Lake Biwa, Japan’s largest lake, takes up at least a third of Shiga Prefecture. Its variegated scenery and beauty is immortalized in the historic ‘Eight Views of Omi’ ukiyo-e pictures. Mighty is Lake Biwa and there’s a lot to do and discover about its culture, ecology, and place in Japanese history. A day trip from Osaka or Kyoto will get you anywhere along Biwako, but we connect the dots so you can get the most out of a funtastic day.
How to get to and around Lake Biwa
The main rail service for Lake Biwa is the JR West Line. Running along the lake’s east side is the Tokaido / Biwako Line usually bound for Maibara or Nagahama. The opposite line is the Kosei (west lake) usually going to Katata, Omi-maiko, Omi-imazu, or beyond.
Trains from Osaka will always go along the east side, so for the west side you have to change at Kyoto or Yamashina.
Alternatively, for the western shore of the lake, there’s the Keihan Ishiyama Line which runs from Ishiyama-dera (a major temple) via Hamaotsu to Keihan Sakamoto Hieizanguchi connecting to the Mount Hiei cable car. You can connect to this line from Keihan Yodoyabashi Station in Osaka. Only the Keihan Railway has one day pass deals, especially for Hieizan.
How to really do Lake Biwa
There’s enough to do around Lake Biwa to fill a few days. We suggest, therefore, you choose an activity that really strikes a chord, and then start from there. You can often do at least two or three things in a day.
From Omihachiman you can head north to Hikone and Nagahama, or loop south to Otsu. Likewise, it’s easy to combine Otsu with Sakamoto, Hieizan or Chikubu Island. There are Lake Biwa boat cruises from Otsu Port, but a unique way to traverse the lake is a cross island ticket between Omi-imazu and Nagahama via Chikubu Island.
Read on and we’ll connect the dots for you along the way!
Boat cruises on Lake Biwa
Nothing beats a boat ride on a big lake and here are the best two cruise options for Lake Biwa. If you do both, you will get to see the whole of Lake Biwa by boat!
Michigan Paddle SteamerLeaves from Otsu Port
60 or 90 minute cruises
Between ¥2,400 and ¥3,200
The Michigan is an American inspired four-decked paddle boat that does a tour loop around the south part of Lake Biwa. There are two morning and two afternoon cruises, and for periods it doesn’t run. You can check the details on the Biwako Kisen website (English).
A night cruise is a great way to end a day of sightseeing around Biwa. Keihan Hamaotsu Station connects directly to the port. From JR Otsu it is a 20-minute walk.
Chikubu IslandLeaves from Omi-imazu or Nagahama ports
Takes 25 or 30 minutes
¥2,700 to ¥2,900 / round trip
Chikubu Island, with Hogonji Temple, is in the northern part of Biwako and it’s ¥600 to enter once you land. Being an island, many of its buildings have survived fires and other historic calamities. Sightseeing can take an hour or two.
You can buy a return ticket from either port or a lake crossing ticket with Chikubu Island as the mid-stop. If you leave early, there’s enough time to explore sites either side of the lake such as Nagahama, Hikone, or places near Otsu.
Castles of Lake Biwa
There are two castles around Lake Biwa. One is in Nagahama in the north and the other in Hikone on the east side. It’s 25 minutes on the JR Line between the two and it takes about 50 minutes from Kyoto to Hikone.
Hikone Castle¥600 for entry
¥200 for the Genkyūen Garden
Hikone Castle is the better of the two castles and is considered one of the best preserved and most beautiful castles in Japan. It can take two hours or more to explore, including its wonderful Genkyūen garden. Photography is best in the afternoon when the sun is more to the west.
Hikone is a great combo ticket with Omihachiman in the morning. From the castle there are wider views of Lake Biwa compared to the Hachimanyama Ropeway, but they complement each other nicely.
Nagahama Castle¥410 for entry
Nagahama Castle is a reconstruction dating from as early as 1983. It’s a smallish castle with some decent views of the lake. It’s near the station and port so it’s worth a visit if you’re getting a boat to or from Chikubu Island. There are quite a few things to do in Nagahama which is the key city of north Lake Biwa.
Temples and shrines of Lake Biwa
- Miidera: A beautiful temple complex on the Otsu mountain side. The slanted roof of its Kondo Hall is one of the most beautiful in Japan.
- Omi-Jingu: A famous and historic shrine to the Emperor Tenji who founded Otsukyo. Get off at Keihan Omi-jingu-mae station.
- Hogonji: The main temple of Chikubu Island. At the Tsukubusuma Shrine you can throw earthen plates off the terrace aiming for between the Torii Gate below.
