Shiga 滋賀 is a prefecture in the Kansai region of Japan. With the impressive Lake Biwa in the centre, Shiga has been a popular day trip destination from the neighbouring Kyoto. Besides this largest lake in the country, the prefecture also has a number of wonderful sights worth seeing.
In this article, let’s get to know some Shiga attractions you can visit along with Lake Biwa. Specifically, I will focus on places in cities around Lake Biwa – Otsu, Nagahama, Hikone, and Omihachiman – which are easily accessible from Kyoto because they are all on the JR Biwako Line.
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The capital city of Shiga Prefecture is located along the southwestern shore of Lake Biwa. It is home to numerous sites of historical importance, notably the three temples of Enryaku-ji, Mii-dera, and Ishiyama-dera.
Enryaku-ji 延暦寺 (admission: ¥700) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that sits atop Mount Hiei. Divided into East Pagoda, West Pagoda, and Yokawa zones, the temple’s most important buildings are concentrated in the East Pagoda area, the place where the temple was first founded in 788. Among the sights not to be missed here is Konpon Chudo, the main temple building that was rebuilt in 1642, in which there is the Eternal Light that has remained lit for 1,200 years.
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Make sure you visit the temple via Sakamoto Cable Car (¥860 one way; ¥1,620 yen return) which takes visitors from the foothills to the summit of Mount Hiei with gorgeous views along the way. Opened in 1927, it is the longest funicular in Japan.
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Mii-dera 三井寺 (admission: ¥600), also known as Onjo-ji, is one of the largest temples in Japan located at the foot of Mount Hiei. The spacious temple grounds are dotted with important treasures and signature structures, including the main gate Niomon, the main hall Kondo, the three-storied pagoda, and antique statues of Buddha that are only shown on rare occasions. The temple’s bell, which was cast in 1602, is said to have the best sound of any bell in Japan.
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Finally, Ishiyama-dera 石山寺 (admission: ¥600) is known for being the place where Murasaki Shikibu started writing The Tale of Genji, a classic work of Japanese literature that is sometimes named the world’s first novel. The temple is also home to many treasures and cultural properties, including the main hall which is the oldest building in Shiga (rebuilt in 1096), the pagoda which dates back to 1194, and fragments of manuscripts of Shiji (史记, Records of the Grand Historian).
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As a gateway to Chikubu Island, Nagahama is a former castle town located on the northeastern coast of Lake Biwa. It is known for its traditional buildings which are to be found around the city’s old town.
One of the places to appreciate Nagahama’s old time charm is Kurokabe Square 黒壁スクエア, made up of old structures from the Edo to Meiji periods that have been repurposed into shops, cafes, restaurants, and glass galleries. Besides local snacks and delicacies, you can also find many interesting and unique glass pieces or even learn to make one at one of the glass workshops here.
Daitsu-ji 大通寺 (admission: ¥500) located not far from the Kurokabe Square, is well worth a visit for its majestic Sanmon Gate as well as other important cultural properties which make you feel as if you were transported back in time. Nagahama also has its own castle (reconstructed) which is now Nagahama Castle Historical Museum 長浜城歴史博物館 (admission: ¥400) standing on the shore of Lake Biwa.
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If you come to the city around mid-April, be sure to check out the Nagahama Hikiyama Festival, a colourful annual event where the highlight is kabuki performance presented by child actors (boys age 5 to 12) on ornate floats that are pulled through the town.
Hikone, located on the eastern shore of Lake Biwa, is most famous for its castle – one of a handful of original castles in Japan. Completed in 1622, Hikone Castle 彦根城 (admission: ¥800) served as the base of the Ii clan which ruled Hikone during the Edo period. The castle for the most part remains the way it was hundreds of years ago, including the stone walls, moats, and turrets, among other features. It is listed as a National Treasure, one of only five castles in the country to have this title.
Also located on the grounds of the castle is Genkyu-en Garden 玄宮園. Built in 1677, the garden has a large central pond, next to which there are several wooden buildings used in the past by the lords to entertain their guests, but have now become a teahouse where visitors can enjoy a cup of tea while taking in the lovely views.
Outside the castle’s outer moat is Yumekyobashi Castle Road 夢京橋キャッスルロード. Designed to resemble the townscape of the Edo period, the avenue is lined with eateries, souvenir shops and boutiques, good for a pleasant walk after visiting the castle.
Located on the eastern shore of Lake Biwa, Omihachiman is known for its well-preserved old quarter that serves as a testament to the city’s past as a commercial town.
The famous Hachiman-bori 八幡堀 was a moat that also functioned as a canal. Built by Toyotomi Hidetsugu in the 16th century, the canal is lined with traditional buildings on both sides, and the banks are planted with seasonal flowers such as sakura and irises. The scenery is best enjoyed with a leisurely walk along the canal, or a ride down the canal in one of the river boats.
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Shinmachi-dori 新町通り was the district where the wealthy Omi (Shiga’s former name) merchants previously lived. Some of the merchant homes here, such as the Nishikawa family residence, are open to the public with exhibits that give visitors some idea about Omi’s heyday.
Also worth visiting is Himure Hachimangu 日牟禮八幡宮, located not far from Hachiman-bori moat. This oldest and largest shrine in the city used to be on top of Mount Hachiman 八幡山 but was moved to the present location in 1585 following the construction of Hidetsugu’s castle. Visitors can take the ropeway (¥490 one way; ¥880 return) to the mountaintop where some remaining structures of the castle can still be seen, while enjoying panoramic views of Lake Biwa and Omihachiman unfolding before your eyes.