Japan: Lake Biwa, a Cultural Gem and a Source of Artistic Inspiration
Updated: 1 day ago
Lake Biwa, located in the Shiga Prefecture of Japan, is the country's largest freshwater lake and plays a crucial role both ecologically and culturally. It is renowned for its natural beauty, unique biodiversity, and historical significance. It has also been a source of inspiration for many photographers in recent years.
Certainly, Lake Biwa is the most interesting lake I have had the pleasure of working on in the last 15 years, after Lake Geneva. The geographical similarities between these two lakes are quite intriguing, considering the distance that separates them. Both have been the subject of one of my exhibitions commissioned by the Lake Geneva Museum in Switzerland (2015) and the production of a book.
The easy access to its shores, the photographic subjects, and the variety of landscapes in all seasons make it an extraordinary playground for photographers, regardless of their specialties.
In this article, I am interested in the sites that present an interest for the photography of lake landscapes around Biwa, but also in its history and its geographical or cultural peculiarities. A striking place, a must-visit.
Lake Biwa formed about 4 million years ago and is one of the world's oldest freshwater lakes. Its name comes from the shape of the lake, which resembles a traditional Japanese musical instrument, the Biwa.
The lake has a long history connected to Japanese culture, being mentioned in numerous poems and literary works, notably in the famous book "The Tale of Genji" by Murasaki Shikibu.
Over the centuries, Biwa has been a strategic point for transportation and trade. Many historical sites line its shores, including ancient temples and shrines. It is also associated with numerous legends and religious beliefs.
My Equipment: URTH. High-definition filters for long exposure photography.
Geologically, Lake Biwa is of interest due to its age and formation. It is the result of complex tectonic movements and the volcanic activity in the region. The lake formed in a depression caused by active faults in the area.
Lake Biwa covers an area of about 670 km². It is divided into two main parts: the "Great Lake" (Ōmi) in the north and the "Small Lake" (Kōmi) in the south. Both offer interesting photographic subjects, though the Ōmi, being more open, is more conducive to minimalist photography. The Ōmi has a depth of about 104 meters, while the Kōmi is much shallower.
Biwa is fed by about 460 rivers and streams and has only one outlet, the Seta River, which then becomes the Yodo River supplying the city of Kyoto. Its geographical position, near the former imperial capital, has enhanced its significance over the centuries.
Biodiversity and Ecology
Lake Biwa is known for its rich biodiversity. It hosts several endemic species, meaning species that are found nowhere else in the world. Among these are fish like the Biwa carp and several species of mollusks. The lake plays a crucial role in preserving Japan's freshwater ecosystems.
This biodiversity is particularly observable in the north of the lake in the "Biwako Marshes," also known as "Wetland," classified as a Ramsar site of interest (see below).
Unfortunately, like many aquatic ecosystems, Lake Biwa faces various environmental challenges. Pollution, eutrophication, and the invasion of non-native species are major concerns.
Considerable efforts are being made by the Japanese government and various associations to protect and preserve the lake, including through cleanup programs and environmental awareness initiatives. This undoubtedly motivates the highly committed residents of Shiga Prefecture.
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The Islands of Biwa
Lake Biwa is home to several islands of varying sizes, but there are six that are particularly notable.
1. Chikubu Island: This small island is an important pilgrimage site. It is known for its two religious sites, Hogonji Temple, dedicated to the goddess Benzaiten, and Tsukubusuma Shrine, also called Chikubushima, both rich in history and spirituality.
2. Takeshima Island: Known for its Ryōmusan Kentōji temple.
3. Okishima Island: The only permanently inhabited island, with a small community of residents. It's also the island visible behind the Torii of the Shirahige Temple (see below). It has two beautiful shrines: Itsukushima and Okitsushima.
4. Torishima Island: Rarely visited, it mainly serves as a nesting site for birds.
5. Bentenjima Island: Like Chikubu Island, it also houses a shrine dedicated to Benzaiten, the goddess of fortune and music.
6. Yomegashima Island: Also known for its natural features and tranquil environment.
Each of these islands has its own unique story, and some are significant sites for religious pilgrimages, biodiversity, or local culture. They offer visitors a variety of experiences, ranging from wildlife and flora discovery to exploring the history and cultural traditions of Japan.
Connection to Lake Yogo
Lake Yogo, also known as the "mirror of the sky," is a small lake located north of Lake Biwa in the same Shiga Prefecture. Much smaller than Lake Biwa, it maintains a close and interesting relationship with it, both geologically and in terms of history and culture.
For photographers, Lake Yogo provides an interesting contrast to the vast Lake Biwa. Its tranquil setting offers a different perspective on the typical landscape of the prefecture. For fans of minimalist and timeless landscapes, Lake Yogo is a very peaceful and less explored site compared to the frequently visited Lake Biwa.
My Equipment: GITZO Aventury. The ultra-durable, practical, and waterproof backpack for photography hiking.
Once again, it is in winter that I have experienced my best moments around this small Lake Yogo. Not only is there abundant snow, but the winter mists allow for softening the visual impact of the mountains in the image.
It is entirely possible to walk around Lake Yogo. I highly recommend this to fully immerse oneself in the place, for two reasons. First, it's a beautiful meditative walk to experience through the lens (see my articles on walking as a tool for inspiration). Second, the only circumferential road is narrow. In winter, the snow accumulating on the sides does not allow two vehicles to pass each other.
