Lake Biwa Rowing Song mini concert in Imazu 2017


Video link: https://youtu.be/9G94IppUiiE

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of Shiga’s most famous and beloved song, Biwako Shuko no Uta (琵琶湖周航の歌), shiga-ken.com held a special mini concert in Imazu on April 16, 2017 with the cooperation of the Biwako Shuko no Uta Shiryokan song museum (琵琶湖周航の歌資料館) and Imazu Port in Takashima, Shiga Prefecture.

The highlight was twin sisters Jamie and Megan Thompson at Imazu Port singing Lake Biwa Rowing Song (English version of Biwako Shuko no Uta) to the accompaniment of Lake Biwa reed flutes (yoshibue) played by Lake Reed (レイクリード), a duo consisting of Kikui Satoru (菊井了) and Kondo Yumiko (近藤ゆみ子). The result was stupendous and oh so pretty, both in sight and sound on a beautiful day in front of a blue Lake Biwa at Imazu Port. Watch the 5-min. video embedded above and see for yourself.

It was only our second time to perform at Imazu Port. The last time was on June 3, 2006 when we first introduced and performed Lake Biwa Rowing Song in public. For this second time, I decided that instead of staging a repeat performance of what we did in 2006, we should do something different. Having Lake Biwa reed players join us was perfect. It turned out that it was the first time for Lake Reed to perform together with multiple singers.


Video link: https://youtu.be/PjnY67sIcqE

We also held an indoor mini concert at the Biwako Shuko no Uta Shiryokan song museum. The performance of Lake Biwa Rowing Song was repeated and followed by three pretty songs by Lake Reed. Watch the 23-min. video embedded above.

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Jamie & Megan Thompson together in Japan for the first time in 8 years.

Our mini concert turned out to be a media event with coverage by Asahi Shimbun, Chunichi Shimbun, Mainichi Shimbun, Sankei Shimbun, and Yomiuri Shimbun newspapers. I came prepared for the media with these T-shirts I designed and gave to Jamie and Megan to wear. I also gave them Biwa pearl necklaces (closeup photo below).

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Lake Biwa pearl necklaces.

I had these Lake Biwa pearl necklaces custom-made for this day. I found a freelance accessory maker in Otsu named “Malble” (pronounced like “Marble”) who was making earrings using this Lake Biwa-shaped, gold-colored accessory. It says, “Always With You.” (Like Lake Biwa is always with you.) I had her make these necklaces strung together with a medium-size Lake Biwa pearl. They came out very nice at reasonable cost.

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Rehearsing inside the song museum before going to Imazu Port.

Since summer 2016, prominent people and organizations in Shiga and Kyoto announced plans to hold Biwako Shuko no Uta 100th anniversary events in 2017. I also wanted to take part in these events.

So I asked Jamie and Megan (who sang Lake Biwa Rowing Song in English in 2006 while they were working in Japan as JET Program ALTs), if they could visit Japan in 2017 to participate in one of these anniversary events, especially in June (the song’s actual anniversary date) or November (Kyoto University’s main anniversary event).

It turned out that they both could make it to Japan only in April 2017. Since there were no anniversary events in April, we held our own commemorative mini concert on April 16. Couldn’t let such a rare trip to Japan by both sisters go to waste.

The performance at Imazu Port started at around 1:30 pm after all the cruise boats left Imazu Port. It was mainly for me to shoot videos for a music video (embedded at the top). The media also took photos and interviewed us under a somewhat hot sun. We then moved to the nearby Biwako Shuko no Uta Shiryokan song museum for an indoor mini concert and social gathering that lasted until about 4 pm.

The ever so helpful and cooperative Biwako Shuko no Uta Shiryokan song museum allowed us to use their room on the second floor for our indoor mini concert. They also secured permission for us to perform at Imazu Port.

I didn’t really publicize this event since it was intended for only friends and invited guests and the local media. However, during the 2.5 months of planning, the event started to take on a life of its own as it morphed into something more substantial. I knew things like this never go according to plan, so I remained flexible and played it by ear.

As I expected, we ran behind schedule and were unable to do a few things that I had planned. But all-in-all, our event turned out very well with great weather, no accidents or illnesses, great videos and photos, and everyone having a fun time. Many people also went on the 3:30 pm Sakura cruise to Kaizu-Osaki afterward. I’m glad that it was worth coming to Imazu which is quite far for most of us.

