Have you heard of Biwako, also known as Lake Biwa? This lake is located 15 minutes north of Kyoto in Shiga Prefecture and provides drinkable water to the Kansai region. It is the largest freshwater lake in Japan at about 250 square miles (670 ㎢) and one of the oldest lakes in the world, around 4 million years old. Today the lake has a large fish population; more than 50 species of native fish live in Lake Biwa. Due to its proximity to Kyoto, it is often referred to in Japanese literature and is very well-known by Japanese people.
The area is also known for its scenic views with floating torii gates, picturesque towns, and mountaintop temples, and locals visit the lake for swimming, kayaking and other outdoor activities. The loop around the lake, Biwaichi, is actually part of the National Cycle Route. The cycling route can be completed in a day if you are a fit and experienced cyclist, but taking your time to explore the lake area is recommended as you will find there is much to see and do! Now that you have a little bit of background about Lake Biwa, let’s explore some of the things to enjoy in the area.
1. Shirahige Shrine
Shirahige Shrine is a Shinto shrine in Takashima, north-west of Lake Biwa, that was founded 1,900 years ago. This shrine is dedicated to Sarutahiko Okami, the leader of all earthly gods. The name “Shirahige” literally means “white beard” and, as it is implied, this shrine blesses visitors with a long life, until they grow a long, white beard. The torii gates that lead to the shrine entrance light up at night to serve as a beacon to all who wish to visit. However, the best time to visit this shrine is early morning, with the sun rising inside the torii gate.
The tricky part is, there’s a national route between the main shrine and the torii gate on the water. The shrine used to be facing the lake, but since the national route opened, you have to cross the road to see the torii gate on the water. But it’s not allowed to cross the road since there’s no crosswalk, and many cars are constantly passing at full speed. Usually, there’s a rope to prevent people from crossing the road, so please note that it might be difficult to take a beautiful picture like this.
2. Biwako Valley
Biwako Valley is the spot to visit when you are looking for panoramic views of Lake Biwa from atop the mountains by the western shores. You can reach the mountain top in a 5-minute ropeway ride that goes up 1,100 meters (3,600 feet) in a car that is encased completely by the glass, providing a 360-degree view of the ascent. The ropeway is the fastest in Japan with a 7m/second travel speed! The observation deck includes activities such as zip lining in the summer and skiing or snowboarding in the winter. Ski lessons are available and other activities such as sledding and building a snowman can be enjoyed as well. There are two terraces; the Grand Terrace and the North Terrace and both offer a sublime view of Lake Biwa.
9.30 am – 5.00 pm (summer)
8.30 am – 4.30 pm (winter)
Admission fee ¥3,500 for a roundtrip ticket on the ropeway; activity fees vary
3. Cycling Route Lake Biwa
As mentioned in the introduction, Lake Biwa has a lakeshore road that circles around most of the shoreline. The complete route is about 200 kilometers in length and is mostly flat, except for a small part in the north. The route is clearly marked and easy to follow, just stay on the road closest to the lake. The lake consists of a northern basin (145 km) and a smaller south basin (45 km), which are split from each other by the Biwako Ohashi Bridge, so you can choose to cycle around the lake completely or just either bassin. There are many places where you can rent a bike in Shiga, while most offer day rentals, a few of the shops offer long-distance bicycle rental.
4. Ukimido ‘Floating Temple’
Ukimido is one of five buildings that constitute the Mangetsu-ji Temple, a temple that sits on top of Lake Biwa. It is most famous for its “floating hall”, which is one of the most representative scenic spots of Lake Biwa. The temple was constructed under the supervision of the Rinzai School of Japanese Buddhism, a form of Zen Buddhism. It has been rebuilt and repaired twice, once in 1937, and again in 1982. You can reach this temple by bus that departs from JR Katata Station or use the free parking nearby.
Ukimido ‘Floating Temple’
8.30am – 4.30 pm
Admission fee ¥300
5. Otsu Port
Otsu Port is a lakeside resort at the southern side of the lake and home to several beautiful temples and shrines and other highlights. The Lake Biwa Flower Fountain, located at Otsu Port, is one of the largest fountains in the world at 440 meters (1,443 ft) wide. Built in 1995, this fountain includes water flows that reach as high as 40 meters (130 feet), forming various shapes. At night, the colorful illumination adds a wonderful touch to an already miraculous sight.
