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Kita! Biwako: A 3D2N Biwaichi journey cycling across Northern Shiga

Kita! Biwako: A 3D2N Biwaichi journey cycling across Northern Shiga

The story usually goes like this: you travel to a country—in this case, Japan—you loved it; you go back a few more times, visit the same few places that made you fall in love in the first place. Slowly, but surely, your heart (and mind) starts to wander, wondering, “There must be more that I have yet to discover, more adventures I have yet to embark on”. These are the questions I ask myself every time I set foot in Japan, under the banner of endless discovery. 

 

My 2018 trip to Shiga Prefecture (滋賀県 Shiga-ken) is till date one of my most memorable. It was also incomplete, leaving Northern Shiga (or Kitabiwako 北びわこ) unexplored. Fast forward to August 2023, I returned to Shiga to finish my conquest. So strap on your helmets and boots as we pedal off (pun intended), for 3 days 2 nights, cycling across Kitabiwako!  

 

Day 1: Starting my Biwaichi journey proper

What the wall says. (Image credit: John Ong)

 

Some might ask, what does “Biwaichi” in the title mean? Biwaichi, or 「琵琶湖一周」, is the term used to describe the cycling route circumnavigating Lake Biwa (琵琶湖 Biwako)—Japan’s largest lake. And for a trip that involves riding a bicycle, the first step would probably be to rent one. Of all the bicycle rental shops available around Shiga, the one I recommend renting from is Maibara Station’s (米原駅 Maibara-eki) Biwaichi Rental Cycle. 

 

Look at those hands work. (Image credit: John Ong)

 

Aside from being located within the only Shinkansen station in Shiga, what sets this shop apart from the others are the staff. Run by a group of four Shiga natives, they are passionate and dedicated to making your time cycling in Shiga enjoyable and stress-free.

 

I daresay, do or do not, there is no try. (Image credit: John Ong)

 

They offer expert advice on cycling routes, bike options for new and seasoned riders, and maintenance should your bike require a quick fix or a technical assessment. Not only were they professional, but they were some of the friendliest people I have met on my journey. So don’t be shy to strike up a conversation with them, be it to seek their advice on places to go, or to practise your Japanese.

 

BIWAICHI RENTAL CYCLE @ Maibara Cycle Station (米原駅サイクルステーション)
Address: JR Maibara Station East Exit 1F, 413-1, Maibara, Shiga 521-0012
Nearest station: Maibara Station (米原駅)
Access: Located within Maibara Station (in front of Ohmi Railway’s Entrance/Exit)
Opening hours: 9am–5pm (Closed in Winter: mid-December–mid-February)
Tel: +81-90-3863-8453

 

But don’t get too distracted…anyway, onto Day 1

Because I did (get distracted a lot). (Image credit: John Ong)

 

The area of Kitabiwako primarily consists of the cities of Maibara (米原) and Nagahama (長浜), and occasionally Hikone (彦根), depending on who you ask. Don’t let the word “cities” fool you however, as Kitabiwako is as inaka (田舎) as it gets—immediately evident upon leaving the vicinity of the station, where I was flanked on all sides by vast paddy fields and mountain ranges. 

 

It's not hard to get distracted if such scenery is to your fancy, which was what happened to me as I spent a good half hour just soaking in all its majesty. 

 

A “slow speed course” suggests the existence of a “fast speed course”.  (Image credit: John Ong)

 

Distractions out of the way, it's time to start the journey proper. Cycling along the various cycling roads that make up Shiga’s National Cycle Route, zigzagging through various traditional Japanese houses that form the iconic backdrop of the Japanese countryside, I arrived at my first destination—the ruins of Sawayama Castle. 

 

Ruins of Sawayama Castle

I have always found the warring states era of Japan fascinating so you'll always find me visiting historical sites—which Shiga has aplenty. 

 

So I am supposed to go…which way? (Image credit: John Ong)

 

Situated atop Mount Sawa, the castle during its heyday has seen it change hands several times, and while the castle is no more—replaced by a prominent attention grabbing signboard—the vantage point where one can see a picturesque view of surrounding Hikone and Lake Biwa remains, along with all its grandeur. 

 

Prime Real Estate. (Image credit: John Ong)

 

After snapping some photos, I headed back where I came, Nagahama bound, letting gravity helm my bicycle downhill as I tried my hardest not to let out an exuberant scream. 

 

Sawayama Castle Ruins (佐和山城跡)
Address: Furusawacho, Hikone, Shiga 522-0007
Nearest station: Hikone Station (彦根駅)
Access: About 20 minutes walk from Hikone Station
Opening hours: 24 hours

 

Nagahama and Nagahama Castle

It tastes better than it looks. (Image credit: John Ong)

 

After stopping for a quick lunch, I continued northwards along the coast of Lake Biwa, admiring Japan’s largest lake while trying my best not to hit anything in front of me. 