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Jamie and Megan talk with the press. Back of the T-shirt is the CD cover and “Children of the Lake” below it.

Talking to the press took longer than expected since so many of them showed up and they had lots of questions. They also kept asking for my age which I declined to say since it was irrelevant. (Japanese newspapers always like to state the age of the people they write about. It has never happened in my case though.)

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Biwako Shuko no Uta Shiryokan song museum, near Omi-Imazu Station. It has panel displays explaining the history and meaning of the song and a listening station where you can listen to many cover versions.

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Mini concert inside the song museum.

Our indoor mini concert started with Jamie and Megan singing Lake Biwa Rowing Song with Lake Reed playing Lake Biwa reed flutes.

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Lake Reed playing Lake Biwa reed flutes. They even brought a bundle of reeds (left) as a prop.

Lake Reed then performed three songs: Furusato (Hometown), Miyagete-goran Yoru no Hoshi wo (Look Up at the Night Stars), and Umi no Koe (Voice of the Sea). (Watch the video to hear them play.) They were brilliant. So pretty. Omi-Hachman resident Kikui Satoru was the person who actually invented the Lake Biwa reed flute in 2000. So he’s been playing it longer than anyone else in the world. We were so lucky to have him and his partner Kondo Yumiko perform for us. Everyone performed on a voluntary basis, no one got paid.

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Over 50 people attended our mini concert inside the song museum.

Mr. Kikui was also generous enough to bring 15 reed flutes to hold a sample lesson mainly for the kids who came. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time for it. Sounds like I have to plan a follow-up event to make it happen.

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Kiyora playing the shamisen.

Our third performer was Kiyora, a third grader from Moriyama. She played the famous cherry blossom song, “Sakura, Sakura” with her shamisen. As a beginner, she played quite well.

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Former Shiga Governor Yukiko Kada talks about the upcoming music festival in Otsu. Holding up the PR poster is Kitagawa Akihiro of ~Lefa~.

We were also honored to have former Shiga Governor Kada Yukiko attending our event. Being the president of Biwako Seikei Sport College in Omi-Maiko, she’s very busy. And yet, she made the time to hear us sing. We thank her for coming.

She and singer Kato Tokiko (who made Biwako Shuko no Uta a national hit in 1971) are organizing the 1st Biwako Music Festival (第一回びわ湖音楽祭) at Biwako Hall in Otsu on June 30, 2017. Tickets are still available as of this writing.

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Kitagawa Akihiro sings with Jamie and Megan.

Another special guest was Kitagawa Akihiro, vocalist and one half of the Nagahama-based duo ~Lefa~. Akihiro once studied in Canada, so he does have an interest in singing in English. He sang in English with Jamie and Megan impromptu. He has a very good voice, so I see great potential in him singing in English after I coach his pronunciation. It was the first time for me to meet Akihiro. I saw former Governor Kada’s Facebook video of him singing Lake Biwa Rowing Song in English so I invited him to our event. ~Lefa~ was formed in 2010 and they play all around Japan at shopping malls, local events, etc., and sing Biwako Shuko no Uta. They also often hold mini concerts at Biwako Shuko no Uta Shiryokan song museum. The other half of ~Lefa~ is guitarist and keyboard player Kono Hiroyuki.

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In the end, the few of us who didn’t go on the cherry blossom cruise to Kaizu-Osaki remained to sing Biwako Shuko no Uta in a circle.

We were running an hour late. Most of the audience left at around 3:20 pm to catch the Cherry Blossom Cruise for Kaizu-Osaki departing Imazu Port at 3:30 pm. So only about 15 of us remained until we ended at around 4 pm. Everyone burst into smiles and started clapping after we finished singing the song in Japanese. It’s such a heartwarming song, and being from Hawaii where we have many, many renown hometown songs, I’m so glad Shiga has such a song. It’s been 11 years since we announced the English version, but slowly and surely, I see it catching on.

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Set of six Lake Biwa Rowing Song postcards given as a free memento to all attendees.

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Chunichi Shimbun newspaper was one of five papers that covered us (April 17, 2017 issue).

