Lake Biwa is one of the most beautiful lakes on planet earth. Countless Japanese artists of several genres have included Lake Biwa’s beauty in their works for centuries. Lake Biwa earned its first name of “Awaumi”, later pronounced as “Omi” in the year 1000, like Japan’s ancient province of Omi. The Japanese named this lake Omi during the Edo Period (1603-1837).
The Japanese term for lute is “biwa”. The Japanese thought and still think of Lake Biwa as a lute because it is shaped like a lute, hence the name Biwako. The name “Lake Biwa” dates back to the Meiji Period (1868-1912), around the year 1700. This lake’s name really took hold during this period because Biwa hōshi, called “lute priests” who were mosly blind, traveled throughout Japan performing vocal literature accompanied by biwa music to earn their living.
Indeed, Lake Biwa, by name alone carries a romantic history. Lake Biwa remains one of Japan’s most treasured natural wonders. A journey to Lake Biwa will prove exciting for adventurers, another journal entry for global travelers, and life-time memories for romantic partners. Lake Biwa is thought to be four million years old and 13th in rank of the earth’s oldest lakes.
Lake Biwa is Japan’s largest freshwater lake and covers an area of approximately 259 square miles (417 sq km). Small rivers, 118 of them, feed Lake Biwa. Its outflow, the Seto River, leads to the Uji River, which turns into Katsura and Kizo. This flows further down to Yodo River and runs into the Seto Inland Sea at the Osaka Bay on the East China Sea. Lake Biwa lies in Shiga Prefecture (prefecture = state) in lower central Japan outside of Kyoto to the north.
What Can You See and Do at Lake Biwa?
To discover Lake Biwa’s stunning beauty, culture, ecology, and place in Japanese history, public transportation supplies convenience to do almost everything by train on the shore, and you can rent a car. The JR West Line runs along east Lake Biwa, and the Kosei on the west usually goes to Katata, Omi-maiko, Omi-imazu, and other towns/villages.
Trains from Osaka run on the east, and you have to change at Kyoto or Yamashina to go to the west side. Also on the west, you can take the Keihan Ishiyama Line which runs from the major temple, Ishiyama-dera, via Hamaotsu to Keihan Sakamoto Hieizanguchi connecting to the Mount Hiei cable car. The Keihan Railway is the only line that offers a one-day pass, to Hiezan especially.
Temples and Shrines at Lake Biwa
Historic temples and shrines line Lake Biwa’s shores, with one placed directly in the lake that looks like it is floating. Temples erected in the 8th century at the south of Lake Biwas are the ‘Kōnan Sanzan (湖南三山)’, Chōju-ji Temple (長寿寺), Jōraku-ji Temple (常楽寺), and Zensui-ji Temple (善水寺). Mii-dera, on Lake Biwa’s southern shore just outside of Kyoto is Shiga’s largest and most famous temple.
A few of the tours at Lake Biwa offer temple tours, and there are temples on Lake Biwa’s islands. If you truly want to do a multi-temple tour, you need to map it out yourself. Visiting Lake Biwa’s temples bring in reviews of once-in-a-lifetime experiences from travel reviewers. There are even little temples built on piers surrounding Lake Biwa. The Shirahige Shrine Torii floats right off the shore just south of the Shirahigehamasuiei Camping Ground in the center of Lake Biwa’s eastern shore.
Flora and Fauna at Lake Biwa
Lake Biwa is a designated UNESCO Ramsar Wetland like Caddo Lake in Louisiana and Texas. The Ramsar Convention on “Wetlands of International Importance Especially as Waterfowl Habitat” is also known as the Convention on Wetlands. The Convention’s mission statement is “The conservation and wise use of all wetlands through local and national actions and international cooperation, as a contribution towards achieving sustainable development throughout the world”.
Lake Biwa is home to over 1,000 species and subspecies of animals. Most of these species are aquatic. The vast reed beds at Lake Biwa serve a vital role in filtering water for birds and fish. Although, the density of the reed beds have diminished due to human activity since the 1900s, the preservation of Lake Biwa’s reed beds is of the utmost importance to Japan today.
Sixty endemic species find habitat at Lake Biwa, which is a high endemic population and unique because of the lake’s ancient age. At times, Japan introduced invasive species before ecological scientists understood natural ecosystems, and these species have reduced and eradicated some endemic populations. However, the Giant Lake Biwa Catfish is Lake Biwa’s king predator and can grow over 66 feet in length and weigh over 30 pounds.
