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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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).
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.
- Want to find out more information about Lake Biwa and its surrounds? Check out the Shiga Tourism Website. (https://en.biwako-visitors.jp/)
- Omihachiman offers a tourist brochure in English; download it to discover a range of events and info. (http://www.city.omihachiman.shiga.jp/cmsfiles/contents/0000009/9296/VisitingOmihachiman.pdf)
- Head over to the Hikone Travel Guide website to find out more about accommodation, events, and the history and culture of Hikone. (https://visit.hikoneshi.com/en/)
- Find out more information about Taga-Taisha Shrine on its website (Japanese only). (http://www.tagataisya.or.jp/ )
- Shiga prefecture is famous for the frequency of its rainbows. Check out this page to plan for “rainbow weather,” So cool! (https://www.biwako-visitors.jp/niji-shiga/nijiyohou/)