 

Cafe Club HARIE J’oublie le temps (クラブハリエ ジュブリルタン)
Address: 1435-83 Matsubaracho, Hikone, Shiga 522-0002
Nearest station: Hikone Station (彦根駅)
Access: About 30 minutes cycle from Hikone Station
Opening hours: 9am–5pm
Tel: +81-749-21-4477

 

(Image credit: John Ong)

 

As the city of Nagahama slowly came into my view, troupes of locals can be seen enjoying the Obon (お盆) holiday, partaking in activities with such enthusiasm and enjoyment that it filled me with envy, before I remembered that I too, was partaking in something I enjoy at that same moment. 

 

(Image credit: John Ong)

 

Arriving in Nagahama proper well into the afternoon, I quickly parked my bicycle at the nearby Ho Park (豊公園) and headed towards Nagahama Castle (長浜城 Nagahama-jō), which silhouette is conspicuous as it is commanding.

 

Views to dive for. (Image credit: John Ong)

 

Nagahama Castle, or the Nagahama Castle Historical Museum (長浜城歴史博物館), boasts a belvedere offering spectacular views of the surrounding cityscape, Lake Biwa, and the Ibuki Mountain Range. In spring when the cherry trees are in blossom, the scenery around the castle is gorgeously transformed, making the park one of Japan’s top 100 cherry blossom spots. 

 

Nagahama Castle Historical Museum (長浜城歴史博物館)
Address: 10-10 Koencho, Nagahama, Shiga 526-0065
Nearest station: Nagahama Station (長浜駅)
Access: Located About 10 minutes walk from Nagahama Station
Opening hours: 9am–5pm
Tel: +81-749-63-4611

 

Putting the pedal to the gravel

Your sister’s river, Anegawa. (Image credit: John Ong)

 

As the sun sets behind me, it was time to get going. With the city and Lake Biwa fading into the horizon as I detoured inland, passing by sparsely populated towns, long and winding roads, and an unobstructed panoramic view of Mount Ibuki. 

 

I believe this is the Summer Triangle….?? (Image credit: John Ong)

 

Before long, the clear skies gave way to the star-filled night, and I arrived at my lodging. After a nice cold shower, and some banter with fellow guests, I retired into the night. 

 

Day 2: The secret street of Shiga…and figurines!?

Long, winding road beckons adventure. (Image credit: John Ong)

 

Kicking off the day with some coffee, I bid farewell to the friends made and cycled back towards Nagahama City. The forecast for the day was clear and sunny, but the weather of upcoming days was starting to take a turn for the worse, with an impending typhoon threatening to make landfall on West Japan. I abandoned my initial plan of heading further north, and plotted a course for Kurokabe Square (黒壁スクエア).

 

(Image credit: John Ong)

 

Dubbed the “secret street of Shiga” by some, Kurokabe, which literally translates to “black wall”,  is a mercantile street that makes up a part of the Nagahama Shopping District (長浜商店街). Psst…I will let you in on a secret: not many foreign tourists know about this place, which is why this “secret street” remains a popular spot only amongst locals. 

 

My kind of neighbourhood. (Image credit: John Ong)

 

Named after the former bank building famous for its black plaster, the street is now home to a myriad of restaurants, cafes, galleries, and shops selling souvenirs and traditional crafts. 

 

Kurokabe Square (黒壁スクエア)
Address: 12-38 Motohamacho, Nagahama, Shiga 526-0059
Nearest station: Nagahama Station (長浜駅)
Access: About 10 minutes walk from Nagahama Station
Opening hours: 10am–5pm
Tel: +81-749-65-2330

 

Fragile. Please handle with care. (Image credit: John Ong)

 

One of such is the Kurokabe Glass Shop (黒壁グラス館), which occupies the former bank building, selling glasswares and offering workshops on the upper floor. 

 

Kurokabe Glass Studio (旧 黒壁ガラススタジオ)
Address: 7-11 Motohamacho, Nagahama, Shiga 526-0059
Nearest station: Nagahama Station (長浜駅)
Access: About 10 minutes walk from Nagahama Station, in Kurokabe Square
Opening hours: 10am–5pm (Closed on Mondays)
Tel: +81-749-65-2330

 

Omae wa Mou….. (Image credit: John Ong)

 

While wandering around the historic Edo and Meiji-period warehouses, sipping coffee and eating parfait, I stumbled upon the Kaiyodo Figure Museum Kurokabe (海洋堂フィギュアミュージアム黒壁). “Wow! A figurine museum here in Nagahama!?” This chance wasn’t something I could pass up, and if you love figurines, you definitely wouldn’t want too either. The museum features exhibition rooms displaying figurines from popular anime like the Shin Japan Heroes series, Hokuto no Ken, and many others. Who knows, you might just walk away with a shopping bag full of figures.

 

Kaiyodo Figure Museum Kurokabe (海洋堂フィギュアミュージアム黒壁 龍遊館)
Address: 13-31 Motohamacho, Nagahama, Shiga 526-0059
Nearest station: Nagahama Station (長浜駅)
Access: About 10 minutes walk from Nagahama Station
Opening hours: 10am–5pm
Tel: +81-749-68-1680

 

Aesthetic Religious Site Photos are my specialty. (Image credit: John Ong)

 

Other landmarks around the area include the Hokoku Shrine (豊国神社 Hokoku-Jinja), a shrine dedicated to Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Daitsuji Temple (大通寺). 

