Lake Biwa, Kansai, Japan
Also known as: Biwako
Welcome to the ultimate guide for history, statistics, local fun facts and the best things to do at Lake Biwa.
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Lake Biwa visitor and community guide
Lake Biwa, sometimes known as Biwa-ko, is Japan’s largest lake with more than 165,000 acres. Lake Biwa is located in Japan’s Kansai region in the Shiga Prefecture. Believed to have been the result of the massive earthquake that accompanied the creation of Mount Fuji, parts of Lake Biwa are estimated to be four million years old. The lake is most likely named after the Japanese stringed instrument biwa, whose shape it resembles.
In 2009-2010, the huge lake became the holder of one of the world’s most sought-after fishing records. Mr. Manabu Kurita of Aichi, Japan caught a trophy largemouth bass at Lake Biwa that tied the 77-yr-old world record at 22-pounds, 4-ounces. The International Game Fish Association made the announcement recently after a full six months of verifications. Testing proved the huge female was not an infertile planted bass but a fertile female that had grown up in the lake. And the oddest thing about the latest trophy catch is that bass of all kinds are NOT native to Lake Biwa and are considered an invasive species!
Lake Biwa, formed from four or five smaller lakes over millennia has held a treasured place in Japanese history and tradition. Often mentioned in poetry and historical writings, excavations show the shores of Lake Biwa have provided sustenance for native populations for about 20,000 years. Several diving expeditions have removed relics from sunken villages proving rice paddy construction existed from about 900 BC. Lying in the middle of the largest Japanese Island of Honshu, Lake Biwa was a major transportation link during the time when nearby Kyoto was the island country’s capital city. Old woodcuts and art from the time of the Emperors often show Lake Biwa, highlighting its importance in commerce and navigation. One of Japan’s 12 remaining castles, Hikone Castle sits near the shore and, with its museum, is open to visitors. Two of the three islands on the lake, Chikubu and Okishima, are well-known for their picturesque views of the lake with its mountain backdrop. Chikubu Island is a famed pilgrimage destination as the home of Hougonji Temple and Tsukubusuma Shrine.
When the capital was moved from Kyoto to Tokyo, the area lost importance as goods transported to Kyoto declined severely. In the late 1800s, in order to revitalize trade, it was decided a canal would be built from Lake Biwa to Kyoto twelve miles from the shore. A young engineer, Tanabe Sakuro, undertook the massive project. Because there were few civil engineers in Japan prior to building the canal, Tanabe Sakuro was forced to write an engineering textbook with which to train his workers. Completed by 1890, the waterway takes water from the lake in Otsu and flows into Kyoto through tunnels under the mountains. Its navigational importance eventually supplanted by railroads, the canal is now used as water supply for Kyoto and some hydro power generation. The cherry tree – lined canal is a picturesque tourist attraction as are the ornate tunnels and remnants of the incline boat railway that lifted boats up the 115 foot grade. The Lake Biwa Canal Museum displays highlights of the canal and even offers a copy of the engineering book written to facilitate its construction.
The 146-mile shoreline has been heavily developed as Japan has become an industrial power. Now, approximately one-third of the lake’s shore is artificial and major roads run along the edge of the lake. Lake Biwa acts as the water source for over 14 million people. An historically important fishery, human impact has inadvertently caused harm to the ancient lake both through development and attempted improvements. At some time in the past, bluegills were presented as a gift to the Emperor, who had them released into the lake as a food source for native fish. The bluegills quickly became competitors for the food sources of the existing fisheries. Bass were later introduced and further displaced the endemic aquatic life, many of which have evolved here and exist no place else. The extensive reed beds along the shore have been reduced as development grew, leaving fewer of the beds that are vitally necessary to filtering run-off and pollution. The Japanese government, with help from the United Nations, has instituted measures to restore and revitalize the ancient lake, one of the ten oldest lakes in the world. Nearly 40 years ago, Shiga Prefecture outlawed phosphate-based detergents in an effort to correct increasing eutrophication of the lake’s shallow, southern basin. The much deeper northern basin remains in better condition. Reed beds are being restored and the weir dam on the Seta River, the lake’s only outflow, carefully controls water levels to both prevent flooding and maintain optimum levels for native and migrating birds, wildlife and aquaculture. The entire lake is now a part of the protected Biwako Quasi-National Park.