Lake Biwa Flower Fountain
noon – 1 pm on weekdays;
6 pm – 9 pm
(Closed the 2nd and 4th Wednesdays of the month for maintenance)
6. Michigan Cruise
From Otsu Port, you can board a sightseeing cruise called Michigan Cruise. The Michigan Cruise or Biwako Kisen is the most famous boat on Lake Biwa, even appearing in anime. Built in 1982, this paddle boat on the south side of the lake boasts buffet restaurants and live music. It was named after the sister state of Shiga Prefecture, Michigan, in the United States. There are three types of tours that are offered: an 80-minute daytime tour, a 60-minute morning and evening tour and lastly, the night cruise. Tours leave from Otsu Port, Nionohana Sightseeing Port and Yanagasaki Lakeside Park Port. Views of Mt. Hira and Mt. Hiei can be seen from the 360-degree sky deck onboard. All three Michigan Cruise options include onboard live music and restaurants but an advanced reservation is required.
Multiple departures between 10am & 7.30pm
Boarding fee ¥2,300 ~ ¥3,040
7. Three Islands of Lake Biwa
Lake Biwa has three inhabited islands that can be visited: Oki Island, Chikubu Island and Takei Island.
The ‘Island of Cats’, Oki Island, is the largest of the three islands and the only inhabited lake island in Japan. There are no cars and supermarkets on the island, and the unique place is widely known for its numerous cats and beautiful forest. It is a 10-minute boat road from the mainland and there are nine ships a day that make the trip.
Chikubu Island is a small island at the northern end of the lake. It is the second largest island within Lake Biwa and is sometimes referred to as the ‘Island of Gods’. The island is famous for the Tsukubusama Shrine which is located on the island. Chikubu Island is the center of many art forms such as Noh and koto melody. One popular attraction is the opportunity to experience water and prayer together.
Takei Island is an amazingly beautiful place with largely untouched nature. The small uninhabited island has sheer cliffs, lots of greenery and some famous places to see, including the Nichiren school Kentoji Temple and a stone monument. The entire island is said to be a spiritual power spot!
Hakodateyama is a mountain top on the north-western side of the lake. The mountain provides excellent hiking trails and a stellar view of the lake. You can ride the gondola up the mountain or from spring to fall hike your way up and enjoy a picnic at the top. In the summertime, there are more than two million lilies in bloom. After the lilies have finished flowering, the Kokia Park will open from mid-September to mid-October, turning the mountain slope red with all the Kochia. Besides the flower parks, there are some fun activities to do, some restaurants and more.
In winter the mountain is a well-known ski resort in the Kansai Region. At 690m above sea level, it isn’t the most exciting option for the more seasoned ski fans, however, it is known for heavy snowfall and definitely offers some family fun time. There are 3 km of slopes available which can be enjoyed while taking in the pretty views of Lake Biwa. Snow rafting and snowshoe tours are also available at Hakodateyama and there is also a cross-country course. Because of the use of artificial snow machines, the season normally starts in December. The easiest way to get there is taking a train to Omi-Imazu Station and changing to the local bus from there (20 min). At the resort you can rent your full outfit,
Hakodateyama Ski Resort
Late December to mid-March
More information including gondola fees
9. Biwako Fireworks Festival
Japanese summers are known for their spectacular fireworks events that take place around the country. Biwako Fireworks Festival attracts considerable large crowds (~350,000 people) every summer in early August with its colorful display. About 10,000 colorful fireworks are shot from multiple directions, creating a unique light art display. You can reserve a (paid) seat or take a boat cruise to have the best view of the show without crowds of festival goers. One of the highlights of the Biwako Fireworks Festival is the Biwako Flower Fountain (琵琶湖花噴水), the giant fountain located in the Otsu Port. The collaboration of impressive fireworks and 40m-high water streams offers a spectacular view!
10. Karasaki Shrine
Karasaki Shrine is an auxiliary shrine for the Hiyoshi Taisha Shrine. This shrine pays its respects to the goddess deity Princess Wakesuki Hime no Mikoto, making it incredibly popular among women. Karasaki Shrine is also home to a 100-year old pine tree that was mentioned by the famous poet Matsuo Basho in one of his poems. The closest station to the shrine is Karasaki Station, a 10-minute walk.
10 am – 4pm
Where to stay in Lake Biwa
While Lake Biwa can easily be visited as a daytrip from Kyoto
- Guesthouse En – Beautiful old Japanese house with new facilities and a little garden located in Maki, Shiga.
- Lake Biwa Marriott Hotel – Luxury hotel with swimming pool and tennis courts located right beside Lake Biwa.
- Yumotokan – Ryokan with Japanese style rooms that have beautiful lake views and an open air hot spring at the rooftop
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Lake Biwa is a truly fascinating place. Located near one of the most important cities in Japanese history has ensured its legacy. It continues to be a vital natural resource supplying water to some of the most populated cities in Japan. Its importance is undeniable.
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Trevor Jones is an educator and an aspiring marketer. Originally from the United States, he moved to Tokyo in 2017. Trevor enjoys exploring new destinations and sharing his experiences. He can be found on Instagram at @tjones312
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