The Lake Biwa Itinerary

04.05.2020

WordsClémence Leleu

From Lake Biwa, one of the largest freshwater lakes in the country, to Mount Hiei where you’ll find the world heritage site the Enryaku-ji temple, on to Uji, a small tea producing town, these locations are off the beaten track, and time seems suspended. There’s no need for wheels, the Hiei train on the Eizan line is iconic with its deep green shell, carrying visitors away from the crowds and deep into Japan. 

1 - Hiking mount Hiei

First stop is mount Hiei, located on the border between the prefectures of Kyoto and Shiga and classified as a Unesco world heritage site since 1994. The summit is accessible via the Sakamoto Cable funicular or up the Hieizan road. This single road is over 20 kilometres long and during springtime is adorned with thousands of flowering cherry trees and in winter, by red-leaved maple trees. 

At the summit there is an incredible view over the Lake Biwa as well as the neighbouring  Enryaku-ji temple. Constructed in 788, the temple is constituted of thousands of interconnected buildings among the cedar trees above Lake Biwa. Entirely destroyed in 1571, the temple was then reconstructed a few years later. Once part of a tangle of small temples spread across the steep slopes of mount Hiei, there are now just three sites accessible by hiking trails, Todo is the most visited site, and is home to a pavilion for the Buddha of health, Saito which is home to one of the oldest buildings, and Yokawa, where the temple is built into the hillside.

2 - Exploring Biwa

©JNTO

Spanning 670 km2, lake Biwa is one of the biggest freshwater lakes in Japan. Popular among Japanese tourists who come and spend long weekends along its shores, it is possible to try water sports such as sailing and windsurfing. 

Those who are less sporty can admire the Mangetsu-ji temple, an imitation floating temple constructed on the lake by the monk Genshin in the 17th century to ensure the safety and emancipation of the people. Or, for the hedonists, there is the natural springs Ogoto Onsen found on the west bank of the lake. It is a peaceful space where visitors can let themselves unwind, staying for a few nights in a row in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese guesthouse.  

©JNTO

3 - Arts and crafts in Otsu

Otsu is a small port village on the shore of Lake Biwa, it is located at the crossroads of trading routes that traverse the country, notably one leading to the former capital, Edo. Once a trading and transport port during the 17th century, today Otsu is mostly a tourist port.

The town is home to numerous little gems for travellers, for example, the Ishiyama-dera temple founded in the 8th century. This Buddhist temple celebrates Kannon, the divinity of mercy. Murasaki Shikibu, author of the The Tale of Genji is just one of the notable former residents of the temple. The main pavilion, Hondo was classified a national treasure as it is the oldest building in the Shiga prefecture. It is here, in this tiny room, that Murasaki Shikibu wrote the first verses of her work of literature. The gardens that surround the temple contain a statue of the author in tribute to her. 

Otsu was also the birthplace of Otsu-e, an art form born in the 13th century and practiced by the residents of Otsu and the surrounding towns. Families would paint folkloric buddhist images and display them along the roadside. This art depended on the passing trade traffic, and began to die out in the 19th century due to the arrival of train travel. 

Every year on the first weekend of October, the Otsu Matsuri takes place, a festival that has been judged important for immaterial heritage. The apex of the two day festival is undoubtedly the parade of large karakuri chariots and traditional dolls.

4 - Uji, home to exceptional tea

©Dongtek O

It is impossible to avoid green tea in Uji, since the 13th century, the town has been supplying the best tea houses in Kyoto and their matcha is renowned across the country for being the best in the world.

Whether it is in a pedestrian street among one of the old districts by the Uji-bashi bridge built in the the 7th century, or along one of the more modern arteries, little shops and restaurants remind passers by that we’re here in the town of Uji-cha, the Japanese capital of these precious green leaves. In the summer it is ice cream that carries the matcha flavour, while in winter, it is warm beverages. You’ll also find matcha cakes, sweets, milk and even soba noodles!

The 1st of October is the optimal time to visit when the town celebrates water, a key component of tea. Local residents undertake various rituals to thank eminent people from the history of tea, and to request benevolence from god for the purity of the water supply.

©Alice Pasqual