Lake Biwa, Kansai, Japan

Lake Locations:

Japan - Kansai -

Also known as:  Biwako

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.

Things to do at Lake Biwa

  • Vacation Rentals
  • Fishing
  • Boating
  • Sailing
  • Swimming
  • Canoeing
  • Kayaking
  • Jet Skiing
  • Scuba Diving
  • Hiking
  • Biking
  • Wildlife Viewing
  • Birding
  • National Park
  • Museum

Fish species found at Lake Biwa

  • Bass
  • Black Bass
  • Bluegill
  • Carp
  • Catfish
  • Largemouth Bass
  • Salmon

Lake Biwa Photo Gallery

Lake Biwa Statistics & Helpful Links

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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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Trophic State | LakeLubbers

Trophic State measures the level of algae and nutrients in a lake.

An oligotrophic lake is very clear (blue in color) and does not support much plant or fish life. A hyper-oligotrophic lake is the clearest of all lakes, and is nearly devoid of plants and fish.

A mesotrophic lake is slightly green and supports a moderate degree of plant and fish life. A lake's most desired trophic state is generally this mid-point - the mesotrophic state.

A eutrophic lake is somewhat murky and supports a large amount of plant and fish life. A hypereutrophic lake is clouded with algae, plant life, and fish life. A eutrophic or hyper-eutrophic lake can be difficult to navigate by boat - and is often an unpleasant place to swim.

The use of phosphorus-rich and nitrogen-rich fertilizer on lawns and golf courses surrounding a lake can cause it to become eutrophic or hypereutrophic.


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Catchment or Drainage Area | LakeLubbers

This is the surrounding area that drains into a lake, including land, rivers and their tributaries. This is also known as the lake's "catchment basin".

Small lakes at the highest peaks of mountains have small drainage areas. The world's oceans have the largest drainage areas.


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Lake-Area Population | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated number of people who live in a house with a view of a lake, plus those who self-describe the lake as their home, for example: "I live at Smith Mountain Lake."


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Water Residence Time | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated time that it takes for an amount of water equal to the entire volume of a lake to flow out of - or evaporate from - the lake.

Residence Time can be as short as a few days for fast-flowing small lakes, and can exceed 100 years for slow-flowing large lakes.


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Completion Year | LakeLubbers

This is the year that a reservoir was first filled to the reservoir's normal elevation - or the year that a natural lake was first dammed. A large reservoir can take more than a year to fill after its dam is first closed.

The Grand Anicut in southern India is generally considered the world's oldest dam that still operates. Grand Anicut was constructed in the second century BC. It now impounds an irrigation network that includes roughly one million acres.

You can find many of the the world's newest reservoirs on LakeLubbers. Many of the world's oldest reservoirs appear on the last page of that list.


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Water Volume | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated volume of water that a lake contains -- measured at the lake's normal elevation. By this measure, the world's largest freshwater lake is Siberia's Lake Baikal.

You can find many of the the world's largest lakes (by water volume) on LakeLubbers.

Water Volume can be measured in acre-feet, in cubic miles, or in cubic kilometers. One acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover one acre (43,560 square feet) to a depth of one foot. One cubic mile equals 3,379,200 acre-feet. One cubic kilometer equals 810,713 acre-feet.

1 acre-foot is equal to 325,851 US gallons. Siberia's Lake Baikal contains about 6,276,367,740,000,000 gallons of freshwater - nearly 1 million gallons for every living person on earth.

The other - and more widely used - measure of a lake's size is the lake's surface acreage. By that measure, the world's largest freshwater lake is North America's Lake Superior.


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Maximum Depth | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated greatest depth of the water in a lake -- measured at the lake's normal elevation. The world's deepest lake is Siberia's Lake Baikal; that lake's maximum depth is estimated at 5,314 feet.

You can find many of the the world's deepest lakes on LakeLubbers. If you select the last page of that list, you will find the (maximum depth of) the shallowest lakes in our database.