- Chomeiji: A delightfully beautiful temple with a nice view of Lake Biwa. The bus there leaves from Omi-hachiman JR Station.
Mangestuji Ukimido — best scenic spot of Lake Biwa¥300 for entry
The Ukimido is a small wooden temple built on the end of a jetty into the lake. It’s part of the Mangetsuji Temple and just a 20-minute-walk from JR Katata Station towards the lake. The local neighborhood and lakeside walk are really nice.
This can be a great stop on the way to Biwako Valley (Shiga Station) or Chikubu Island (Omi-imazu Station). It’s perfect in summer with beaches further up near Horai, Hirai, or Omi-maiko stations.
Hiei Mountain World Heritage Site¥1,000 for entry
Mount Hie, or Hieizan, is a mountain Buddhist enclave and a World Heritage Site similar to Koyasan in Wakayama but much smaller. Its main temple, Enryakuji, was founded in 788, but the Hiei of today dates to the Edo period. The Todo, or Main Hall, is defined by its inner garden and magnificent stone sunken altars.
The best way to Mount Hiei is the Sakamoto Funicular Cable. The other route from Kyoto is north to Yase, then a cable train, the Eizan Ropeway, and a bus — which is rather time consuming. The Eizan Ropeway also closes early January to mid March.
Sakamoto Town – shrines and temples
There is plenty of sightseeing to enjoy in Sakamoto. Right near the cable car station is the Hiyoshi Taisha Shrine (日吉大社) with numerous shrines dotted around the forest. It’s ¥300 to enter. Before the shrine is the picturesque Chikurin-in garden tea house which is ¥330 to enter.
If you like temples, Saikyo-ji (西教時) has good views of Lake Biwa. The best way there is a bus from JR Hieizan Station, and then to walk the 1 kilometer via the mountain back path to Hiyoshi Taisha. Walking from Hiyoshi Taisha to Saikyo-ji and back is a waste of time.
As you exit the Saikyo-ji walking down the hill, take the second right, and you’ll see a footpath sign with English pointing to 日吉大社東本宮.
Best views of Lake Biwa by cable car
The best way to see Lake Biwa is by cable car to a mountain top. There are four cable car rides around the lake each with their own vantage point and nearby attractions.
Hachimanyama Ropeway¥890 for a return ticket
The Hachimanyama Ropeway station is in the old town of Omi-hachiman. The views of Lake Biwa are less urban than from the west side. Particularly, you get a great view of the small Sainoko Lake with its surrounding rice paddies.
At Omi-hachiman station, catch the bus from Stand 2. There’s a tourist information office nearby with various English pamphlets. It takes less than an hour on top and coming down you can catch a canal boat ride and explore Omi-hachiman.
Hikone Castle has much wider views of Lake Biwa and it’s less than 20 minutes by train from Omi-hachiman JR Station.
Sakamoto Funicular Cableway¥870 one-way, ¥1,660 return
Keihan Sakamoto-Hieizanguchi Station
The Sakamoto Funicular Cableway (English pamphlet) is an experience all on its own. It’s the longest cabled railway in Japan and it still maintains an olden-day charm.
On the way up, there are glimpses and finally broad views of Lake Biwa. Make sure to sit on the right hand side as you board for better views. At the top is a viewing platform with excellent Lake Biwa scenery.
As you walk along the forest road to the entrance of Hieizan, there are other great views of the lake. If you don’t want to pay ¥1,000 to enter Hieizan, there’s a bus stop in the car park for a bus back to Kyoto. Additionally, there’s a bus that goes to the Eizan Ropeway with fantastic valley views and it runs later than the Sakamoto Cableway.
It’s an easy 15-minute-walk up the slope from Keihan Sakamoto Hieizanguchi Station along an old stone walled footpath to the cable station. Signs are clearly marked in English, and there’s a bus too.
Biwako Valley Cableway & Terrace¥3,000 to ¥3,500 for a ticket
Bus from Shiga
Biwako Valley has some of the best views of Lake Biwa. It’s a mountain top ‘valley’ between a lower and higher peak. In winter, it’s a popular ski field quite suited for beginner skiers and children.
At the stunning Biwako Terrace Cafe there are infinity seats for customers. There’s a free observation deck and plenty of grassy areas and picnic tables, so a bento can save on food costs.
From April to November there are activities like zip lining, sky walking, and you can take the ‘ski’ lifts to the higher elevation with a viewpoint and restaurants. Even into late September and October it gets cold so have at least a jacket or layered clothing.
Since photography is better from noon onwards, you can spend some time in either Otsu or Sakamoto in the morning. The last cable down is 4:30 pm.