Videos of Golden Week festivals in Shiga

Golden Week is Japan’s spring vacation from late April to early May with a string of national holidays. April 29 is Showa Day, May 3 is Constitution Day, May 4 Greenery Day, and May 5 Children’s Day.

It is prime time for matsuri festivals in Japan and Shiga has a load of them. There are so many matsuri in Shiga during this time that it took me at least 4 or 5 years to see most of them because many are held at the same time. You really have to decide which one to see.

Here is a collection of my video clips (in varying quality) of Golden Week festivals I recommend seeing. A wide variety for sure.


Video link: https://youtu.be/xYQujzeDO8o

April 29: Sakata Shinmeigu Yakko-buri Procession (坂田神明宮の蹴り奴振り) in Maibara reenacts the procession of Lord Ii Naonobu from Hikone when he came to worship at Sakata Shinmeigu Shrine (坂田神明宮) in 1733 in Maibara. The men walk with a stylized, kicking action. It starts with a Shinto ceremony which includes dancing by shrine maidens. Starts at 2 pm at Sakata Shinmeigu Shrine near JR Sakata Station (Hokuriku Line). Photos | Website | Map


Video link: https://youtu.be/CzLvxfAJkQc

April 29: Kusatsu Shukuba Matsuri (草津宿場まつり) celebrates Kusatsu’s history as a stage town on the Nakasendo and Tokaido Roads. Numerous events and activities are held such as flea markets, street & stage performances, and Japanese dances. The main highlight is the Kusatsu Jidai Gyoretsu procession of people dressed in historical costumes from 11:45 am (from city hall) to 3:40 pm (Kusatsu Station East Exit). Near JR Kusatsu Station. Photos | Official site | Map


Video link: https://youtu.be/86wY3dOgLEw

April 29: Kaizu Rikishi Matsuri (海津力士まつり) features men dressed as sumo wrestlers (rikishi) carrying two mikoshi portable shrines around their respective lakeside neighborhoods near JR Makino Station in northern Takashima. They wear kesho mawashi ceremonial aprons. They jostle the mikoshi during the day from 1 pm to 3 pm, and then from 5 pm. At around 8 pm, they proceed to Kaizuten Jinja Shrine for the festival climax with lit torches. Be aware that the festival goes on until after 10 pm which may be past your last train home. Also, if you’re walking back to Makino Station from the shrine, be careful as part of the highway has no sidewalk. Bring a flashlight (or lit-up smartphone) so the cars (and big trucks) can see you on the road at night. Otherwise, it’s very hazardous. Photos | WebsiteGoogle Map


Video link: https://youtu.be/S5CG04vUdMA

May 3: Hino Matsuri (日野祭) in Hino is the largest festival in eastern Shiga Prefecture and one of Shiga’s grandest float festivals. Sixteen ornate floats and three portable shrines are paraded through the streets and gather at Umamioka Watamuki Shrine amid festival music of flutes and taiko drums. It’s all day long from morning till late afternoon when the floats leave the shrine. The three portable shrines are taken across town to the Otabisho and back. They also hold a festival eve on the evening of May 2. Buses run from Hino Station to Umamioka Watamuki Shrine. If you have time, I also highly recommend taking the bus from Hino Station to Shakunage Gorge (しゃくなげ渓) for a relaxing nature stroll in a gorge adorned with shakunage (rhododendron), Hino’s official flower. Photos | WebsiteGoogle Map


Video link: https://youtu.be/59UfQMWjkZY

May 3: Kenketo Odori (ケンケト踊り) at Takigi Jinja Shrine (龍樹神社) in Tsuchiyama, Koka is a dance performed by eight boys aged 7 to 12. The dance was originally started to ward off calamities. The boys wear tall peacock feathers on their heads. Starting in the early afternoon at the shrine, the delightful dance is a National Intangible Folk Cultural Property. From Kibukawa Station (JR Kusatsu Line and Ohmi Railways), catch the Aikuru Bus and get off at Higashi Maeno. The shrine is a short walk toward the river. Photos | Website | Google Map


Video link: https://youtu.be/isdfpgLUa54

May 3: The Kenketo Festival (ケンケト祭り) is held at few Shinto shrines in Ryuo and neighboring Higashi-Omi. It is mainly a naginata (pole sword) dance and procession by boys dressed in costume. They travel to these different shrines and perform, but the main venue is Suginoki Shrine in Yamanoue, Ryuo town, Shiga. Photos | Google Map