Commercial fishing still occurs on Lake Biwa, although not as prominent an economic factor as in the past. The small ko-ayu, or lake ayu, is one of the most abundant fish in Lake Biwa, and also comprises the highest-value fishery in the lake. The Biwa Catfish, known as the Guardian of Lake Biwa, is the largest native fish, growing to 47 inches and over 22 pounds. The landlocked Biwa Salmon lives in the deep northern basin and spawn in many of the more than 400 inlet rivers and streams. Other native fish include the Sunayatume, Deme-moroko, Goby, Unagi and several species of carp and catfish. Fishing is a popular recreational activity here and fishermen are encouraged to keep all bass they catch instead of practicing catch and release. Two-stroke motors and jet skis are prohibited on the lake, but most other boats are welcome. There are several marinas, boat rentals and sailing clubs located along the shoreline and fishing guides are available for hire. Favorite water sports here are windsurfing, kayaking, canoeing and sailing – both dinghies and charter yacht. Even facilities for scuba diving are provided.
Towns located on the lakefront include Hikone – an old castle town on the route between Kyoto and Nagoya, Otsu – the capital of Shiga Prefecture, Sakamoto – considered the gateway to Mount Hiei and Nagahama. The towns are well-supplied with public parks, often with swimming areas. The entire area is tourist-friendly with plentiful lodgings, many in the form of hostels. Some hostels are of the old style, with quaint rustic rooms and clerks that total your bill on an abacus. Others include modern hotels, along with resorts or private vacation rentals, some with lakefront or lake views. Every possible amenity is found around Lake Biwa with excellent rail service, lake cruises and even a couple of old Mississippi stern-wheelers serving excursion duty. Bicycles can be rented and are popular modes of transportation around the lake. Some of the towns ringing the lake contain hot springs and there are many good hiking trails in the Hira-san mountain range on the west side of the lake.
Bird watching is a popular and rewarding pastime, as Lake Biwa often hosts tufted ducks, pochards, eurasian wigeons, mallards, spot-billed ducks, gadwalls, northern shovelers, green-winged teal, whistling swans, common coots, great crested grebes, little grebes, cattle egrets, great egrets, little egrets, gray herons, black kites, eastern marsh harriers, kestrels, bull-headed shrikes, white wagtails, Japanese wagtails, gray-headed lapwings, great cormorants and a host of other species. Lake Biwa is a migratory stop-off for a great many species of birds.
The visitor to Lake Biwa will find a variety of local attractions to engage their attention. In July, the Japan International Birdman Rally takes place at the lake. The contestants, mainly students from Japanese universities and engineers from big companies, compete to see who can build the best human powered vehicle. Some fly for many miles. Others head straight down to the lake, much to the chagrin of the designers. The Otsu Matsuri Festival occurs in October and features a multitude of colorful, lighted floats, many with mechanical marionettes. The Lake Biwa Museum provides a wealth of information on Lake Biwa, with exhibits depicting early area civilization, displays of traditional homes and a large aquarium featuring the native fishes of Lake Biwa. The Biwako Waterfowl and Wetland Center at at Kohoku offers viewing of many rare species and educational exhibits explaining the wetlands around the lake. Hikone Castle and Museum are worthy of a days visit as are the numerous ancient shrines and temples. Certainly the variety of activities around Lake Biwa make this the vacation visit of a lifetime.
So plan a visit to Lake Biwa. You might not catch the next trophy bass, but you’ll certainly have a great time trying. And you’ll most definitely catch the cultural flavor of Japanese life in the cities, villages and mountains that ring Lake Biwa.
Custom Lake Biwa house decor
Read our full review of these personalized lake house signs.
Things to do at Lake Biwa
- Vacation Rentals
- Jet Skiing
- Scuba Diving
- Wildlife Viewing
- National Park
Fish species found at Lake Biwa
- Black Bass
- Largemouth Bass
Best hotels and vacation rentals at Lake Biwa
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Lake Biwa photo gallery
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Lake Biwa statistics & helpful links
Lake Type: Natural Freshwater Lake, Dammed
Water Level Control: Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport
Surface Area: 165,760 acres
Shoreline Length: 146 miles
Normal Elevation (Full Pond): 282 feet
Average Depth: 141 feet
Maximum Depth: 341 feet
Water Volume: 22,294,613 acre-feet
Water Residence Time: 5.5 yrs
Drainage Area: 1,226 sq. miles
Trophic State: Mesotrophic
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