Another super-star is the Biwa trout, and we do not know why this fish made it into the popular clique among favorite Biwa fish. Biwa trout is actually a subspecies of masu salmon. This fish is considered a regional Shiga specialty cuisine dish only available from Lake Biwa. Other Lake Biwa fish delicacies should not be outshined by this trout. Japanese collectively call these eight Lake Biowa fish, “Biwa-ko Hacchin”, which translates to English, “Eight Rare Delicacies from Lake Biwa”.
Five thousand (5,000) species of birds either live at or migrate to Lake Biwa annually. The Shiga official prefectural bird is the grebe, a small water bird that preys on small fish. Any time of year, birds are plentiful and bird watching is fruitful at Lake Biwa. A visit to the Lake Biwa Museum will vividly illustrate the beauty of Lake Biwa’s aquatic life, but plan to spend at least a few hours at this museum/aquarium.
Lake Biwa supports approximately 500 species of plants. Temperate climate vegetation proliferates in its watershed. Mountains form the backdrop of Lake Biwa with forests comprising secondary pine, cedar, cypress, and herbaceous plants. Lake Biwa’s mountainous vegetation displays shockingly-bright fall colors that rival New England’s annual fall color fest of nature.
In spring the cherry trees, lining the scenic peninsula of Kaizu-Osaki on Lake Biwa’s northern shore, blossom to the delight of Japanese people. Kaizu-Osaki is one of Japan’s 100 Famous Cherry Blossom Spots. During peak cherry blossom season, pedestrian visitors to Kaizu-Osaki should beware of vehicle traffic with hurried drivers, and there is no walkway on the lakeshore.
The Islands of Lake Biwa
Visitors can enjoy everything at Lake Biwa that they treasure in a U.S. lake experience—like BBQing and picnicking, camping and glamping, canoeing and kayaking, island hopping, swim beaches and swimming, sailing, windsurfing, and taking tours on truly amazing cruise vessels. Three of Lake Biwa’s islands are magnets for adventurers and sightseers, Chikubu Island, Oki Island, and Takei Island.
The Michigan is Lake Biwa’s most famous cruise vessel. The four-decked Michigan looks just like a Mississippi River gambling river boat in 1835. The Michigan is equipped with a steam engine and a paddle wheel that appears like it is straight out of a Mark Twain idiom. The Michigan is gorgeous, providing events, live music, and restaurants. Michigan cruises offer several packages with numerous options. The Michigan is not the only boat tour, as there are several touring companies operating on Lake Biwa, but it is the most impressive.
Ancient and Charming Towns to Visit at Lake Biwa
Lake Biwa is as steeped in Japanese history and culture as is the Japanese tea ceremony. The towns Hikone, Omihachiman, Maibara, and Nagahama, Shiga Prefecture, resting peacefully on the shores of Lake Biwa, will take you back to Japan’s Samurai era. Lake Biwa was vitally important during the Samurai era, which lasted almost seven centuries, from 1185-1868.
In Hikone, there is Hikone Castle with most of its inner moats, walls, guard houses, and gates remaining from its inception in 1063. Many of its palace buildings are restored to its originality as a Japanese feudal castle. It is amazing that visitors will find accommodations in traditional Japanese homes (not airbnbs, but B&B type of settings), excellent local cuisine rooted in history, and a popular ski resort.
Omihachiman is a small town between Kyoto and Hikone on the eastern shore of Lake Biwa and not well known to foreigners. Omihachiman boasts a canal and Samurai residences dating to the Edo Period (1603-1868). This town offers panoramic views of Lake Biwa, a temple dedicated to love, and surprising architecture in a setting of preserved Japanese tradition.
Maibara’s Samegai Village also dates back to the Edo Period. Its Isame Spring waters bubble up from underneath a town shrine, and its waters flow in a stream winding through Maibara. Unique aquatic flowering plants, baikamo, float and bloom on top of the stream’s surface. Accomodations include a 200-plus-year-old traditional Japanese home called a kominka in Maibara.
General Toyotomi Hideyoshi unified Japan under one rule during the 16th century and claimed his land near Nagahama as home. Nagahama’s Kurokabe Square thrives with boutique shops and historic buildings for shopping and sightseeing. Tasty cuisine rules in Nagahama, and Nagahama proudly serves up Omi beef, one of Japan’s three major types of Wagyu beef.
You cannot do the whole of Lake Biwa in a day. If you love the lake life, and take on the long journey to Japan, it would be a crying shame to visit Japan, and not do at least a day trip to this beautiful and earthly treasure of one of earth’s ancient inland water bodies.