily a bit more attractive, but the uneasiness is palpable when salarymen walk past homeless people during their lunch breaks, trying not to see them.
Otsu has failed to divert a part of the tourists flowing from Kyoto during this crucial period before the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. The only interest is for the privileged access to the unexpectedly wonderful temples in the surrounding mountains:
- Ishiyama-dera; and
- Mii-dera (Onjo-ji).
These temples, which were all founded in the 8th century, are of historical importance; however, they are quite far from downtown Otsu. The few places of interest in the city that are officially recommended are located far away from each other, and visiting the locations is not comfortable, even with a rental car.
If you nevertheless wish to visit Otsu, we strongly advise you visit only those places of interest and nothing else, with a carefully crafted trip beforehand.
How to get to Otsu
By train JR -- 9 minutes from Kyoto (departures every 5 to 10 minutes)
Location reachable with the JRP : order your Japan Rail Pass (from ~US$ 281)
Get your Japanese Yens free of charge
How long / when to visit
Avoid rainy and / or cold days
大津 (Ôtsu, literally "the big port")