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47 Prefectures from A to Y


Naturally Appealing

At first glance, it’s hard to understand just what you’re seeing. That vast blue expanse—is it the sea? In the haze it’s hard to tell if the break between earth and sky is real or a mirage.

What it is is Lake Biwa. Cradled in the bosom of Shiga Prefecture, it is Japan’s largest freshwater lake at 670 square kilometers. Often immortalized in ancient poetry, the lake has long been the lifeblood of the region, with its enormous water resources and proximity to the old capital of Kyoto.

Lake Biwa remains a symbol of Shiga Prefecture, taking up nearly a sixth of the prefecture. About 37 percent of its territory consists of natural parks, the highest of any prefecture in Japan. The lake provides drinking water for fifteen million people in the Kansai region and is the scenic backdrop for all the towns along its shores, a primary source for the local fishing, textile and pearl industries, and a leisure wonderland for residents and visitors alike.

Want to get up close and personal with the wonders of Lake Biwa? Try water balls. Yasuhide Mifune, who pioneered the use of these inflatable vinyl spheres in Japan, says they allow their passengers to float along the lake in a dreamy bubble 2.5 meters in diameter. The balls provide a 360º view, leaving their riders free to gaze at the scenery around them or observe the aquatic life beneath.

At Biwako Valley, visitors can ride up Japan’s fastest ropeway to view the lake from 1100 meters above. Recreational options here include hiking, river walking, and skiing in the winter, but one of the most exhilarating is ziplining down the mountain. After being strapped into a harness and attached to a long, strong metal wire by a carabiner and emergency brake line, intrepid visitors step off a platform into the void, flying past spectacular views of the lake and the forest underneath. “Although it can seem scary at first, guests get used to it quickly,” says ziplining guide Junji Murata. “By the end, they’re enjoying the scenery and telling me, ‘I’ll be back!’ ”

Down the mountainside is the village of Harie. This close-knit community offers a glimpse of a water supply system that has worked superbly for over two centuries. Spring runoff flows down from the mountains through the town in open canals and channels along the streets, and is so clean that it is full of fish, crabs and flowering aquatic plants.

Furthermore, homes around the area have water houses, or outdoor sheds fitted with pumps, where families keep vegetables and other perishables in the cool water, alongside pet koi (carp) that consume food scraps and help keep other detritus under control. Most homes use the spring water for nearly everything, only using the city water supply for things like washing cars. Residents are proud of the delicious water and the way that the whole community works to keep it clean and safe for everyone.
Overlooking the opposite side of the lake toward Hikone City is majestic Hikone Castle. The castle—with its double moats, stark white walls, and striking black-tiled roofing—is over four hundred years old, and one of only a dozen castles in Japan that retain their original keeps. Looking at the massive, rough-hewn stones of the walls surrounding the keep, it’s easy to imagine how the guardians of this fortress prevented enemies from invading the grounds. Inside, visitors slide sock-footed over wooden floors polished by hundreds of years of use, from the lords of old to the curious history buffs of the modern era.

The fascinating nature and rich history of Shiga Prefecture—close to Kyoto and dominated by Lake Biwa and its clean, lush surroundings—will draw travelers looking for leisure in a relaxing environment.