Lake Biwa   琵琶湖

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Many boats take surfing since Otsu Lake Biwa.

Many boats take surfing since Otsu Lake Biwa.

The great Biwahashi connects the banks south of Lake Biwa, the largest lake in Japan.

The great Biwahashi connects the banks south of Lake Biwa, the largest lake in Japan.

The fountain Biwako Hana Funsui in Otsu, from where the boats that cross Lake Biwa.

The fountain Biwako Hana Funsui in Otsu, from where the boats that cross Lake Biwa.

The Chikubushima Island on Lake Biwa, seen from Hikone.

The Chikubushima Island on Lake Biwa, seen from Hikone.

A Kyoto Escape

Just a stone's throw from Kyoto is the largest lake in all of Japan. To best enjoy this getaway, it's best to get as far away from Kyoto, to the lake's northern shores.

On weekends, the locals of Kyoto usually converge on the lake's shores near Otsu, 20 minutes from Kyoto by the JR line train.

However, this briefly imperial capital (for just five years in the 7th century) and former milestone of the Tokaido Road (linking Kyoto and Tokyo) is now the nerve center of a sad industrial suburb that sprawls along the southern shores of the lake.

Tendai Culture

Before setting sail on a cruise around the lake (most of which embark from the famous fountain, Biwako Hana Funsui and last from one to four hours), you might spend a few hours in the vicinity of Otsu. This city holds the roots of the Tendai sect of Buddhism: founded by the monk Saicho in the early 9th century, at the exact same time a different monk, Kukai, founded the Shingon sect up on Mount Koya. Visit Miidera, its main temple, and especially Enryakuji Temple near the summit of Mount Hiei, which overlooks Otsu (accessible by cable car).

The three islands

On the eastern side of the lake, avoid the dready Kusatsu city and head to Hikone. Its castle (built in 1622), perched on Konkizan Hill, overlooks the lake and offers a beautiful view from the 3rd floor of the dungeon. Below is a line of merchant houses from the Edo period, converted into restaurants, shops, and tea houses, near a sumptuous Chinese garden. Boats also depart from Hikone to take you to Chikubushima (30 minutes), one of three islands on Lake Biwa. You can also take a boat from Nagahama, a village 15 minutes north with beautiful beaches.

Quiet side

Our advice is to avoid the crowds and enjoy the quiet side of Lake Biwa, exploring small towns often overlooked by guide books. Consider Omihachiman (45 minutes from Kyoto on the JR Biwako Line). Visit the preserved merchant houses of Omi (a 15-minute walk from the station twoards Mount Hachiman), with one of them, Nishikawa House, turned into a municipal museum. The canal running through the same area is ideal for a nice walk, and a bus (number) takes 25 minutes to go from the station to the shore of Lake Biwa.

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