Besides skiing, what else can we do in Shiga in winter? Let me suggest a snow cruise on Lake Biwa. After a snowfall, the snowy mountains around Lake Biwa are very scenic on sunny days, especially up north. I enjoyed it in late January 2021.
Just ride one of the regular boats going to Chikubushima island from Hikone, Nagahama, or Imazu Port. The 30-minute winter cruise (one-way) is enough time to see the alpine snowscapes from the lake. The boat is warm and roomy with comfortable seats and large picture windows. Very relaxing. The boat even plays Biwako Shuko no Uta (Lake Biwa Rowing Song) as part of its narration about the lake.
You can either go on a round trip cruise from Hikone/Nagahama/Imazu to Chikubushima or traverse the lake from Nagahama (east shore) to Imazu (west shore) via Chikubushima (or vice versa). I recommend the latter if you have the time. Then you can see most all of the northern mountains in snow. That’s what I did.
Boat cruise company Biwako Kisen (琵琶湖汽船) operates boats from Nagahama and Imazu Ports to Chikubushima, while Omi Marine (オーミマリン) operates from Hikone Port. Reservations are not required. Just buy the ticket at the port and sit anywhere in the boat.
For people in Otsu or for people who want to cruise longer than 30 or 40 minutes, Biwako Kisen also offers a snow cruise in February from Otsu Port to Nagahama, taking 2 hours and 20 min. The highlight is the southwestern mountains such as Mt. Hiei and the Hira Mountains. Reservations required (details below).
Be aware that during the winter months, there are fewer boat runs and they may operate only on the weekends and national holidays. The boat cruise schedule is also different (more frequent) during the year-end and New Year’s period (around Dec. 25 to Jan. 3) when people want to worship at Chikubushima. Be sure to check the boat schedule (links below) before you go. It can be complicated.
Combining a snow cruise with a visit to a place you’ve never been to would be ideal. Chikubushima is a must-see. If you’ve already been to Chikubushima, but only before March 2020, then you should definitely visit again. The island’s Hogonji Temple and Karamon Gate have been beautifully renovated and restored to their original splendor. They are National Treasures. (See photos below.)
Wearing a mask is required, and the boat is usually not so crowded.
Nagahama Port <—> Chikubushima Round Trip Winter Cruise
From Nagahama Port during winter 2022 (Jan. 4 to March 4, 2022), boats depart daily at 10:10 am and 12:50 pm, arriving Chikubushima 30 min. later.
You can then spend 85 min. on Chikubushima. The return boat leaves at 12:05 pm and 2:40 pm and arrives Nagahama 30 min. later.
Roundtrip fare is ¥3,130 for adults, ¥2,500 for high school and older students, and ¥1,570 for elementary school children.
More info (English): https://www.biwakokisen.co.jp/en/chikubushima_en_3.html
Hikone Port <—> Chikubushima Round Trip Winter Cruise
From Hikone Port on weekends and national holidays in winter until Feb. 28, 2022 (also Jan. 1st–5th), boats go to Chikubushima at 9:00 am, 10:00 am, 12 noon, and 2:00 pm. It takes 40 to 45 min. to Chikubushima.
The return boat leaves Chikubushima at 11 am, 12 noon, 1:55 pm, and 3:50 pm and arrives Hikone Port 40 min. later. Roundtrip boat fare is ¥3,000 for adults, ¥2,400 for jr. high school and older students, and ¥1,500 for elementary school children.
There are also shuttle buses from JR Hikone Station to Hikone Port when the boats operate.
More info (in Japanese): https://www.ohmitetudo.co.jp/marine/time-table_hikone-chikubushima-hikone_normal/
Imazu Port <—> Chikubushima Round Trip Winter Cruise
From Imazu Port on weekends and national holidays during winter 2022 (Jan. 4 to March 4, 2022), boats leave at 10:40 am and 1:10 pm, arriving Chikubushima 25 min. later.
You can then spend 85 min. or 75 min. on Chikubushima. The return boat leaves at 12:30 pm and 2:50 pm and arrives Imazu 30 min. later. Roundtrip fare is ¥2,640 for adults, ¥2,120 for high school and older students, and ¥1,320 for elementary school children.
More info (English): https://www.biwakokisen.co.jp/en/chikubushima_en_2.html
Nagahama Port <—> Chikubushima <—> Imazu Port Round Trip Winter Cruise (Biwako Traverse Route)
If you want to cross the lake between Nagahama and Imazu in winter, you have to do it on a weekend or national holiday when boats run from/to Imazu Port. For example, you can leave Nagahama Port at 10:10 am, arrive Chikubushima at 10:40 am, leave Chikubushima at 12:30 pm, and arrive Imazu Port at 1:00 pm. Boat fare is ¥2,880 for adults.
More info (English): https://www.biwakokisen.co.jp/en/chikubushima_en_4.html
Otsu Port <—> Nagahama Port Snow Cruise (Yukimi-sen Cruise 雪見船クルーズ)
For people in Otsu, Biwako Kisen also offers a Snow-Viewing (Yukimi) Cruise between Otsu and Nagahama Ports on weekends, Mondays, and national holidays during Jan. 29 to February 28, 2022. The highlight would be the southern/western mountains such as Mt. Hiei and the Hira Mountains if there’s snow. The cruise is 2 hours and 20 min. long, and it will also pass by Ukimido Floating Temple, Biwako Ohashi Bridge, Okinoshima island, and Shirahige Shrine (torii in the water). It does not stop at Chikubushima.
The boat leaves Otsu Port at 10 am and arrives Nagahama at 12:20 pm. From Nagahama Port, it leaves at 2 pm and arrives Otsu Port at 4:50 pm. The boat may also stop at Otsu Prince Hotel (Niono-hama Port) and Ogoto Onsen Port if there are passengers requesting a stop. No eating and drinking alcoholic beverages on the boat.
Reservations required and if they don’t have at least 15 passengers, the cruise will be canceled. One-way cruise fare is ¥3,500 for adults and ¥1,750 for elementary school children. Round trip from Otsu will be ¥5,000 and ¥2,500 respectively. (FYI, return train fare from Nagahama to Otsu is ¥1,170 and the train ride takes a little over an hour.)
More info (in Japanese): https://www.biwakokisen.co.jp/season_event/115/https://www.biwakokisen.co.jp/season_event/115/
・Nagahama Port is a 15-min. walk from JR Nagahama Station.
・Imazu Port is a short walk from JR Omi-Imazu Station.
・Hikone Port might be too far to walk from JR Hikone Station. So there is a shuttle bus from the station when boats operate.
・Otsu Port is near Biwako Hama-Otsu Station.
More photos: 200+ photos of Chikubushima, Hogonji Temple, and snow cruise
Folk tale: The Birth of Chikubushima
Sakura Cherry Blossom Cruise (April) from Imazu Port to Kaizu-Osaki: https://shiga-ken.com/blog/2017/04/sakura-cruises-to-kaizu-osaki/