Shizugatake Ropeway Lift Nagahama¥900 for a return ticket
The Shizugatake Ropeway consists of one-person open lift seats that gently take you up to the top of Mount Shizugatake. In May, it passes through fields of blooming irises. The views here of north Lake Biwa are superb with lots of natural scenery.
To get here, you take the train from Nagahama to Kinomoto Station (15 min / ¥240) and a 5-minute taxi ride or the Kokoku bus for 15 min getting off at Oto. The last ride down the mountain is 16:45 so you need to take care of the time.
Hakodateyama Lake Biwa¥2,000 for entry
Omi-imazu Station → Bus → Gondola
Hakodateyama is another mountainous viewpoint of Lake Biwa. It’s 35 km inland by road from Omi-imazu Station. Along the train journey you get great close up views of paddies, mountains, and villages typifying the Satoyama aesthetic.
In winter, Hakodateyama is one of the best snow fields in Kansai — not to be confused with Hakodate of Hokkaido. There’s a ton of activities throughout the seasons which you can view on the Hakodateyama website.
It’s arguable which has the better views — Biwa Valley or Hakodateyama? Hakodateyama, however, takes longer to get to, is basically a one-day activity, but there’s a lot to do on the mountain. There are buses from Osaka and Kyoto for a more direct route.
Top tourist towns to visit around Lake Biwa
If you’re looking for towns or cities near Biwa Lake with plenty of activities, the best three are Nagahama in the north, Omi-hachiman on the mid east side, and Otsu in the south.
Otsu is the key city on the south side of Biwako. Apart from Miidera Temple, Omi Jingu, and numerous cultural activities, the best beaches of Biwako are not far from Otsu City.
If you want to avoid too much ‘time on the road’ Otsu City and Sakamoto town are two good choices. In early October the Otsu Hikiyama Festival is something not to be missed.
Omihachiman old town
Omihachiman is one of the most charming old towns around Lake Biwa. There’s not much to do around the station’s new town, so just take the bus down to the old town nearer the lake.
Apart from the Hachiman Ropeway, you can wander the nearby old merchant house streets, cafes, restaurants, and take a boat ride down the main canal (adults ¥1,500, children and dogs ¥1,000). You will see the motorboats to the right as you cross the bridge to the ropeway, but the punting boats are to the left by the wide water edge steps.
You can enjoy most of the sites here in a morning. From Omihachiman it’s not too far to the Lake Biwa Museum, Otsu City, or Hikone Castle.
Nagahama is two stations north of Maibara Station which is the key interchange to Hokuriku and also a Shinkansen stop. Things to do in Nagahama are more local and traditional.
There’s a cool train museum just down from the castle side station exit. The nearby Keiunkan Villa features a famous bonsai exhibition from February to March. On the opposite side of the tracks is the Nagahama Roman craft beer, whiskey distillery, and restaurant. For better views of Lake Biwa than the Nagahama Caste, you can ride the Shizugatake Ropeway Lift.
If you’re sold on Nagahama for its quieter tourist vibe, you can start your day here and move on to Hikone or Omihachiman, or take a boat to Chikubu Island.
Beaches, swimming, and watersports on Lake Biwa
The best beaches of Lake Biwa are on the more protected west side. Good places for swimming in summer are around Horai, Shiga, Hirai, and Omi-Maiko stations.
Omi-maiko is the most popular beach with decent facilities. At the Omi Maikochuhama Swimming Field Office (近江舞子中浜水泳場事務所), you can organize barbecue, fishing, bicycle rentals, and camping, but online information is in Japanese only.
Near Hirai Station is the Kalpa Lake Sports renting SUP’s, kayaks, windsurfers and windfoils, but English is not guaranteed. Opal Outdoor Sports down from Ogoto-onsen Station have lots of activities, including cycling, and you can consult the Opal website for English services.
Walking about 10-minutes up from Sakamoto Castle Ruins Park are a number of boat rental places. Face Bass Club do jet skies, fishing boats, surf wake boards and more. Route 558 rents basic motorboats, and Cover do wakeboards, SUP’s, and banana boats.
Bicyle rentals and cycling around Lake Biwa
Popular tourist spots like Otsu, Omihachiman, Hikone, and Nagahama usually have bicycle day rentals. They tend to be around the station, but best to consult the Tourist Information Office near or in the station. Most speak good enough English.
Some enthusiasts like to cycle the complete 200 km around Lake Biwa. This takes about two nights and three days with sightseeing and a professional bike. A good starting point is Maibara Station which is a Shinkansen stop. Check out the Biwachi website for details on this.
Giant Store rents pro-bikes and has a one-day cycling tour to the south and west of Biwako or a half day around Omi-hachiman departing near JR Moriyama.