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  • Writer's pictureOlivier

Japan: Lake Biwa, 9 Photographic Sites Between History and Minimalism

Updated: 4 days ago

Lake Biwa is located in the Shiga Prefecture in Japan, about 20 kilometers from the city of Kyoto. It is the largest freshwater lake in Japan and plays a crucial role both ecologically and culturally. Biwa, renowned for its natural beauty, biodiversity, and historical significance, has also become a source of inspiration for many photographers in recent years. Fans of long exposures, minimalism, and history, get your cameras ready.


Japan: Lake Biwa, 9 Photographic Sites Between History and Minimalism

Undoubtedly, the lakeside landscapes of Biwa offer photographers unique subjects inherent to Japanese culture, such as Torii gates or temple pavilions. Apart from these man-made elements, the geographical and environmental features are not really different from European lakes.


After spending many years photographing the shores of Lake Biwa, I have observed, not without surprise, that its landscapes do not undergo the territorial and urban expansion that our European lakes unfortunately have to endure. The actions taken by the government in terms of protection, as well as the commitment of local communities, allow Biwa to maintain very interesting natural backgrounds.


However, even though Biwa is beautiful in all seasons and locations, there are only a handful of spots that stand out for minimalist photography. And since they are not that numerous, finding them is another story.


Therefore, to save you numerous trips and hours of searching, here is the list of the 9 best spots that I recommend for photographing Lake Biwa and its surroundings, while being assured of capturing very good shots.


My equipment: GITZO Traveler. The ultra-stable, compact, and lightweight carbon 5-section tripod for travel photography.

My equipment: GITZO Traveler. The ultra-stable, compact, and lightweight carbon 5-section tripod for travel photography.


Introduction

Lake Biwa formed about 4 million years ago and is one of the oldest freshwater lakes in the world. Its name comes from the shape of the lake, which resembles a traditional Japanese musical instrument, the Biwa.


The lake covers an area of about 670 km². It is divided into two main parts: the Greater Lake (Ōmi) to the north and the Lesser Lake (Kōmi) to the south. Both offer interesting photographic subjects, though the Greater Lake is more open and conducive to minimalist photography.


The Greater Lake has a depth of about 104 meters. The Lesser Lake, on the other hand, is much shallower. The lake is 65 km long and 30 km wide. To circle it, you would need to travel 240 km. Lake Biwa shares interesting similarities with its Franco-Swiss cousin, Lake Geneva. Their surface areas are approximately similar, and their geometries are also alike.


I have had the advantage and honor of photographing Lake Geneva since 1995. And I am the first to acknowledge that this lake benefits from an exceptional geographical situation and shores conducive to photography, particularly in long exposures.


However, Lake Biwa offers two major advantages for photographers seeking minimalist landscapes. On one hand, unlike Lake Geneva, the shores of Lake Biwa are not (abusively) semi-privatized by the riparian owners, and on the other hand, to the north, Biwa has a very interesting protected wetland area. Read the full article on the history and characteristics of Lake Biwa.

 

Contents of this article:





 
Japan: Lake Biwa, 9 Photographic Sites Between History and Minimalism

How to Get to Lake Biwa

The city of Otsu is the inevitable starting point for your journey around Biwa.

There are 2 ways to get to Otsu: either by road or by train. You must have a vehicle to tour the lake. There is no alternative, and the distances are significant.


If you are arriving from Kyoto and already have a rental car, getting to Otsu is very easy. The route is direct but can take time depending on the hour and traffic. It is about 15 to 20 km, depending on the route you choose.


Given the frequent traffic jams between these two cities, I strongly recommend traveling to Otsu by train from Kyoto Station. The journey only takes 25 minutes and avoids traffic problems. You can then pick up the rental car you reserved before arriving in Japan. The company Orix, which we have been using for over 10 years now, is located a 10-minute walk from the Biwako-Hamaotsu station in Otsu and offers very competitive rates.


Once you have picked up your vehicle and completed the numerous administrative formalities, I advise starting your journey on the left shore of the lake. Indeed, it is on this shore that the 2 major spots are located, which you will surely want to see first. These are, of course, the Shirahige Shrine and its famous Torii on the water, and the Mangetsuji Temple with its famous floating pavilion known as Ukimido.