Video link: https://youtu.be/JW0sE2IXIQM

May 4: The Shichikawa Matsuri (七川祭) at Oarahiko Shrine in Takashima features a procession of yakko-furi laborers carrying archery targets (photo), yabusame horse runs, and a portable shrine procession. This is the largest festival in the Kosei area (western Shiga) and the only one featuring horses in Kosei. Attracts a good crowd. The shrine is near Shin-Asahi Station (JR Kosei Line), but renting a bicycle at the station is recommended. Photos | Website | Google Map


Video link: https://youtu.be/110DRdk9c5s

May 4: Omizo Matsuri (大溝祭) has five ornate floats pulled around the neighborhood of JR Omi-Takashima Station (JR Kosei Line). The festival eve on May 3 has the floats festooned with paper lanterns as they are pulled around in the evening. On May 4, they pull the floats around during the day and gather at Hiyoshi Jinja Shrine. When entering the shrine, they dramatically run while pulling the float. Photos | WebsiteGoogle Map


Video link: https://youtu.be/r_FYQwW_l-4

May 4: Iba-no-saka-kudashi Matsuri (伊庭の坂下し祭) held by Sanposan Shrine in Higashi-Omi, Shiga Prefecture is an unusual festival with three portable shrines hauled down a steep mountain (Kinugasa-yama) for about 500 meters. It doesn’t sound that far, but it’s all steep, rocky terrain. The mikoshi bearers can easily get injured. This is also one of the hardest festivals to view. You have to climb up this steep, rocky mountain and perch on a ledge. One earthquake and you can fall. The locals have an easy time climbing up the mountain though, even with kids. Photos | Website | Google Map

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May 4: Shinoda Hanabi in Omi-Hachiman. Intangible Folk Cultural Property.

May 4: Shinoda Hanabi (篠田の花火) is a super spectacular and artistic fireworks display at Shinoda Shrine in Omi-Hachiman. Torch fireworks, Niagara Falls, and panel-type fireworks provide an explosive, close-up experience. For people who cannot wait till summer to see fireworks. Beware of a forest of camera tripods and photographers in front. Get there early if you want to take good shots. Not recommended if you don’t like sudden and loud explosions. Intangible Folk Cultural Property. Walk from Omi-Hachiman Station. Photos | WebsiteGoogle Map


Video link: https://youtu.be/lSjPZkbGhS4

May 4: The Misaki Shrine Fire Festival (御崎神社 火まつり) in Aisho climaxes with a towering clump of bamboo set afire to create a fire column well over 10 meters high. It starts at 7:30 pm when people carry 2-meter long torches from their homes to the shrine. A taiko drum is also carried and beaten. Very dramatic (no marshmallows). The shrine is a 20-min. walk from JR Inae Station. Photos | WebsiteGoogle Map


Video link: https://youtu.be/XqVS_P7Nccg


Video link: https://youtu.be/OtzUyyFVTdc

May 5: Hyozu Matsuri (兵主祭) is Shiga’s preeminent mikoshi (portable shrine) festival with 35 mikoshi paraded around Hyozu Taisha Shrine in Yasu. Two of them are carried only by spunky young women called “Ayame,” meaning iris flowers. Very colorful and lively festival as they frequently stop, yell, and hold up the mikoshi high in the air. Beware that it can be dusty on the gravel paths. Other mikoshi are carried by children and men. Photos | Website | Google Map


Video link: https://youtu.be/0_4CjYXHCls

May 5: The Sushi-kiri Matsuri (すし切りまつり) sushi-cutting festival at Shimoniikawa Shrine in Moriyama has two young lads very stylistically and meticulously cutting funa-zushi fermented fish (crucian carp native to Lake Biwa) as an offering. All throughout, they are verbally heckled by some men. Not visually spectacular, but unusual and intriguing. The best part is at the end when they give free morsels of funa-zushi to spectators. Shiga’s best-known delicacy from Lake Biwa. From Moriyama Station, take the bus and get off at  Shimoniikawa Jinja. Photos | Website | Google Map


