Things to know before visiting Shiga Prefecture

1. Shiga Prefecture is easy to find on a map of Japan. Just look for the large blue lake near the center of Honshu island. It is next to Kyoto. From Tokyo, Shiga is on the way to Kyoto.

2. Shiga Prefecture’s claim to fame is Lake Biwa (Biwako), Japan’s largest lake and water supply for 14 million people in the Kyoto-Osaka area. Lake Biwa is one of the world’s oldest lakes dating back 4 million years, home to over 70 endemic species found nowhere else in the world.


Chikubushima, home of Goddess Benzaiten (Benten).

3. Shiga’s most famous tourist sights include Enryakuji Temple (World Heritage Site) on Mt. Hiei, Hikone Castle (National Treasure), Chikubushima island in northern Lake Biwa, Shigaraki pottery district, Harie, Koka Ninja House, numerous National Treasure buildings, and traditional townscapes.

hikone castle

Hikone Castle in spring.

4. Shiga’s most compact and convenient tourist cities are Otsu, Kusatsu, Omi-Hachiman, Hikone, and Nagahama. These cities have multiple tourist sights within a compact area. They also usually have English-speaking staff at the tourist information desk in the train station. Larger cities like Higashi-Omi, Koka, and Takashima have tourist sights spread out over a wide area which may require more time to visit.

5. When traveling by shinkansen high-speed train, Kyoto Station and Maibara Station are the most convenient for Shiga. Kyoto Station is near southern and western Shiga (Otsu, Kusatsu, and Takashima), while Maibara Station is convenient for visiting northern or eastern Shiga (Hikone, Nagahama, Maibara, Omi-Hachiman, Higashi-Omi). Both Kyoto and Maibara Stations have local train lines that go to other areas of Shiga.

Lake Biwa

Northern Lake Biwa

Southern Lake Biwa

Southern Lake Biwa

6. The eastern and southern sides of the lake are the most populated and developed, so the JR Biwako/Tokaido Line runs through here frequently. In contrast, the west side and northern side of the lake are more rural and the JR Kosei Line runs less frequently. Shiga is well connected to Kyoto/Osaka through local train lines.


Cycling past Shirahige Shrine in Takashima.

7. Most train stations in Shiga have rental bicycles. You can rent a bicycle at one train station and return it at another station. High-end bicycles for long-distance cycling can be rented at Maibara Station. Bicycling around the lake (called “Biwa-ichi”) takes two (via Biwako Ohashi Bridge) or three days.

Nagahama Hikiyama Matsuri

Nagahama Hikiyama Matsuri

8. Shiga’s major festivals (matsuri) include Sagicho Matsuri in Omi-Hachiman in mid-March, Nagahama Hikiyama Matsuri in mid-April, Sanno Matsuri in Otsu in mid-April, Otsu Matsuri in Oct., and Hikone Castle Festival Parade in Nov. Detailed festival schedule here.


Kaizu Osaki in April.

9. Shiga’s most beautiful cherry blossoms in April are at Hikone Castle, Nagahama Castle, and Kaizu-Osaki northern lakeshore. More about Shiga’s cherry blossoms here.

Genkyuen Garden

Genkyuen Garden and Hikone Castle in fall.

10. Shiga’s famous spots for autumn leaves in Nov. are the Koto Sanzan Temples (Saimyoji, Kongorinji, and Hyakusaiji) and Eigenji Temple in eastern Shiga. At Genkyuen Garden next to Hikone Castle, the autumn leaves are lit up in the evenings, creating beautiful reflections on the pond.


Funazushi is like cheesy fish.

11. Shiga delicacies include fermented fish called funazushi made with endemic lake carp called nigorobuna, locally-grown wagyu beef called Omi-gyu, red devil’s tongue (aka-konnyaku), Omi tea, and Club Harie Baumkuchen cake.

Shigaraki tanuki statues

Shigaraki tanuki statues

12. Shiga’s famous souvenirs include Shigaraki pottery (especially tanuki racoon dog statues), Lake Biwa freshwater pearls, Omi sensu folding fans, Otsu-e paintings/prints, Hiko-nyan dolls, and Shiga die-cut postcards sold only at post offices in Shiga.

