Lake Michigan in midwest U.S. might be far away, but the connection is definitely here. On the quiet waters of lake Biwa – the biggest in Japan, the beautiful paddle steamer is simply named Michigan as a reference to the official friendship between the American state and the Japanese prefecture of Shiga. But that’s not all. Lake Biwa, because of its special natural features, along some great historical spots like Hikone castle and Shirahige shrine, is one of the hundred landscapes of Heisei.
A huge stretch of water, unexpectedly wide for a country as thin as Japan. Lake Biwa, in the heart of Kansai, is not only Japan’s largest lake with 670 km², but is also one of the world’s more ancient one with a natural history of 4 millions years. Weekly, he also become a convenient gateway for Osaka and Kyoto’s inhabitants.
Speaking of lakes in Japan is often a matter of cruise ships. The rule do applies in Biwa, but with an authentic paddle steamer built in Germany back in the 1980s. The Michigan, which is a floating piece of America in the heart of Japan, is a beautiful ship and a convenient way to explore the Southern part of the lake from Otsu.
The Michigan and Shiga sister state dates back from 1968. And the ship is a daily reminder of that. It offers several cruises, has lunch and dinner menus, and even a VIP party room to enjoy the views over the lake with friends only! Information to be find on the official website.
Another famous sight in Biwa area – and a great place to observe the lake from above – is Hikone castle. The small castle is one of the 12 authentic castles of the country, which means it has not been rebuilt in the past two centuries. It is not a huge castle but its inner original structure dating back from 1622 is definitely worth a visit for any history lover. And more than that, Hikone is one of the only five Japanese castles ranked as a National Treasure (along Matsumoto, de Matsue, de Himeji and Inuyama).
The Western side of the Lake is also home of several interesting sights. Apart from Enryaku-ji monastery standing at the top of Mount Hiei, that side of Biwa is home of Shirahige shrine, known as Shiga prefecture’s oldest and headquarter of all the 292 Shirahige shrines of Japan.
The modest shrine is known for its main red tori, standing in the Lake water by the seashore. The famous sight is also a dangerous one, as busy Road 161 with no pedestrian crossing is following the shore and thus creating a difficult-to-cross border between the shrine and the tori.
How to get there?
Lake Biwa is really close from Kyoto at the North-East. Otsu, the main city to be found on its shores, is less than 20 kilometers away from the former imperial capital. And only a 10 minutes (240 yen) train ride with the Kosei Line. Still the easier to discover the area would definitely be to rent a car.
The castle town Hikone is not complicated to reach: it is only one stop away (4 minutes and 190 yen) from Maibara. The last one being a Tokaido Shinkansen station between Tokyo and Kyoto (about 20 minutes away from Kyoto, and 2200 yen, or 22 hours and 12000 yen from Tokyo).
As for Shirahige, the shrine is 3 kilometers away from the closest station (which is 5 minutes away by taxi or 35 minutes walking), JR Omitakashima, being itself one hour away from Kyoto with the Kosei Line (840 yen).