Video link: https://youtu.be/1-Ti5JQTt_o

May 5: Naginata Odori Matsuri (長刀踊り まつり) at Ozu Jinja Shrine (小津神社) in Moriyama consists of colorful dances and music by children, taiko drumming, a naginata dance and acrobatics by boys using a pole sword. They conduct a roundtrip procession from Ozu Shrine to Ozu Wakamiya Shrine. A great variety of eye candy for Children’s Day. Photos | Website | Google Map


Video link: https://youtu.be/PU7an9F3GdQ

May 5: Sekku Matsuri Festival (苗村神社 節句祭) at Namura Shrine in Ryuo is for horse lovers. After children carry around a portable shrine, yabusame horseback archery is held in front of the shrine gate. Several horses make their runs, but only one of them shoots arrows at the targets. A good excuse to visit this shrine noted for its elegant-looking, thatched-roof main gate and Nishi Honden hall which is a National Treasure. The shrine’s architecture is from the Kamakura Period. Photos | Website | Google Map

Sakura cruises to Kaizu-Osaki

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Kaizu-Osaki is deservedly one of Japan’s 100 Famous Cherry Blossom Spots (さくら名所100選 according to the Japan Cherry Blossom Association). During the first half of April, four kilometers of cherry blossoms bloom along this lakeshore in northern Lake Biwa in Takashima.

During the peak bloom period in mid-April, the traffic along the lakeshore road is horrendous. Renting a bicycle at Makino Station and cycling to Kaizu-Osaki is recommended. Walking is also possible for people who don’t mind walking at least 40 min. from Makino Station.

On sunny days, it’s quite spectacular with the cherry blossoms against the blue lake and blue sky with Chikubushima island in the background. But watch out for the cars since much of the lakeshore does not have a walking path. The tunnels are also narrow. Use a flashlight or turn on your smartphone when walking or bicycling in the tunnels.

In mid-April 2017, I finally tried a different and much more pleasant way of enjoying the sakura along Kaizu-Osaki. I went on Biwako Kisen’s “Sakura Cruise” from Imazu Port for the first time on board the megumi trimaran (triple hulled for stable ride). It was only one of many “sakura cruises” or “sakura hanami boats” that swarm the area during the cherry blossom season. (“Sakura” means cherry blossoms.)

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Imazu Port for cherry blossom cruises to Kaizu-Osaki.

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megumi is powered by bio diesel fuel and solar and wind energy.

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Upper deck of megumi.

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Megumi’s indoor heated cabin with large picture windows.

Cruise operators Biwako Kisen (琵琶湖汽船) and Ohmi Marine (オーミマリン) both offer sakura cherry blossom cruises to Kaizu-Osaki during early to mid-April. Biwako Kisen has boats departing Imazu Port and Nagahama Port, while Ohmi Marine has boats going from Hikone Port and Makino Dock.

Both cruise companies have at least four boats daily, and they may schedule extra boats on peak weekends. The fare is around ¥3,000 to ¥3,500. I highly recommend going on a cruise that also docks at Kaizu-Osaki Port where you can get off the boat and walk around Kaizu-Osaki for about 30 min. before returning to the boat. Otherwise, other boats just cruise along Kaizu-Osaki without docking. Note that if the water is rough on windy days, the boat might not be able to dock.

From Imazu Port, the cruise that includes 30-min. docking at Kaizu-Osaki takes about 90 min. round trip. From Nagahama Port and Hikone Port, it takes about 2.5 hours.

The Biwako Kisen “sakura cruise” schedule is here.

The Ohmi Marine sakura hanami cruise schedule for Hikone Port is here and for Makino Dock here.

I was lucky to see the sakura in full bloom on a sunny afternoon. Here are some photos.

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Kaizu-Osaki in the distance.

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Getting closer to Kaizu-Osaki.

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Approaching Kaizu-Osaki Port where Osaki-dera temple is.

megumi at Kaizu-Osaki Port.

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Beware of heavy traffic when leaving the dock.

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Look for the pedestrian path.

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30 min. is not enough to walk the entire length of the walking path.

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We get another look at the sakura as we leave Kaizu-Osaki.

More photos of Kaizu-Osaki here.

Pharrell Williams HAPPY – From Lake Biwa

Video link: http://youtu.be/FKchoOLG2TY

Pharrell Williams scored a huge hit with his song Happy last autumn. It has since become a worldwide phenomenon with people in cities around the world making street dance videos with the song. Pretty amazing.