Therefore, I advise leaving the car in the parking lot at the entrance and continuing on foot. Read my dedicated article.
Photographic Sites of Interest Around Lake Biwa
Lake Biwa, being the largest lake in Japan and rich in history, is bordered by many major sites of interest. These sites reflect the cultural, religious, and natural history of the Lake Biwa region. Here is my selection of some that I consider remarkable (in no particular order of preference). Some of these sites have been the subject of dedicated articles. You can read them under the Lake Biwa section.
1. Hikone Castle
One of the few remaining original castles, Hikone Castle is famous for its impressive architecture and well-preserved gardens. It offers a panoramic view of the lake and is particularly splendid during the cherry blossom season.
My library: The Gardens of Japan.
Hikone Castle is a major reference point for its Sakura. Therefore, it is popular with tourists in April. The contrasts of the cherry blossoms and the stones that make up the foundations or buttresses of the castle are particularly interesting.
And for cinema enthusiasts, it is also one of the locations in the region that served as a filming location for the series "Shogun" with Richard Chamberlain and Yoko Shimada. Read the full article.
2. Shirahige Shrine
Known for its iconic torii gate built a few meters off the shore in the lake, this Shinto shrine is one of the oldest in the region. The torii appears to float on the water, creating a picturesque scene especially at sunrise or sunset. It is probably the most visited site on Lake Biwa by photographers today. Read the full article.
3. Enryakuji Temple
Located on Mount Hiei, overlooking Lake Biwa, this complex temple is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is an important center of Tendai Buddhism and plays a key role in the religious history of Japan. Read the article on Shingon and Tendai Buddhism to learn more.
Also a very touristy site but worth the visit due to the splendor of its ancient buildings and its geographical location. The road leading to Enryakuji Temple is also interesting for the viewpoints it offers of the lake and its region.
4. Mangetsuji Temple and its Ukimido Pavilion
This elegant pavilion is connected to the shore by a beautiful wooden bridge. It offers a peaceful setting and is particularly popular for photography despite its small size.
By focusing primarily on the Ukimido Pavilion, it's often forgotten that it belongs to Mangetsuji Temple, a magnificent example of temples from the Tendai Buddhist sect. This pavilion is also known as the "Floating Pavilion," due to its location. It is accessible from the temple gardens only (during opening hours), but it can be freely observed from a small beach nearby. Read the full article.
5. The Town of Omihachiman
The town was founded by Toyotomi Hidetsugu, the nephew of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, one of Japan's greatest unifiers. Hidetsugu built a castle here in 1585, and although the castle no longer exists, his influence on the town is still palpable.
During the Edo period (1603-1868), Omihachiman developed as a major commercial center, benefiting from its location along the Hachiman-bori canal, which connected the town to Lake Biwa and facilitated the transport of goods. Boat rides on the canal are popular among tourists.
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6. The Lake Biwa Museum
The Lake Biwa Museum was inaugurated in 1996. Its creation was in response to a growing need to preserve and study the unique ecosystem of Lake Biwa, as well as to promote understanding and appreciation of its cultural and natural significance.
Its three main missions are:
Education and awareness-raising
Research and preservation
Promotion of local culture
In addition to its diverse exhibition program, the Lake Biwa Museum offers various educational programs, workshops, and lectures for schools, families, and researchers. These programs are designed to deepen the public's understanding of the lake's ecology, its importance for biodiversity, and its role in local culture. Read the full article.
7. Biwako Marshes
Designated as a Ramsar site in 1993, the Biwako Marshes, also known as the Wetland, play a pivotal role in the conservation of endemic animal species (birds, fish, insects, etc.).
This marshland is an ideal area for observing local wildlife and a paradise for wildlife photographers who spend endless hours behind their telephoto lenses. This marsh is also a prime site for nature education and environmental issues. Read the full article.
8. Nagahama Castle
Nagahama Castle is an important historical site that reflects the military and cultural history of the region. Although its current structure is a reconstruction, the original castle, built by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, played a key role in the history of feudal Japan. A modest-sized masterpiece, it is very interesting for night photography. Read the full article.
9. Beaches and Resorts
Finally, Lake Biwa has several beaches and resorts, such as Omi-Maiko, offering leisure and relaxation activities, including swimming, camping, and water sports. It's a chance to relax a bit after long photography days while enjoying the friendly hotels that line the lake.
My Book: "Miroirs d'eau From Léman to Biwa", published by Glénat. Available on this site.
The Final Word
Lake Biwa is not just a natural treasure for Japan, but also a source of cultural and historical discoveries. Its tranquil waters and varied landscapes continue to attract visitors and nature enthusiasts. For photographers, particularly those interested in minimalist and timeless landscapes, the lake offers a setting that is both peaceful and dynamic, reflecting the history and natural beauty of Japan.
Contemplating Lake Biwa, an ancient water mirror and a living testament to history, invites deep philosophical and cultural reflection. This lake, more than just a body of water, is a symbol of the timeless connection between humans and nature. It represents continuity, a stream of water linking the past to the present. It illustrates nature's ability to remain constant amidst the world's constant changes.
In its tranquil waters are reflected the stories, myths, and beliefs that have shaped Japanese culture. Each photograph of Lake Biwa reminds me of the importance of preserving this heritage so that it remains a source of inspiration and contemplation for future generations.