My equipment: URTH+. High-definition ND filters with Japanese glass. Remarkable for landscape photography and long exposures.

My equipment: URTH+. High-definition ND filters with Japanese glass. Remarkable for landscape photography and long exposures.

 

The Best Spots for Photographing Lake Biwa


I. The Left Shore of Lake Biwa


1. Ukimido Pavilion of Mangetsuji Temple

Mangetsuji Temple is located about 15 km from the city of Otsu, on the left shore of the lake. It takes about 30 minutes to get there. Leaving the city of Otsu via the left shore inevitably leads you towards Mangetsuji Temple.


It has become famous in recent years due to the countless photos of its pavilion on the water posted on social media. While this small temple is very interesting to visit, paradoxically, its "floating" pavilion is most spectacular when viewed from the outside.


Japan: Lake Biwa, 9 Photographic Sites Between History and Minimalism

To get to Mangetsuji and the Ukimido Pavilion, you will need to leave the main road by turning right towards Honkatata at the Ogiguchi intersection. You will then reach a small village where you can park your vehicle in one of the (free) parking lots.


Do not attempt to park your car on the side of the road. This common practice in Europe is prohibited in Japan. The narrowness of the streets in urban areas and villages does not allow parking without compromising the safety of other users. And as you will have noticed upon arriving in Japan, the safety of people and the respect of rules are conditions that the Japanese take very seriously.


Once you have visited the (small) Mangetsuji Temple, you can head north on foot for about a hundred meters and take a small path on the right (along a canal). This will lead you to the famous viewpoint of the Ukimido Pavilion. As this place is public, you can stay as long as you wish. Read the full article.


My equipment: MANFROTTO Pro Light Frontloader. The lightweight and practical backpack for urban photography. Design, durability, and waterproofing.

My equipment: MANFROTTO Pro Light Frontloader. The lightweight and practical backpack for urban photography. Design, durability, and waterproofing.

 

2. Shirahige Shrine

Shirahige-jinja is located on the left shore of Lake Biwa, about 40 km from the city of Otsu. It takes about 50 minutes to get there (via the left shore of the lake). This shrine has also been generously popularized in recent years with the influx of many photographers eager for exoticism and Japanese symbols.


When I started photographing this shrine many years ago, the Shirahige Torii was almost unknown, even to locals. I have spoken with residents of Shiga Prefecture who were unaware of this place. When I exhibited my photographs of Biwa in Tokyo, some visitors even confused this Torii with that of Miyajima Island (Itsukushima-jinja) near Hiroshima, which is quite different in terms of dimensions and architecture.


Japan: Lake Biwa, 9 Photographic Sites Between History and Minimalism

When you arrive at the Shirahige Shrine, you can park your car in the free parking lot located on the left, directly within the shrine's grounds. You will then realize that the tranquility conveyed by photographs of this Torii does not at all reflect reality. Indeed, to approach this Torii, you need to cross the main road quickly.


Depending on the time, the traffic is very heavy at this spot. Additionally, since the temple is located on a bend, visibility is almost nil, making the situation very dangerous. Paradoxically, nothing is done to ensure the safe crossing of the thousands of tourists who visit this shrine each year.


The situation is even more perilous as many photographers (myself included) venture along the road with their tripods to vary their viewpoints (see the photo on the right below). There is no sidewalk. At most, a grassy strip separates the roadway from the wall that runs along the lake. And being brushed by speeding trucks while immersing yourself in such a tranquil landscape can be very disconcerting.



Then, you will have to deal with the deafening noise of this road throughout your photo session. And believe me, it's particularly disturbing. You will find a staircase with wide steps that will allow you to set up your tripod without disturbing the dozen other photographers who, like you, will have risked their lives crossing the road to finally capture these magical moments.


Although this place is becoming increasingly crowded with visitors, most of them do not stay long. However, it becomes difficult to position yourself in line with the Torii without disturbing several people. Therefore, I strongly recommend visiting early in the morning or on rainy days. At these times, you will have the site to yourself.


Do not hesitate to move to the left and right of this traditional staircase. Even though, as I mentioned earlier, the road limits possibilities, you will find other interesting viewpoints of the Torii. Lateral views allow you to appreciate its anchoring structure in the lake, made of four reinforcement pillars. Finally, a visit at the end of the day to watch the sunset behind the Torii is a spectacle not to be missed.