The videos show a good bit of the respective locality along with some great dancers. The vids were inspired by Pharrell’s own music video which is the world’s first 24-hour music video with Happy played repeatedly for 24 hours. Fortunately, we can pause and resume the video at will.

I’m not one who usually gets on a faddish bandwagon, but I immediately recognized Happy’s PR potential for local destinations. So I hopped aboard by making this Shiga matsuri version of Happy. (Video embedded above or click on the video link.) Matsuri is Japan’s most common and colorful way to express happiness in public. Many matsuri also includes dancing and happy motions. A great match for the Happy song.

I’ve always wanted to make a compilation of my Shiga matsuri videos and this is a great way to do it. Shiga has so many matsuri that I ended up making the video with the song repeated four times. Even then, I still couldn’t fit all my Shiga matsuri videos. A few are missing. Most of the footage have already appeared in my other videos already on online, but a few clips are online for the first time like the Otsu Matsuri shot in Oct. 2013.

After watching this video, you may want to see the full version of the video clips in HAPPY from Lake Biwa, Japan. I provide the video links below in the order of appearance in the video:

  1. Lake Biwa Museum aquarium
  2. Yuru-kyara Mascot Character Festival
  3. Hiko-nyan mascot
  4. Lake Biwa Museum workshop for kids
  5. Ayu sweetfish at Shiga Food and Craft Fair
  6. Yokozuna Hakuho in Maibara
  7. New Year’s at Taga Taisha Shrine
  8. Katsube Shrine Fire Festival
  9. Taga Taisha Setsubun Festival
  10. Sagicho Matsuri
  11. Tsuchiyama Saio Princess Procession
  12. Sanno-sai
  13. Minakuchi Hikiyama Matsuri
  14. Kaizu Rikishi Matsuri
  15. Inside Hikone Castle (“very cool”)
  1. Yanana at Yuru-kyara Mascot Character Festival
  2. Nagahama Hikiyama Matsuri
  3. Hachiman Matsuri
  4. Sakata Shinmeigu Yakko-furi
  5. Aburahi Matsuri Yakko-furi
  6. Kenketo Matsuri Dance, Koka
  7. Kenketo Matsuri, Ryuo
  8. Hino Matsuri
  9. Nyu Chawan Matsuri
  10. Iba-no-saka-kudashi Matsuri
  11. Shichikawa Matsuri
  12. Painting “yorokobu” (喜) kanji meaning “happy” on Yokaichi giant kite.
  1. Naginata Odori
  2. Omizo Matsuri
  3. Hyozu Matsuri
  4. Sushi-Cutting Festival
  5. Higashi-Omi Giant Kite Festival
  6. Yuki Saiden Rice-Planting Festival
  7. Biwako Shuko no Uta song monument
  8. Rowing on Lake Biwa, Imazu
  9. Rowing on Lake Biwa, Hikone
  10. Yokaichi Shotoku Matsuri
  11. Taga Taisha Lantern Festival
  12. Otsu Summer Festival Fireworks
  13. Imazu Jr. High Rowing Club on Lake Biwa
  14. Kyoto University Rowing Club on Lake Biwa
  15. Hinade Shrine Sumo Odori
  1. Suijo Hachiman Taiko Odori
  2. Ibuki-yama Taiko Odori
  3. Asahi Honen Taiko Odori (Coming soon)
  4. Maibara Hikiyama Matsuri
  5. Otsu Matsuri (Coming soon)
  6. Yuru-kyara Mascot Gathering with singer Hashi Yukio (No other video)
  7. Hikone Castle Festival
  8. Omi Jingu Yabusame Horseback Archery (Video coming soon)
  9. Koka Ninja House
  10. Koka Ninja Village
  11. Takatora Summit in Kora
  12. Hikone Castle Tourist Ambassador
  13. Hikone Castle
  14. Otsu Tourist Ambassador
  15. Maibara Hikiyama Matsuri

Skiing in Shiga Prefecture

Mt. Ibuki

Skiing on Mt. Ibuki in the good old days.

Updated: Jan. 14, 2017

For information about current snow conditions at Shiga Prefecture’s ski slopes, see Snow Japan’s useful Shiga Prefecture ski resort page in English.

