For a number of years, Lake Biwa has attracted domestic tourists whose aim is to undertake the Biwa-ichi, a circumnavigation of the 250km route around the lake’s perimeter by bicycle. Though we opted for four wheels during our attempt at the Biwa-ichi, you can easily take public transport, splitting the route into sections and making the most of the surrounding towns and maple-covered mountains whilst on your travels. Here we take you on a tour of our favourite places to visit, from revamped ryokan (traditional Japanese inns), to a sustainable sake brewery and bonny beaches.
It would be amiss to visit Lake Biwa without a first port of call at Omimaiko. Sitting on the west side of the lake, this is one of a network of small towns that made up an important trade route connecting the Sea of Japan to Kyoto during the Edo period (1603-1867). Today, its picturesque lakeside beach is filled with revellers in the summer months who amble their way to the water to escape Japan’s hot and humid cities. Weekdays are quieter, as is the time just before the season opens (May), and after it closes (mid-September through early October), when you’ll often find yourself alone on the beach, soaking in the scenery and the sun’s rays. Head up into the mountain side of the town, a quaint and quiet setting compared to the more commercial towns dotted around the lake’s edge, where tranquil walking tracks lead to hidden cafés and stores. We love Flatto Ceramics and Ki no Shita Ryoriten, but be sure to check opening times before your arrival, as days off can be sporadic out in the sticks.
We recommend continuing north to Omiimazu for your first night’s stay. Here the newly renovated Fukudaya, an inn on the shores of Lake Biwa, offers complete seclusion in which to lay back and luxuriate. The head of house and private chef ensure that you want for nothing during your sojourn, serving up a bespoke, seasonal menu using the freshest fish from surrounding waters, including carp and rainbow trout, which we enjoyed as sashimi during our stay, and a number of fish endemic to Lake Biwa, including stone moroko. During our visit they fried these tiny fish with star anise and served them whole in the most beautiful wooden hassun box, a tray of tidbits from mountain and sea that we enjoyed with a flight of local sake. Accompanying the moroko was funazushi, a fermented dish unique to the Lake Biwa region that takes tremendous effort to prepare. Pregnant crucian carp caught in the spring are pickled in salt, and in the summertime are pressed with rice and further pickled, this time for a total of three years. The intense umami and sour flavours paired perfectly with the local sake that was recommended.
Not only does Fukudaya make use of the bounty from the waves, they also work closely with local farmers to find seasonal organic produce and forage specialist ingredients from nearby mountains, the chef combining these to create a masterful kaiseki (traditionally elegant multi-course meal). Trained in the art of subtle inquisition, the head of the house even managed to find out a few of our favourite dishes and relay them back to the kitchen, producing an unexpected but irresistible extra course that was devoured despite the fullness of our stomachs. You can read our full review of Fukudaya here.
From Fukudaya, head further north still and around the top of Lake Biwa to Nagahama. Primarily a port city, there’s also a charming old part of town, home to one of Shiga’s most respected sake makers, Tomita Shuzo, a brewery with a history of more than 460 years. Famed for nurturing the nature and land of Shiga, the brewery uses 99 percent local rice, three quarters of which is cultivated organically. Tomita Shuzo is also experimenting with natural fermentation and interesting ways of ageing their expressions – to great acclaim, including a gold in the International Sake Challenge and the 2018 Kura Master awards. They even collaborate with a local artisan to create sake cups using clay from their rice fields, which they tell us allows people to fully realise the connection between the land and their sake.
Sitting closer to the centre of Nagahama is the gallery Toki no Kumo. A two-storey, contemporary concrete box, the first floor is separated into a gallery space, which showcases a number of special exhibitions throughout the year, and a shop space offering handmade Japanese crafts, such as ceramics and woodworks. Upstairs the collection of contemporary ceramics continues, alongside a selection of Japanese antique and vintage items.
Omihachiman was a vibrant stopping point on the old Nakasendo, the road established in the Edo period to connect Kyoto and Tokyo. This geographical advantage aided in the economic success of the once-dominant town by providing a steady stream of people with whom they could trade the bounty of the nearby waters and fertile farmland. Omihachiman remains an interesting embodiment of that bygone era, though one with an overtly apparent connection to modern living with forward-thinking and design-led enterprises happily taking root in this historical town.
Modern architecture lovers will want to seek out La Collina. Built to blend into the landscape, the building uses natural earth from the construction process in its walls, sustainable materials from local forests, and is topped with a grass-covered roof – which together form a symbol of harmony with the world in which it sits. Housing a traditional Japanese and Western-style sweet shop, La Collina is a treat for the eyes and the palate. Another sweet dream in Omihachiman is Mi-chan’s Sweets Factory, a patisserie built for a young girl with autism. Mi-chan was ten when she discovered her love for baking pastries and earlier this year, at the age of 13, her parents collaborated with Alts Design Office to build her Sweets Factory, fulfilling her dream to have her own store. A beautiful blend of glass and wood, the store is a bright, open space with a private kitchen where Mi-chan produces some of the finest sweets in Shiga.
In Omihachiman we recommend spending the night at Hatago Wakatsu, a modern interpretation of a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn). Originally built to house a tatami shop in 1829, the ryokan’s only two guestrooms have been completely redesigned. The first based around the concept of wood, with wooden walls and design details overlooking a view over the canal (bori), and the second designed entirely around stone, featuring a huge stone bath with views over the garden. There is also an onsite restaurant, serving up refined, local delicacies, from famed Omi beef to local heritage varieties of rice.
The storied economic past of Lake Biwa has given rise to an infrastructure that, still today, is a hub of commercial activity and an interesting juxtaposition of factories, farmland, and the phenomena of the physical world. In fact, the area is famous for fuelling a fire that burns in many of the principal people behind Japan’s most successful businesses. From the CEO of a Warren buffet-back commodities company to the founder of Takashimaya department store, the entrepreneurial spirit lives on around Lake Biwa. An elemental power, too, is ever-present here, proffering a compelling connection between man and earth and the way she shapes our existence. Still a relatively sleepy destination, the tranquility is a huge part of the charm, drawing an understated crowd who yearn to explore life around the lake.
Rachel E T Davies
Rachel E T Davies