Before leaving, also take the time to discover this shrine which is not just a Torii on the water. It offers other advantages for photographers, not to mention its cultural value. Read the full article.


My equipment: PGYTECH Camera Clip. Walk hands-free with the camera always available.

My equipment: PGYTECH Camera Clip. Walk hands-free with the camera always available.

 

II. The Right Shore of Lake Biwa


3. The Fishing Structures

You will frequently see countless wooden or plastic stakes planted in the lake. These structures are actually used to secure fishing nets. They offer a unique spectacle that is highly prized by minimalist photographers. Although you can see them in the distance, it is not easy to approach them at a distance that allows for photography without telephoto lenses.


Japan: Lake Biwa, 9 Photographic Sites Between History and Minimalism

However, several parking lots and rest areas exist along the right shore. It is not too difficult to find one where you can comfortably photograph these structures while parking your car for free.


These fishing stakes, however, are moved throughout the seasons and over the years. Therefore, it is not possible to recommend a specific spot here. I mention these structures as they are a favored subject that any photographer of lakeside landscapes would want to capture in images.


By systematically stopping at each parking area on the right shore, you will inevitably come across one or another of these eclectic sets of stakes. I have noticed that they are more numerous in the northern part of the lake. However, this should not be taken as an absolute rule, as shown in the photo below taken on the left shore!


Japan: Lake Biwa, 9 Photographic Sites Between History and Minimalism
 
My equipment: GITZO Mini Traveler. The lightweight, practical, and compact carbon tripod. The legendary GITZO quality without any compromise on stability.

My equipment: GITZO Mini Traveler. The lightweight, practical, and compact carbon tripod. The legendary GITZO quality without any compromise on stability.


4. Chomeiji Temple

Located about 35 km from the city of Otsu, it takes about 50 minutes to get there. Nestled on the hill of Omihachiman in the heart of a forest, Chomeiji Temple is of remarkable beauty.


Constructed in the 7th century, it has been preserved and faithfully rebuilt over the centuries. Chomeiji is one of the oldest temples in Japan. Belonging to the Shingon sect, the deity represented in this temple is Kannon. Read my article on Shingon Buddhism.


Chomeiji consists of the classic buildings found in most significant temples, as well as a somewhat secluded Shinto shrine. It is also known for being the 31st temple of the 33 that make up the Saigoku Kannon pilgrimage. It also has a remarkable three-story pagoda containing sacred relics.


© O. Robert


Its position at the top of the hill and the steep terrain invite you to climb the 808 steps of the main staircase if you decide to respect the custom. Alternatively, you can shorten this journey by driving up to the temple's parking lot, which is located about halfway up the steps.


Chomeiji Temple offers a very beautiful view of Lake Biwa. It is a marvel that is a must-visit during your stay in the Shiga Prefecture. Read the full article.


Library: Japanese Buddhism.

Library: Japanese Buddhism

 

5. Hikone Castle

Located about 65 km from the city of Otsu and set back from the lake, it takes about 1.5 hours to reach by car via the road along the lake on the right shore. This castle, and more specifically its gardens, are among the most popular in the country for cherry blossoms.


In early April, visitors from all over the country flock by the thousands to admire and photograph the cherry trees. The site is indeed famous for its thousands of blooming sakura. It also offers a choice setting for enthusiasts of Hanami, a magnificent spectacle in the castle's gardens for all those who appreciate this Japanese spring celebration.


Hikone Castle is classified as a national treasure. Its history begins in the early 17th century, shortly after the end of the Sengoku period. During the Edo period, it played a crucial role in Japanese history.


After the Meiji Restoration period in 1868, Hikone Castle was one of the few castles to be preserved, largely thanks to the efforts of the Ii clan, who originally built it, and the local community.


Japan: Lake Biwa, 9 Photographic Sites Between History and Minimalism

© O. Robert


And if you are familiar with James Clavell's 1980 series "Shogun," Hikone Castle was one of the major locations for filming this iconic series. You will recognize without any difficulty the pathways of this castle, as well as the small lake and the Genkyu-en garden located at the lower part of the estate.


This is the lake on which the protagonists of the series navigated, and the shore where the series' hero taught European history to his Japanese hosts by drawing in the sand. It is a moment of emotion for those, like me, who were fascinated by this series.