For the weather forecast at Shiga Prefecture’s ski slopes, see Weathernews (in Japanese, Adobe Flash required) for Akoyama Snow Pal | Biwako Valley | Hakodateyama | Kunizakai Kogen Snow Park | Kutsuki Snow Park | Makino Kogen | Oku-Ibuki | Yogo Kogen Resort Yap

Every winter, I’ve always contemplated writing about skiing in Shiga Prefecture. I never did it until now because I just don’t think the quality of snow in Shiga is up to snuff. I also haven’t skied on all of Shiga’s slopes so I can’t comment on any of them except Mt. Ibuki which has since closed.

Shiga is hardly a place I would recommend or brag about for skiing. I once spent an entire winter in Hokkaido where I went skiing every weekend. Once you experience such pristine snow, anywhere else in Japan (except maybe Tohoku) just doesn’t compare. But I understand that Shiga’s slopes are convenient for many people in Osaka/Kyoto coming to Shiga to ski. It’s better than nothing, and good for kids and beginners who don’t mind slushy snow.

Nakayama Saijiro

Statue of Nakayama Saijiro on Mt. Ibuki’s 3rd station.

But there is actually something to brag about skiing in Shiga. It so happens that Mt. Ibuki in Maibara is one of the first places where skiing started in the Kansai region. Mt. Ibuki was also where people first began skiing in Shiga. All thanks to Nakayama Saijiro (中山再次郎 1867-1963), principal of a high school in Kyoto (forerunner of Toba High School 鳥羽高校) who was a pioneer in spreading the sport of skiing in the Kansai region.

He started bringing his students annually to Mt. Ibuki for skiing from around 1913-14, a century ago. They hiked up to the 3rd station (san-gome) and skied around the 3rd and 4th stations. It must’ve been quite an exercise without ski lifts.

In 1920, the first Mt. Ibuki skiing competition (第1回伊吹山雪艇大会) was held under the supervision of Principal Saijiro Nakayama. And in 1937, the 5th national skiing competition (第5回全国スキー大会) was held on Mt. Ibuki.

Nakayama sensei had learned how to ski from an Austrian. His bronze statue can be found on Mt. Ibuki’s 3rd station. Nakayama sensei also happens to be my grandfather’s high school principal in Kyoto. However, I’m told that my grandfather wasn’t into skiing so he might not have been one of the students who went to Ibuki to learn to ski.

It wasn’t until Dec. 1956 when the Mt. Ibuki Ski Grounds (伊吹スキー場) opened for business at the 1st to 3rd stations by Ohmi Railways. Ski lifts were finally built by Aug. 1958 up to the 3rd station. More modern ski lifts were constructed in the late 1960s and mid-1980s. In Jan. 1989, a gondola lift going from the foot of the mountain all the way to the 3rd station opened. The gondola cabins could carry six people.

Mt. Ibuki

Mt. Ibuki Ski Grounds at 3rd station.

Due to a chronic lack of snow, fewer skiers in Japan, and the more popular Oku-Ibuki Ski Grounds (opened in 1970) further north, the original Ibuki Ski Grounds closed in Oct. 2005 after 48 years in business. A Tokyo-based company bought and took over the ski facilities, but it closed the ski grounds in 2008 citing the lack of snow and skiers. The gondola kept operating only during the summer hiking season, but it too was shut down in 2011. Today, Oku-Ibuki with better snow, better runs, and convenient roads is the ski area of choice in Shiga. The old Mt. Ibuki Ski Grounds now sees paragliders and campers instead.

Makino

Makino Highland Ski Grounds in spring.

Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the lake in Makino village (now part of Takashima), another skiing pioneer named Hiroi Shinnosuke (広井親之助) found that skiing was feasible at Makino. Hiroi was a physical education teacher at Imazu High School (forerunner of Takashima High School). Inspired by Nakayama Saijiro, he started developing skiing in Makino from Jan. 1917 and called it Makino Ski Grounds (牧野スキー場).

In 1925, Hiroi sensei held a skiing contest sponsored by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper in Osaka. Most of the contestants were local elementary to high school kids. Since Makino was still quite isolated transportation-wise, few people from afar participated.

