Shiga is generally noted for surrounding Japan’s largest enclosed body of water, Lake Biwa, but the area has much more to offer than just its impressive lake-side scenery. Though often overshadowed by its acclaimed neighbor, Kyoto, Shiga presents an authentic less-traversed look into Japan’s Kansai region.
Strolling through the capital of Otsu has an anachronistic feel as history collides with modern amenities. You can visit temples that date back to 667 and cross the street into a contemporary bar frequented by students from one of Shiga’s 10 universities. Though you’ll be tempted to stay longer, here’s how you can make the most of just 24 hours in this historic prefecture…
10AM: To the Top of Mt. Heie
Otsu city in Shiga Prefecture is a convenient 10-minute train ride from Kyoto, and about 2.5 hours from Tokyo via Shinkansen. There are one-day passes available through Keihan Railway allowing easy access around town. From Shugakuin Station, you can begin the lovely yet somewhat grueling hike up Mount Hiei (848m), a climb that’s been undertaken since ancient times. Be warned that the paths are narrow and signs only read in Japanese. Alternatively, there is a cable car that takes you right to the top of the summit, overlooking Lake Biwa.
12PM: The Sounds of Silence
Enryakuji Temple is a functioning monastery erected in 788. It’s known as ground zero for the Tendai sect of Buddhism. Nestled on Mt. Hiei, Enryakuji is easy to explore on foot. It’s open from 9am to 4pm free of charge. Some visit just to meditate in the silence of the forest; a place free of tourists and pedestrian noise. It’s said to be so quiet that monks can hear the ash falling from their incense. What you can hear are the sounds of rituals that are still held there today.
2PM: Omihachiman Floats Your Boat
Come back down the mountain to tour the town of Omihachiman. Only 20 minutes from Otsu Station, this historic village with its Edo-style homes and Venice-like canals is quintessential to any Shiga trip. You can cruise down the canals in a boat or walk the tree-shaded streets, reminiscent of Kyoto’s Tetsugaku-no-michi (Philosopher’s Path).
4PM: Pick a Castle
Just east of Omihachiman is the 16th-century Azuchi Castle, and to the north, the Edo-period Hikone Castle. Depending on your architectural preference, head to one of these national land marks, both sporting lavish gardens to picnic in for a late lunch, and both free and open from 9am to 5pm.
6PM: The Biwa Sunset
Spend sunset at Lake Biwa, Shiga’s most well-known attraction. Sit on the beaches in the summer or ice skate in designated areas in the winter. The freshwater lake doesn’t have a bad angle, but the more secluded views on the western and northern coasts can be reached via the JR Kosei Line. There are also a plethora of boats and ferries departing from Otsu or Hikone to take you around the lake and its tiny picturesque islands such as Chikubu-shima and Oki-shima. If you aren’t too templed-out, Chikubu island is home to Hogonji Temple, which often holds festivals in July and August.
8PM: Let Them Eat Carp!
Don’t leave without trying Shiga’s famous cuisine: funa-zushi, a type of fermented sushi made from crucian carp. Relish the dish at Sakamotoya (1-5-21 Nagara, Otsu), just a 12-minute walk from Otsu Station. If you’re looking for a less pungent meal, the prefecture is also known for its Omi beef and green tea (the region’s main export). And if you’re not driving, definitely end your day with a shot of Shiga’s Omi sake.