13. It is possible to go completely around Lake Biwa by train, but it is not a continuous, looping train ride. You will have to transfer trains at least twice, usually at Yamashina Station in Kyoto and Omi-Shiotsu Station in Nagahama. But it’s not a tourist thing to go completely around Lake Biwa by train. Only the JR Kosei Line along the west side of the lake gives nice views of the lake.

14. “Omi” (also spelled “Ohmi”) is one word you may often see in Shiga. It was the former name of Shiga before Japan’s modern era and still synonymous with “Shiga.” It is also used as a prefix in place names or train station names such as “Omi-Hachiman” to distinguish it from other places named “Hachiman.”

“Heiwado” is another word you may often see as Shiga’s most ubiquitous and beloved corporate brand. It is a supermarket and local department store chain near major train stations. Great place to buy local food and souvenirs.

15. Staying at a hotel in Shiga (especially in Otsu) would be viable even for visiting Kyoto. Finding a hotel room in Shiga may be easier (like the capsule hotel in Otsu Station). Otsu is a short train ride to Kyoto (JR line or Keihan Line).

16. Shiga Prefecture is not be confused with the famous Shiga Kogen Highland ski area in Nagano Prefecture, a totally different place.

*To find out more interesting things about Shiga, take the Shiga Image Quiz.

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The Birth of Chikubushima

Although Shiga has many local legends and folktales, only a few are nationally famous. And fewer still are in English. So I’ve started writing English versions of some of Shiga Prefecture’s legends and folktales.

One problem is that these stories usually have different sources, versions, interpretations, and adaptations in Japanese. Instead of trying to decide which is the original or better version and translating it, I’ve created my own adaptation in English based on the basic storyline.

My first Shiga folktale in English I’m putting online perhaps matches the current rainy season. Enjoy!

The Birth of Chikubushima

by Philbert Ono, based on an old folktale.


Once upon a time in northern Omi, the great Mount Ibuki-yama stood high and proud. He was the god Tatamihiko (多々美比古命).

Every day, Ibuki-yama would boast, “Ha! Look at me, I am the highest mountain in all of Omi! Whichever way I look, all the other mountains are below me!”

While the other mountains were often covered with clouds and rain and beaten by the wind, Ibuki-yama stood high and clear above the clouds.

But one summer, the clouds were so thick and high that they also covered Ibuki-yama. All the mountains were hidden by dark clouds and rain.

With nothing to do, Ibuki-yama decided to sleep. He went into a deep slumber for days. “Zzzzz…”

After many long days of clouds and rain, the big, blue sky appeared once again. Ibuki-yama awoke and exclaimed, “Wonderful! It’s sunny today!”

He started to look in all directions with a big smile on his face, seeing all the mountains lower than him. In the south, there was Ryozen, a big but lower mountain. Even when he looked west, far across the lake at the Hira mountains, none were higher.

But when he looked north, “Whoa, what is that??!!” It was an unbelievable sight.

He rubbed his eyes to make sure he was seeing correctly. But he still couldn’t believe it. There was a mountain higher than Ibuki-yama!!

He angrily called out, “Hey you there! Aren’t you Azai-dake?!!”

“Yes uncle, it’s me, Azai-dake.” Mount Azai-dake was the goddess Azai-hime (浅井比売命). Azai-dake was actually related to Ibuki-yama because they belonged to the same mountain range.

“How dare you grow taller than me while I was asleep! You must return to your original height at once!”

“What?? Are you kidding me? I can become taller if I want to!!” Azai-dake was defiant like a rebellious teenager.

No matter how Ibuki-yama looked at Azai-dake, she still looked taller than him. He kept bellowing, “Lower yourself!” or “Become shorter!” But Azai-dake only ignored him and didn’t even bother to answer.

Finally, Ibuki-yama could not stand it anymore. He drew out a large sword and yelled, “Ei OHHH!!!”

Azai-dake shrieked, “Hii-EEE!!!” Ibuki-yama swung the sword in one quick stroke and cleanly cut off Azai-dake’s head.