Thus, Mt. Ibuki and Makino Highland are among the oldest ski grounds in Kansai along with Hyogo Prefecture’s Kannabe Highland and Hyonosen  (神鍋山、氷の山).

In Dec. 1929, Makino Ski Grounds was renamed in katakana (マキノスキー場) when it turned commercial as a joint venture by Keihan Railways and the Lake Biwa cruise company named Taiko Kisen (太湖汽船). Since “Makino” in katakana became widely known in the Kansai region because of the ski grounds, it was adopted in 1955 as the newly-formed town’s name when Makino village merged with three neighboring villages. The town of Makino-cho (マキノ町) thereby became Japan’s first municipality to have a katakana name. (Makino is now part of the city of Takashima.)

Makino

Makino became Japan’s first municipality to have a katakana name, thanks to skiing. JR Makino Station is also in katakana.

Modern skiing was first introduced to Japan in 1911 in Takada (Joetsu), Niigata Prefecture by an Austrian who used it for military training. Skiing soon spread and developed as a recreational sport beginning with northern Japan. In the early years, popular ski grounds in Japan were usually in onsen hot-spring areas. Local ryokan inns, etc., catered to the skiers and made investments to expand skiing facilities. By the 1930s, Japan had a ski boom as the masses got turned on to skiing. Japan National Railways operated extra “ski trains” to Mt. Ibuki. From 1930, Keihan Railways operated direct trains from Osaka/Kyoto to Hama-Otsu Port where skiers would transfer to Taiko Kisen’s “ski boats” (スキー船) for Kaizu Port near Makino.

Skiers from Kyoto/Osaka would take an evening train to Hama-Otsu and board the ski boat at Hama-Otsu Port. The boat departed at 12 midnight and the skiers slept overnight onboard. When the boat arrived at Kaizu Port in the early morning around 5 am, the skiers walked or took a bus for Makino Ski Grounds. After skiing during the day, the skiers would return and board the boat departing Kaizu Port at 5 pm for Hama-Otsu. The ski boat proved to be popular with day-trip skiers from Kyoto and Osaka on the weekends. These ski trains and boats made Makino Ski Grounds viable since Makino was way out in the boondocks and had no onsen or other attractions to fall back on. Keep in mind that they still didn’t have ski lifts. Something unimaginable today.

Then in 1931, the Kojaku Railway (forerunner of the JR Kosei Line) from Hama-Otsu Station was extended to Imazu Station close to Makino. This brought even more skiers to Makino. By the early 1960s, the road to Makino improved enough for ski buses to carry skiers directly from the Kansai region to Makino, replacing the ski boats and eliminating the troublesome transfers between trains and boats.

A ski lift finally opened in Makino in 1956, and another was added in 1964 funded by the town and Kojaku Railway.

However, Makino suffered a drastic drop in skiers after Hira Ski Grounds opened in 1961 (closed in 2004), Hakodateyama in Imazu opened in 1962, and Biwako Valley (originally named Sankei Valley) opened in 1965. Since these new ski areas were closer, skiers from Kyoto/Osaka flocked to them.

Although you can still ski at Makino Kogen Highland, its low altitude, slushy snow, gentle slopes, and lack of variation in ski runs relegate it to mainly beginners and sled-toting kids. However, Makino still attracts hikers and nature lovers in the warmer seasons. It even has a hot-spring facility.

Japan’s skiing population has dropped dramatically since the turn of this century. Fewer people are willing to take the time, trouble, and expense to go skiing. I’m sure everyone thinks it’s a lot of trouble before they go out the door. But once you’re on the slopes with skis on and feeling the rush, you think that it was all worth it. And at the end of the day when you soak in an onsen, it makes winter worthwhile and memorable.

  • Whenever you write about skiing in Shiga, be sure to say “Shiga Prefecture” instead of just “Shiga.” It’s to avoid confusion with Shiga Kogen Highlands (志賀高原) in Nagano Prefecture which is another ski area and the much more famous “Shiga.”
  • More info on Shiga’s ski areas in English: http://www.snowjapan.com/japan-ski-resorts/prefecture/shiga

Major sources for this article:

  • びわ湖検定実行委員会「琵琶湖検定公式問題解説集」2008年
  • 野間晴雄「マキノ町扇状地群の開発と土地利用」、1987年
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