However, this castle is not directly linked to Lake Biwa but rather to its history. It remains a must-visit for its photographic potential in all seasons. Read the full article.


Library: Samurai Castles | Shogun, James Clavell

 

6. The Maibara Tree

This tree enjoys an exceptional location. Standing in the water, it has an interesting background on the lake, allowing for easy isolation in your frames. Its shape and position at the water's edge are particularly attractive.


Unfortunately, due to its location, it is especially exposed to the harsh winter winds. In recent years, this tree has lost some major branches, altering its silhouette. The violent storm that hit Biwa in February 2017 severely damaged its shape. Nonetheless, it remains an interesting tree that is worth stopping for a moment to contemplate and photograph if the conditions are right.



You will find it by taking a small path that seems private (but is not) just after the bridge over the Amano River. This path actually leads to a local restaurant. Be careful, it's very easy to miss because you only see it at the last moment. In this case, you will have no choice but to turn around, which can be difficult in Japan on these busy roads. Read the full article.

 

7. Nagahama Castle

Located about 75 km from the city of Otsu on the right shore of Lake Biwa, this small castle is remarkably well-preserved and also serves as a historical museum. Just a few dozen meters from the shore, it also boasts a very beautiful garden. This castle is particularly interesting for photography in the evening or at night.


Although its current structure is a reconstruction, the original castle, built by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, played a key role in the history of feudal Japan.


Japan: Lake Biwa, 9 Photographic Sites Between History and Minimalism

The park surrounding the castle, which extends to the lake, is also of interest. Open day and night without restrictions, the walking path along the lake is equipped with stone lanterns and old pines. The views of the castle from the park, especially through the branches, are numerous.


If you visit in winter, you can also see the support structures for the pine branches called Yukizuri. They greatly contribute to the interest of the scene. Several hotels are located near the castle, allowing for evening strolls and ample time to photograph it. Read the full article.


Japan: Lake Biwa, 9 Photographic Sites Between History and Minimalism
 
Topaz Photo AI: Get the most out of your photos with artificial intelligence. Increase resolution and reduce noise. Standalone software and Photoshop or Lightroom plugins. Try it for free here.

8. The Wetland

Located north of Lake Biwa, 100 km from the city of Otsu on the right shore, this ecologically and ornithologically significant wetland area is remarkable. It is notable for the diversity of its fauna and the landscapes it offers photographers. If you are a fan of bird photography, this place offers a unique source of inspiration.


You can also share your passion with the dozens of local photographers who, every evening, spend a significant amount of time spotting and photographing water birds until sunset. It's also an opportunity to improve your Japanese language skills a bit.


Japan: Lake Biwa, 9 Photographic Sites Between History and Minimalism


If, on the other hand, you are looking for unusual natural landscapes, you are also in the right place. The Wetland has a significant number of islets naturally planted with trees that skim the water's surface. This curious spectacle provides impressive photographic results.


In winter, you will particularly appreciate the graphic quality of these islets lost in the middle of the water. And if you are lucky enough to visit Lake Biwa on a snowy day, you will enjoy the sight of these trees' frost-covered branches amidst the water.



However, be aware that this wetland area is protected and has been classified as a Ramsar site since 1993. As a result, it is not possible to venture close to the shore or water surface. You will find, however, in one or two places, marked trails that allow for walking and getting a bit closer to the water. They do not necessarily offer more interesting photographic viewpoints, though.


Japan: Lake Biwa, 9 Photographic Sites Between History and Minimalism


Therefore, it is from the sidewalk along the main road that you will have to observe this spectacle. And ultimately, it is from this location that you can capture your best images. Inspiration is guaranteed! The sidewalk is significantly elevated above the water level.


This allows you to see over the riparian forest and the abundant vegetation present at the water's edge and over a considerable distance.


Plan to use a telephoto lens or zoom. You won't have any other choice, given the distance separating these islets from the shore. You will also be facing Chikubu-Shima Island.


To visit this place, I recommend parking your car at the Kohoku Mizutori gas station parking lot in Nagahama and then walking north or heading a bit south along the lake's shore from the sidewalk. This region of the lake is often very humid and rainy, which naturally offers optimal conditions for minimalist photography, especially in winter. Read the full article.


My equipment: FERRINO Trekker Rain Cape. The 100% waterproof, comfortable protection with a front opening. Provides perfect coverage for the backpack. Ideal for winter.