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Average Depth | LakeLubbers

This is the estimated average depth of the water in a lake -- measured at the lake's normal elevation. If the water volume and surface area of a lake are known, an estimate of the lake's average depth can be calculated:

Water volume ÷ Surface Area = Average Depth

Example: 1,000,000 acre-feet ÷ 20,000 acres = 50 feet average depth


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Maximum Elevation | LakeLubbers

This is a lake's highest water level, measured by the lake's surface distance above sea level, that can occur during flooding. A lake's highest possible maximum elevation is usually the top of the lake's dam or spillway.

At lakes that include residential development, government regulations usually forbid the construction of homes below a lake's maximum elevation.


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Minimum Elevation | LakeLubbers

This is a lake's lowest water level, measured by the lake's surface distance above sea level, that can be reasonably expected to occur. Low lake levels can occur due to deliberate seasonal draw downs for irrigation or impending snow melt, reduced water inflows, drought and evaporation, residential or commercial water demands, and hydropower generation.

Some lakes' minimum and maximum elevations are virtually the same. Lakes that generate hydropower may vary by several feet - according to power demand. Lakes whose primary purpose is to prevent flooding can seasonally vary by 100 feet or more.

When some lakes reach their minimum elevation, their boat ramps may not be long enough to permit boat access - and boats docked on shallow parts of the lake may end up on dry ground. In those cases, kayakers and shore-based anglers may be among the few happy recreational users of the lake.


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Normal Elevation | LakeLubbers

This is a lake's normal water level, measured by the lake's surface distance above sea level. For a reservoir, this water level is also known as "full pond" or "full pool".

You can find many of the world's highest-elevated lakes on LakeLubbers. Lakes with the lowest elevations (known by LakeLubbers) are shown on the final page of that list.


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Shoreline Length | LakeLubbers

This is the length of the exterior shoreline around a lake - measured at the lake's normal elevation. The shoreline length can be considerably shorter or longer when lake water levels are lower or higher than normal.

A lake with many coves has a much longer shoreline than a lake of similar surface area that is nearly circular in shape.

When known, the shoreline miles that we report in our statistics include only the lake's exterior shoreline, and exclude the shorelines of islands located within a lake's boundaries. In lakes with many islands, those islands' combined shorelines may exceed a lake's exterior shoreline.

You can find many of the world's longest-shoreline lakes on Lakelubbers.


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Surface Area | LakeLubbers

This is the area (acreage, square kilometers, etc.) of the top surface area of a lake - measured at a lake's normal elevation. The surface area can be considerably smaller or larger when lake levels are lower or higher than normal. North America's Lake Superior is the world's largest freshwater lake by this measure.

The other measure of a lake's size is the lake's water volume. By that measure, the world's largest freshwater lake is Lake Baikal in Siberia.

You can find many of the world's largest lakes (acres) on Lakelubbers. There is no widely-accepted minimum surface area that defines a lake. What Lakelubbers describes as a lake, you might call a pond. The smallest lake that Lakelubbers currently includes is Hawaii's 2-acre Lake Waiau.


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Water Level Control | LakeLubbers

This is the organization that controls water releases or outflows from the lake or reservoir. In the USA, this is often the US Army Corps of Engineers, a power company, a municipal water system, an irrigation district, or a paper manufacturing company. In the case of private or gated lakes, a homeowners' association may be the lake's controlling authority.

Many lakes cross borders, including North America's Great Lakes. The control of such lakes and their coveted freshwater may be amicably shared - or hotly disputed.

"Water wars" continue at many lakes as growing populations and crop irrigation needs compete for the freshwater that lakes contain.


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Lake Type | LakeLubbers

There are 3 basic types of lakes that are currently included on LakeLubbers. 2 types may be dammed or not dammed, producing 5 classifications.

- A Reservoir is a man-made freshwater lake that is usually created by damming rivers.

- A Natural Freshwater Lake occurs naturally - often by glacial activity - and has a salinity of less than 30 parts per thousand. It may be dammed to produce electricity or for other reasons.

- A Natural Saltwater Lake occurs naturally and has a salinity of more than 30 parts per thousand (ppt). It may be dammed.

"Brackish" water may be categorized as freshwater or saltwater, depending on its salt content (salinity). Oligohaline water has less than 15 ppt of salt. Mesohaline water has 15-29 ppt. Polyhaline has 30-335 ppt.


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