Otsu boasts Japan’s largest lake, ancient shrines

The Yomiuri Shimbun

The southern side of Lake Biwa is seen from The Biwako Terrace on a mountain in northern Otsu, with the city of Otsu seen in front of the lake.

By Kazuhiro Katayama / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior WriterOTSU — Lake Biwa’s name is said to come from the shape of the lake, which resembles a biwa Japanese lute. I’d seen the lake’s surface from the shore and taken a boat out on the water, but the lake is so large that I hadn’t been able to see its shape.

I heard about a facility in Otsu where I could see Lake Biwa from above, so I decided to visit. From the downtown area of the city, I drove north on the Kosei road for about an hour.

At the top of a 1,100-meter-high mountain is a resort facility called Biwako Valley. At the base of the mountain, I boarded a ropeway gondola. As it started moving, the lake suddenly appeared below me — it was a spectacular view. From an observation deck on the top of the mountain, I could see about half of Lake Biwa. Based on this view, I was convinced that the shape of the lake is indeed like that of a biwa lying flat.

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  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    The romon gate of Omi Jingu shrine. The Omi Kangakukan facility sells souvenirs linked to the popular manga series “Chihayafuru.”

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

Biwako Valley is a ski resort that has been in business for more than 50 years. In summer, it turns into a highland sports facility. Since The Biwako Terrace, a cafe offering splendid views, opened in 2016, the number of older customers has increased, according to an official of the facility. Even so, there were many young customers when I visited the facility on a weekday morning, and many people were enthusiastically taking selfies on an outdoor terrace.

In Tokyo and surrounding areas, there are many people who have not seen Lake Biwa, and it’s true that we cannot see the lake well from the windows of the Tokaido Shinkansen. The Shinkansen line crosses the Setagawa river, which runs south from Lake Biwa. The Seta no Karahashi bridge near this train line often served as a setting for historic battles, including one in the Jinshin war of 672. The area has been an important point for traffic between eastern and western Japan throughout the ages. “Otsu used to be one of the largest post stations on the Tokaido route. For travelers coming from Edo [now Tokyo] to Kyoto, the city was the last post station before Kyoto,” Takashi Nozu, 68, a member of an Otsu volunteer sightseeing guide group, said.

At the same time, the area had long prospered as a base for water transport on Lake Biwa, connecting the Hokuriku region and Kyoto. In the seventh century, during the era of Emperor Tenji, the capital — called Otsukyo — was located in this area.

Some think that story is not convincing. For such people, I would like to give some numerical data. Shiga Prefecture ranks third in terms of the number of structures designated as national treasures or important cultural properties, following Kyoto and Nara prefectures. Shiga Prefecture had 22 national treasures and 185 important cultural properties as of June 1. Of them, about one-third are located in Otsu, and most of them are at Enryakuji temple on Mt. Hiei; Miidera temple; Hiyoshitaisha shrine and Ishiyamadera temple.

I walked around Miidera temple, located near central Otsu. Its official name is Onjoji temple and it is the head temple of the Tendaijimon Buddhist sect. It is said to date back to the Asuka period (592-710). “The temple’s territory was temporarily seized by warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and the temple was rebuilt with the support of warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu and others,” Nozu said. Towering historical figures are woven into the story of this temple.

I walked around Buddhist temples scattered across the mountain, including Miidera temple’s main structure, the Kondo, which is designated as a national treasure. The cypress bark-roofed Kondo has a calm atmosphere.

These temples are famous places for autumn colors, but under the early summer sunshine the green maple trees were beautiful. Hiyoshitaisha shrine also covers a vast area, having about 40 pavilions on the mountain. It is located in an area called Omotekimon, named for a so-called demons’ gate in an unlucky quarter of the ancient capital Heiankyo. The shrine is also a guardian deity of Mt. Hiei. Under the tall trees, I walked from one pavilion to another. In the quiet space, I could forget about my daily life for a while.

Otsu has Japan’s largest lake and excellent temples and shrines. While the city does not have any Shinkansen line stations, one can get there in 10 minutes by JR train from Kyoto. What a waste to just pass this city by.

Holy place of Japanese card game

Among the places I visited during this trip, I saw many young people at Omi Jingu shrine, following The Biwako Terrace. This is a holy place of the Japanese card game karuta, as karuta tournaments are held at the Omi Kangakukan facility on the grounds of the shrine. The romon gate of the shrine appears in the background of the poster for the latest film based on “Chihayafuru,” the popular manga series featuring karuta. Young people visiting the spot took pictures from the same angle as seen in the poster.


From Tokyo, it takes 2 hours and 20 minutes reach Kyoto on the Tokaido Shinkansen line’s Nozomi train. In Kyoto, change trains to the Tokaido Line and travel 10 minutes to Otsu.

Inquiries: Biwako Otsu Tourist Association (077) 528-2772.

To find out more about Japan’s attractions, visit

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