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An escape to Shiga

By Christy Anne Jones

Just 10 minutes from Kyoto’s busy streets and crowded temples, there is a place where foot traffic dies away, and time flows more slowly.

Welcome to Shiga Prefecture, home to the famous Lake Biwa: Japan’s largest and oldest body of fresh water. Sitting in the prefecture’s center, “The Mother Lake” covers 670 square kilometers and has a history that dates back over four million years. While Lake Biwa may be Shiga’s crowning glory, it’s not the only thing to discover in this serene, less-wandered prefecture.

Lake Biwa.jpg
The image of Shiga Prefecture is synonymous with Lake Biwa, Japan's largest lake but there's plenty more to discover.

Located along the southwest edge of Lake Biwa, Otsu—Shiga’s capital—is the perfect place to drop your luggage before heading out to explore. What you’ll find in your travels is endless canals, a rich Edo-era history, ancient castles, untrodden paths, and quiet temples that will allow you to stop and breathe in a few moments of isolated peace: something almost impossible in the hotspots of Shiga’s busy neighbors.

Why not lead yourself away from the beaten path, and escape to something a little more peaceful?

Enjoy Omihachiman's picturesque Edo-period architecture from the water.


First up is the small town of Omihachiman. Just 23 minutes by train from Otsu, Omihachiman’s rich history winds all the way back to the 16th century. Here, Edo-style houses and buildings line the town’s canals, paying homage to the Omi Merchants who once used the canals to transport goods within this important trade town. Now, the canals are simply a photogenic place to stroll or take a leisurely boat ride and enjoy the traditional architecture.

Just beyond the canals sits the Mt Hachiman Ropeway. Ride the cable car up the mountain to witness stunning views of Lake Biwa. At the summit, you’ll find gorgeous forestry as well as the petit but pristine Zuiryuji Temple.

Don't deprive yourself of a slice of delicious baumkuchen at La Collina.

After, take a 15-minute walk to La Collina: a confectionery factory mostly dedicated to the popular German pastry, baumkuchen. La Collina’s whimsical architecture and grass roof, designed by acclaimed architect Terunobu Fujimori, make it seem like it belongs in a fairytale rather than the Japanese countryside. Treat yourself to some cake and enjoy the unique pastoral setting.

Hikone Castle

Next, head north to Hikone where you’ll find the historic Hikone Castle. Built in 1622, Hikone Castle is a national treasure: a title given to just five Japanese castles.  It sits, perched on its hilltop, stoically watching Lake Biwa as one of only a handful of monuments to have survived the post-feudal era without any need for reconstruction.

Hikone Castle is a designated "National Treasure".

After enjoying the castle, stroll down to the traditional landscape garden, Genkyu-en, located at the bottom of the castle grounds. Also built in the 17th century, the garden is meticulously kept and offers a natural contrast to the hard, stone walls of the castle. Take a little while to enjoy the landscape and low bridges, finishing off your exploration with some tea from Genkyu-en Garden’s repurposed old wooden buildings.

Chikubu-shima Island

Located around six kilometers from the shore, this tiny, tree-covered island is known for its connection to the spiritual energy of Lake Biwa. Accessible from Hikone port, the island is a sacred place of worship for both followers of Shinto and Buddhism. It is said that Emperor Shomu ordered a temple to be constructed here in worship of the goddess Benzaiten, after she descended on the island approximately 1,300 years ago.

Take a boat to the sacred island of Chikubujima.

Pick up a cute daruma, modeled after the goddess Benzaiten.

Chikubu-shima Island is home to both Tsukuba Suma Shrine, a classified national treasure, as well as Hogonji Temple, which contains a statue of Benzaiten herself. Take your time to enjoy the boat ride, explore the ancient buildings of worship, toss coins into the cups before the Tori gate, and sit in the serenity of this tiny slice of paused time.

Taga-Taisha Shrine

The last of Shiga’s essential visiting spots is Taga-Taisha Shrine. Only 20 minutes from Hikone, hidden in a small town at the end of Ohmi Railway’s train line, Taga-Taisha Shrine stands as one of Shiga Prefecture’s better kept secrets.

Pray for life, love and luck at Taga Taisha Shrine.

Follow the Tori gates from the station, along the shopping street selling souvenirs, and you’ll find “Otaga-san,” as the locals call it. The shrine, a construction of dark wood and fine embellishments, is associated with long life, happy marriage and luck. Seldom found by other tourists and surrounded by trees, it’s the perfect place to stop and enjoy the atmosphere of a serene and sacred place of worship.

Where to Stay

The Lake Biwa Otsu Prince Hotel offers spectacular views of the lake from your bedroom.

Want to wake up to stunning, panoramic views of Lake Biwa itself? There’s no better place to do this than the Lake Biwa Otsu Prince Hotel. Located right on the water, this 38-story hotel has all the luxuries one could ask for, as well as excellent restaurants catering to Japanese, Chinese and French cuisine.

How To Get There

  • By JR lines, Otsu is only 10 minutes from Kyoto. From Tokyo, Shiga’s capital is just a 2.5 hour shinkansen ride (transferring in Kyoto).
  • Omihachiman is 30 minutes from Kyoto by train, and 1 hour from Osaka along the JR lines.
  • Lastly, Hikone is 45 minutes from Kyoto, and 1 hour and 15 minutes from Osaka by JR lines.

If you would like to take something more scenic, why not use one of Shiga’s local lines? Ohmi Railway conveniently connects Kyoto with Omihachiman and Hikone, as well as smaller towns like Taga-Taisha. It’s a little slower, but worth it to experience the colorful, boxy train cars, reminiscent of the Showa Period (1926-1989).

Take the scenic route with this old-school railway.

Also, for just ¥2,000, Ohmi Railway offers a two-day pass to foreigners that unlocks unlimited travel along its train line and seven bus lines, including the Hikone Tourist bus.

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They forgot to mention Koga (Koka) city. One of the 2 cradles of ninjutsu. That's worth a go if you are in Shiga

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Also, they forgot to mention that if you are a fan of the anime K-ON, you should head to TOYOSATO to see the school the anime is set in. It is the old Toyosato Elementary School.

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How about mentioning the ski fields and the fresh local food in the service areas and the friendly people.

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Bt the looks of things the author stayed in Otsu and went as far as Hikone and out to chikubushima.

There’s so much more to Shiga. You can also get to chikubushima from Imazu port on the west side of the lake. The ski fields are open all year round with hiking in the summer. Kaizu Osaki in Makino is beautiful for the Sakura. Not to mention Shirahige shrine with its floating Torii in Takashima.

I miss Shiga x

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I just a bought a house in Shiga! It's certainly a nice place. Check out Yobaino Taki (waterfalls) near Kitakomatsu Station on JR's Kosei Line.

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We moved on to the shore of lake biwa 5 years ago. Living in the countryside sandwiched between lovely mountains and the lake but only 45 minutes from Kyoto station Perfect balance. Lots to do and see here if you like a quieter pace of life. For those who might be interested here is a link to the Eco House that we built here: https://ecohouse66.wordpress.com

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looks like a dream come true for you and famil?y. Good luck!

Will be checking out your projects more after we move. By the way, any good eating lake fish in Biwa? No Walleye I'm sure : (

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