Her head tumbled down the west side of the mountain. All the neighboring mountains were shocked to see the rolling head, especially nearby Odani-yama and Yamamoto-yama when the head passed by. “Oh my GOD, what happened to you??!!” The Azai-dake peak kept rolling, GORO-GORO-GORO!!!

Meanwhile in Lake Biwa, all the fish were also frightened by the big rumbling sound becoming louder and louder. The King of Lake Biwa, Biwako O-namazu (ビワコオオナマズ), ordered, “Hurry everyone! Swim away toward Takashima as quickly as you can!” Takashima was on the opposite shore of the lake.

Some moments later, BA-SHAAAAN!!! ZA-BUUUN!!! Azai-dake’s head splashed into Lake Biwa. It rolled through the lake and left a muddy, brown trail in the blue water. At the same time, monster waves rippled across the entire lake and even sloshed against the white sands of Omi-Maiko. The green pine trees on the white beach almost drowned.

Azai-dake’s head finally stopped in the middle of northern Lake Biwa. The top part of the head stuck out from the water and became a small island.

Since Azai-dake’s head made bubbly sounds like Tsubu-tsubu-zubu when it went through the water, the island was named “Tsububushima” (都布夫島).

After the water became calm and clear again, King Biwako O-namazu, who was a Lake Biwa Giant Catfish, inspected Tsububushima underwater. “This is a great place for fish to live! This steep and rocky underwater habitat is perfect.” Many happy fish like funa carp, catfish, and eels then started living around Tsububushima. Bamboo also started growing on the island, making it green. The island was then renamed “Chikubushima” (竹生島), meaning “Bamboo Birth Island.” Although Azai-dake died, she brought forth new life and new habitats.

Ancient people living around Lake Biwa thousands of years ago made dugout canoes and rowed from Nagahama to Chikubushima. Even then, they must have felt something sacred and divine about the island. From the 5th century, they started to build shrines and temples on the island to worship the goddess Azai-hime and other gods. After all, the island was once Azai-dake. And Mount Ibuki lived happily ever after, knowing that he was Omi’s highest mountain without question. THE END

Chikubushima (Click on image to see more photos.)

Chikubushima and Mt. Ibuki

Chikubushima and Mt. Ibuki as seen from Imazu, Takashima.

Mt. Kanakuso and Mt. Ibuki

Mt. Kanakuso-dake and Mt. Ibuki as seen from the Hokuriku Line in winter.

Mt. Ibuki (伊吹山) is Shiga’s highest mountain in Maibara at 1,377 meters. Azai-dake is Mt. Kanakuso-dake (金糞岳) in Nagahama, northwest of Mt. Ibuki. It is Shiga’s second highest mountain at 1,317 meters and part of the Ibuki mountain range.

Chikubushima has a circumference of 2 km. If we add Chikubushima’s 197-meter height to Kanakuso-dake’s height, Kanakuso-dake would indeed be higher than Mt. Ibuki.

Chikubushima is home to Hogonji Temple first built in 724 as ordered by the emperor to worship Benzaiten, the goddess of everything that flows: Water, rivers, music, etc. Belonging to the Shingon Buddhist Sect (Buzan School), Hogonji is one of Japan’s three major spots worshipping Benzaiten (other two being Itsukushima Shrine and Enoshima Shrine). Tsukubushima Shrine also worships Benzaiten as well as the Dragon God and Azai-hime.

Many famous samurai, such as Oda Nobunaga and the Azai Clan, worshipped at Chikubushima since they believed Benzaiten had the power to destroy their enemies.

Chikubushima is easily accessible by boat operating daily from Nagahama Port, Hikone Port, and Imazu Port. Boat schedule for Nagahama and Imazu Ports here and for Hikone Port here (in Japanese).

* This English story is my adaptation of the original Japanese folktale, not an exact translation. This means certain parts of this story are figments of my own imagination. The original folktale appears in the Omi-no-Kuni Fudoki (近江国風土記) ancient chronicles of Omi Province (Shiga Prefecture).
* The drawing above was created by a close, young relative of mine.
* I welcome submissions of artwork depicting scenes from this folktale. The best ones will be posted on this page and credited to the artist.
* Major reference: 「近江の昔ものがたり」瀬川欣一、サンライズ出版1999年


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