My equipment: FERRINO Trekker Rain Cape. The 100% waterproof, comfortable protection with a front opening. Provides perfect coverage for the backpack. Ideal for winter.

 

9. Lake Yogo

Located north of Lake Biwa, 100 km from the city of Otsu and just 15 km from the Wetland, Lake Yogo is another gem of the region. Allow 1.5 hours to get there from Otsu via the toll highway. If you have the time and if the weather conditions are optimal (such as snow), do not hesitate to make a visit, especially if you are already near the Biwa Lake Wetland, which is not very far. This small lake offers a few interesting viewpoints and a relaxing atmosphere.



Surrounded in part by mountains, you can easily walk around Lake Yogo on the only road that runs along its shores. This road is quite narrow, and passing other vehicles can be difficult in heavy snow. That said, I've always found myself quite alone on the shores of Lake Yogo in the middle of winter. It's clearly not a place frequented by locals, and even less by tourists, which is quite enjoyable.


Despite its proximity to Lake Biwa, Lake Yogo experiences more extreme winter conditions conducive to minimalist photography. Therefore, certain precautions are advisable. Read the full article.

 
Luminar Neo: The power of artificial intelligence for producing spectacular commercial images.

Luminar Neo: The power of artificial intelligence for producing spectacular commercial images.


Where to Stay Around Lake Biwa

If you plan to stay several days to fully enjoy the opportunities Lake Biwa offers, you'll need to choose your hotel based on your schedule. Two days are sufficient to explore the shores of Biwa, taking your time to photograph the main spots, but I strongly recommend planning for three full days. This will allow you to also visit notable sites such as the castles and temples described above.


I suggest two very different hotels depending on your expectations and budget. Having stayed at both multiple times, they each offer advantages, particularly in terms of location.


Option 1

You can opt for the Lake Biwa Otsu Prince Hotel, located directly on the shores of the lake in Otsu. This modern hotel consists of a gigantic tower that offers a spectacular view of the lake and the Biwakoohashi Bridge (ask for a room on the higher floors). You will find several traditional restaurants there, but you can also walk into the city, where the choice of restaurants is almost endless.


This hotel is perfectly located if you decide to dedicate a day of photography to each shore, returning to Otsu in the evening. And you might even recognize one of my photographs of Biwa hanging on the wall of the shop. Indeed, the hotel did me the great honor of acquiring this print in 2017.


My library: Japanese Inns and Hot Springs.

My library: Japanese Inns and Hot Springs


Option 2

The other alternative I recommend is the Biwako Hanakaido Hotel. This hotel is a traditional Onsen. Renovated in 2019, the establishment offers Japanese-style rooms only. You can also relax in the Onsen and enjoy those magical moments that only Japan can offer before enjoying an exceptional traditional meal.


Practically speaking, the Biwako Hanakaido Hotel has the advantage of being located a few kilometers from the Mangetsuji Temple. You can thus easily get there early in the morning or return in the evening after dinner (dinner is served very early in Onsen hotels).


Finally, if you prefer to stay on the right shore to avoid traveling back and forth to Otsu, you can cross from one shore to the other by taking the Biwakoohashi Bridge (toll). In this case, it is wise to book a hotel near Nagahama. This places you closer to the Wetland for early morning visits.


From there, you can leisurely visit the castles and temples mentioned above. And you can even make a trip to Lake Yogo. There is a quality hotel a few steps from Nagahama Castle, the Green Hotel. Ideal for photographing the castle at night without worrying about the return as it's just opposite.


My equipment: GITZO Adventury. The ultimate backpack for travel and photo hiking. Comfort, waterproofing, and lightness. The uncompromising quality of GITZO.

My equipment: GITZO Adventury. The ultimate backpack for travel and photo hiking. Comfort, waterproofing, and lightness. The uncompromising quality of GITZO.


The Final Word

This selection of sites does not claim to be exhaustive. It is primarily a personal view of Lake Biwa based on numerous visits. Everyone should discover the shores of this magnificent lake through their lens and uncover other hidden corners.


For me, these 9 sites have always been fascinating to photograph or visit, regardless of the season. They undoubtedly represent the emblems of the lake region, and after several years of exploration, I have not yet found other places of the same photographic interest.

 
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