With beaches, lake-side temples and castles, as well as scrumptious food galore, Lake Biwa is a wonderful watery retreat within the Kansai region. With its closest point within 30 minutes from Kyoto, it is an easy day trip, though you may find that you want to stay longer.
Beach-going and Water Attractions
There are several beaches lining the shores of Biwa Lake, the most famous one being Omi-Maiko (Station: JR Omi-Maiko Station). As the closest cluster of beaches to the major cities in the Kansai region (the next closest ones are located at the bottom of Wakayama prefecture in Shirahama), it's a great getaway for those looking to spend more time in the sun or eat beach-side BBQ. Omi-Maiko is especially known for the green pines lining the sand, and wind surfing as well as swimming is popular at this beach.
For those who want fancy water attractions, there are several locations around the lake where you can rent gear. A popular choice is going to O’pal, a marine sports school where you can engage with various activities such as wakeboarding, canoeing, and walking in huge plastic balls over the water.
To experience the lake from atop a boat, the Michigan Cruise is a great option. This paddle boat makes its way around the lake, stopping at various ports, both during the lake and at night. It also serves meals onboard.
Temples Around the Lake
There are several temples along the shores of Lake Biwa and the mountains surrounding it. Of those, Ukimido, Mii-dera, and Omi-Jingu Shrine are the most popular destinations.
Ukimido (Kaimonzan Mangetsuji Temple) This temple’s unique structure above the water makes it a must-visit in the Biwa Lake area, though it is comparatively smaller than other temples. The ledge on the backside of the structure is a great place to rest and feel the breeze blowing across the lake.
Location: 20-minute walk from JR Katata station
Mii-dera (Onjoji Temple) One of the four largest temples in all of Japan, Miidera merits at least half a day for a visit. As the head temple for the Tendaijimon Buddhist sect, this temple is home to more than 100 Important Cultural Properties and National Treasures. Step into one of the its many buildings for a break from the summer sun-- its expansive grounds contain buildings such as the Kondo, considered a national treasure, the Shakado, and the Kannondo Hall, the 14th place on the Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage. Recently, it was featured in the live action version of the popular manga/anime series “Rurouni Kenshin”.
Location: 10-minute walk from Keihan Miidera station
Omi Jingu shrine’s unique pavilions have been registered as a Tangible Cultural Property of Japan. As the location of the Japanese national championship for karuta (a Japanese card game), it has become especially popular for fans of the anime/manga Chihayafuru. It is also known for its Tokei Museum (Clock Museum), which displays several examples of Japanese-style clocks.
Location: 5-minute walk from Keihan Omijingu Station
Castles Around the Lake
One of the few remaining original castles in Japan, Hikone Castle gives visitors a chance to view what Japan was like in the feudal age. While its castle keep is relatively smaller than other castles, it is still an impressive example of varied Japanese architecture. At the castle hill’s base is the Hikone Castle Museum, home to reconstructions of lords’ government offices, as well as their family treasures, raning from kimono to musical instruments to armor. At the top of the castle, you can enjoy the lake breeze and a view of the lake below.
For those who stay at Lake Biwa until nightfall, they’re in for a great treat at Otsu city: the Lake Biwa Flower Fountain. This large fountain sends water 40m up into the air (around the height of a 10-story building), and while is also active during the day, it is especially beautiful at night when illuminated and set to music. During the summer, the illumination starts at 7 PM and ends at 9 PM. An excellent viewing spot for the fountain is Nagisa Park, which is a short walk from the fountain. Depending on the lighting, you may even be able to see a mirage on the lake from there.
For those craving more arcade-like fun, next to the Lake Biwa Flower Fountain is a large Round 1 entertainment complex, where you can bowl, sing karaoke, play claw machines, and snap purikura (Japanese photobooth). The ground floor of this complex also has an excellent gift shop where you can pick a variety of omiyague (souvenirs) from this area, such as Omi tea.
What to Eat
Omi beef comes from Shiga Prefecture (the area where Biwako is located), which was in the past called Omi Province. This beef is considered one of the top three brands in Japan, along with Kobe and Matsusaka beef. Restaurants around Biwa lake serve this meat in various formats, including in the form of steak, shabu-shabu, and croquettes.
Made up of gyuhi-mochi (sweet rice cake) covered in nectar and coated in kinako (soy bean powder) akai is the most popular dessert in the area. The most famous store to buy akai is Miidera Chikara Mochi Honke (near Hamaotsu Station). It has been ranked among the best sweets in Japan by the food website Tabelog, and almost exclusively sells this dessert. You will have to eat it quickly though—its shelf life is only two days as it contains no preservatives.
Local Ice Cream
There are several local ice cream shops that allow you to have a taste of locally grown products in ice-cream form. At Biwako Terrae, a converted ski resort which during the summer you can enjoy activities such as ziplining, there is a highly recommended gelato place. Their flavors range from local fruits to Omi tea. A popular choice is Adoberry, a berry bramble grown in the Takashima area.
To see Biwa Lake from up high, the Hieizan Sakamoto Cable Railway is a great option. This cablecar, the longest one in Japan, connects Sakamoto to Enryakuji Station, the gateway to the Enryakuji temple complex. Departing on the hour and half hour throughout the year, the cablecar quickly ascends to the top of Hiei-san in 12 minutes. Its wide windows give you sweeping views of the forested mountain, as well as the lake and towns below peeking through the trees. During the summer months, the cool breeze that blows through the car as you ascend the mountain is particularly refreshing.
At the cablecar’s terminal stop at the mountaintop, you can easily see Lake Biwa below, while enjoying the mountain breeze and birds chirping all around you—this mountain is also a popular bird watching spot and you can occasionally see people waiting with bird seed outside the station.
While there is no continuous walking path around the entirety of the lake, it is popular to bike around it. Several of the towns dotted around the lake have bike rental services. For instance, in Sakamoto, you can rent a bike by the hour from the Tourist Information Center. While biking around the entirety of the lake is possible, it generally takes around 2-3 days.
Summer Events in the Area
July 28-29: Mitarashi Matsuri Festival at Karasaki-jinja Shrine
First 20 days of August: Lighting up of Seta Karahashi Bridge
August 1: Biwako Otsu Summer Festival in Hamaotsu
Early August: Great Lake Biwa Fireworks at the Otsuko Port area
August 17: Senko-sai Festival at the Takebe-taisha Shrine and Seta Karahashi Bridge area