 

Hokoku Shrine (豊国神社)
Address: 6-37 Minamigofukucho, Nagahama, Shiga 526-0058, Japan
Nearest station: Nagahama Station (長浜駅)
Access: About 10 minutes walk from Nagahama Station, in Kurokabe Square
Opening hours: 9am–5pm
Tel: +81-749-50-4796

Daitsuji Temple (長浜別院大通寺)
Address: 32-9 Motohamacho, Nagahama, Shiga 526-0059, Japan
Nearest station: Nagahama Station (長浜駅)
Access: About 10 minutes walk from Nagahama Station, in Kurokabe Square
Opening hours: 10am–4pm 
Tel: +81-749-62-0054

 

The slow journey back

I can feel my skin cooking, but the journey of endless discovery (and a good photo) requires sacrifice. (Image credit: John Ong)

 

Feeling the summer heat encroaching on my physique, I decided to make the slow journey back to Hikone, where my next lodging is situated; stopping by a Michi-no-Eki (道の駅) midway for nourishment before arriving around early evening. 

 

The end is nigh. (Image credit: John Ong)

 

With the weather forecast expecting the typhoon to make landfall in Kyoto—my next destination—the day after tomorrow, and railways announcing a temporary suspension of train services, I beelined for Maibara Station the next morning in hopes of catching the train back to the ancient capital. And just like that, my time in Shiga came to an end. 

 

Reflection: The people of Northern Shiga

Here’s to them! For making this trip ever so memorable. (Image credit: John Ong)

 

Not gonna lie, I wanted to end my journey in Kitabiwako covering more places, including ascending Mount Ibuki, but alas nature had other plans. It rained heavily the night that I was in Hikone, and with the typhoon making landfall in Kansai, it meant that I had to hurry back to Kyoto. 

 

But, when one door closes, another opens—while I was unable to achieve some of my journey’s objectives, I was able to gain something more endearing in return: bonds forged with the people I met. 

 

The laughter over meals and alcohol, and the casual banter that follows will always hold a special place in my heart. They make the occasional solitary that plaques solo travelling ever more warm and magical.

 

Forever 18

That half hour shot. (Image credit: John Ong)

 

Getting to Shiga isn’t complicated, but depending on when you’re travelling, certain modes of transport may be out of your budget. Talking to a fellow traveller I met during my trip, I was reintroduced to something I have long forgotten, like my 18th birthday. 

 

Called the Seishun 18 Kippu (青春18きっぷ) or "Youthful 18 Ticket"; it's a seasonal nationwide rail pass that allows for unlimited rides on any local or rapid trains (non-reserved) along the JR network. Introduced back in the 1980s offering students (thus, Seishun 18) an affordable means of travel during the school holidays, the modern iteration of the ticket can be used by people of all ages, Japanese and foreign tourists alike. At ¥12,050, the ticket allows 5 non-consecutive days of usage and can be purchased at most JR stations across Japan—definitely a worthy option for the more frugal traveller or someone who wants to take their time exploring the many areas ofJapan. 

 

The ticket isn’t available year-round, however—it’s offered three times a year during spring (March to early April), summer (late July to early September), and winter (mid-December to early January), so do take note! If you want to find out more about the Seishun-18 Kippu, do check out fellow Community Writer, Jeremy Jee’s article as he delves deeper into how to make full use of it during your journey. Personally, this is something I definitely want to try the next time I am in Japan! 

 

A Biwaich1 J0urney 

Guess I will just swim across. (Image credit: John Ong)

 

By the time you read this, I may be whisking away on my next adventure, or just sipping tea at home, reminiscing the moments of previous trips. And while I was bringing this article to life, It occurred to me that my recent trip marks the tenth time I have set foot in Japan. 

 

Reflecting on all ten trips, I am reminded of what brought me to Shiga in the first place five years ago: to ask a girl I liked whether “Shiga-t” any feelings for me. It was a trip of many firsts: my first solo trip, my first cycling trip, my first heartbreak, and my first sunburn in Japan. Unforgettable, and one that holds a special place in my heart. My recent trip to Kitabiwako is no different. In summary, these trips symbolise a raison d’etre: to discover something truly your own. 

 

The Narrow Road towards Endless Discovery. (Image credit: John Ong)

 

Over smooth cycling roads and bumpy makeshift paths, across bustling mercantile taverns or jaw-dropping natural panoramas. Every step we take, on this journey of endless discovery, whether it’s to pursue new horizons or to confess our feelings, we owe ourselves the opportunity to try. 

 

My journey in Shiga may have ended, but it could be the start of yours, so if you have read till this point, I hope this article inspires you to embark on your own journey, to discover a Shiga (and Japan) truly your own. 

 

Header image credit: John Ong

 

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