Biwa Lake; the Ancient Japanese Body of Water

A lake is an incredibly valuable natural resource. It holds water, which sustains all living things on this planet – this is especially true for freshwater lakes. Conditions thousands of years ago lead people to create civilizations around water due to its usefulness in growing crops, sustaining livestock, as well as entire families.

Despite the ever-changing atmosphere and landscape of the world, some areas – or in this case, bodies of water - manage to stay the same. Lake Biwa, for instance; lake in Japan, holds a record for being one of the most ancient lakes in world history, holding on to 4-million-year-old roots. Learn more about this lake’s colorful history, diverse ecosystem, and current condition.

What Is Lake Biwa?

In all of Japan, Lake Biwa, a freshwater lake, is currently ranked number one in terms of size. It is found in the Shiga Prefecture, in Honshu’s west-central area, Kansai region. This lake is very well-known, mostly because it was so near to what was known as Japan’s capital for hundreds of years. It has connections both to prehistoric times, as well as the battles that took place back when Japan comprised of warring states.

The Origins of the Name of Lake Biwa

The lake used to be called the “Awaumi”, later pronounced as “Omi”, like one of Japan’s ancient provinces, which was also named Omi. it was officially changed to Biwako during the Edo period. The reasons for why it was called this lead up to the possibility that it was named after the traditional Japanese lute, which is called a “Biwa”.

The History of Lake Biwa in Japan

The land that surrounds Lake Biwa is well-known for its frequent, and sometimes volatile earthquakes. It was created because of a shift in the tectonic plates around the land of what is currently known as Japan. Because this lake has been around for so long, many different water-dwelling creatures evolved and developed here.

There are telltale signs that this lake was inhabited by people during the Jomon period, as the Awazu site was discovered here, towards the southern part of the lake. In the Awazu site was proof that Jomon people were eating both plants, animals, and most especially horse chestnuts. Discovering the horse chestnuts plays a large factor in showing that this civilization was more advanced than one would presume, because of their ability to remove the tannic acid from the horse chestnuts using their personal technology and procedures.

Rich in Wildlife

So far, the tallied amount of both species and subspecies (of fish, mollusks, snails, bivalves, etcetera) that have lived in this lake alone equates to 1,000. Out of those 1,000 species, 60 originated from Lake Biwa itself. Not only does this lake cater to underwater life, it also plays a role in the lives of water birds – in fact, 5,000 of them, which annually visit the lake, an example of which is the Tombei. 

Lake Biwa’s Place in Japan The Country’s Earlier History

Lake Biwa was not only used for the resources it had, but also for transportation between regions. Much of the trade that went on in Kyoto, which was the capital of Japan during the Edo period, relied on that lake to send and receive goods and cargo to and from northern Japanese cities. At this period, there were no railways yet, so shipping the merchandise was the easiest and fastest way to go about business.

A canal was later built called the Lake Biwa Canal, connecting Lake Biwa to Kyoto, giving Kyoto an ample amount of accessible water in the year 1890, followed by another canal in 1912. This helped Kyoto flourish, especially with it experiencing the shift of the nation’s capital to Tokyo. The city still uses those same canals to siphon water from the lake.

The Destruction of Lake Biwa

After the second world war, Lake Biwa took in a lot of pollution as it was serving large amounts of the human population in Kansai. Wastes such as laundry detergents that were not biodegradable, chemicals used in farming, and other highly toxic chemicals were present in the lake. Though it took the government quite a while to address how the lake was being treated, a system to prevent eutrophication was eventually put in place by 1981. The system made sure that the property levels of phosphorus and nitrogen that were dumped in the water were monitored. To celebrate this act of concern, people around celebrated this, officially calling it “Biwako no Hi”, or Lake Biwa Day.

Not only should the water be protected by environmental laws, but so should the helpful plants that surround this body of water. By 1992, the Shiga Ordinance for the Conservation of Reed Vegetation Zones was implemented, making sure that the reeds around the river were consciously encouraged to propagate, not destroyed. What makes Lake Biwa so scenic is the colonies of reed that pepper its shores. As a part of balancing the ecosystem of the lake; it supports both the animals that reside here, and helps remove contaminants in the water. 

UNESCO also stepped in to protect this heritage, as it was officially labeled a UNESCO Ramsar Wetland by the date of 10th of June 1993. With Lake Biwa being a valuable wetland on an international scale, this treaty aims to prevent more abuse that may happen to it, and promote the concern and proper use of other wetlands. 

The Endemic Species Found in Lake Biwa

The species that are native to this lake include a kind of “Rhinogobius”, and two gobies, special kinds of cyprinids, silurid catfish, the Biwa trout, and one kind of cottid. These are just a few examples of the 16 different kinds of fish that are endemic to this lake. That doesn’t even cover the grounds of which snails, mollusks, and bivalves are endemic as well.

Sadly, the lake has suffered immensely because of the sudden placement of foreign fish in an ecosystem that was already well-balanced. Two of these fish, the black bass, and bluegill, proved to be deadly, as they were an invasive species. The bluegill was added to the lake after it was given to a Japanese Emperor, while the Black Bass was purposely put for breeding for further fishing sports.

Catching Bass Fish and Catfish in Lake Biwa

Though it is responsible for an imbalance in the lake, Lake Biwa is known for having some of the best catches of bass fish. One largemouth bass was caught that measured in at a whopping 10.1 kilos. As for adult catfish, they can weigh until 136 kilos. Many fishermen go to Lake Biwa, wade the waters until thigh-deep, and cast their poles. An excellent month for catching bass around this lake is said to be in November. It gets more difficult to lure them in when the weather doesn’t cooperate, such as when it rains or thunderstorms. 

A man named George Perry was recorded to have caught the world’s biggest largemouth bass, holding the record for 77 years. He was certified by the IGFA, or International Game Fish Association to have been beaten by a fisherman named Manabu Kurita, who caught the similar legendary 10-kilo bass in July of 2009. 

Because this bass does more harm to the lake than good, they are somewhat considered a nuisance. So much so, that new bass fish are no longer introduced to the river, and any such acts that promote their propagation are banned. 

Preparing For A Fish Game in Lake Biwa

Not everyone can fish in Biwa – you must get a permit before you do, or join a large fish sporting event. Those that do have the permit can buy their tackles around shops spread all over Japan. A notable store to get these tackles is “Popeye”. Great hard bait brands include Megabass, Evergreen, Lucky Craft, and Megabass. As for soft bait, the brand “Gary Yamamoto Custom Baits” is highly recommended, followed by the brand “Zoom”. 

Lake Biwa may have a lot of bass fish ready to bite your bait, but it’s not as calm a lake as one might perceive it to be. Many parts of this lake can be murky/opaque; giving a completely different impression towards the idea that Japanese lakes are clear. Many people do use the lake for a whole array of purposes, leaving it not as clean as it may have been in the past. 

Other Fast Facts About Lake Biwa; Its Size, Depth, and Volume

There are 118 small rivers that contribute to Lake Biwa’s primary inflow. The outflow of this lake goes to the Seta river. The Seto river leads to the Uji River, next turning into Katsura and Kizo. This flows further down to Yodo River and finally goes out to Osaka Bay from the Seto Inland Sea.

The lake is a catchment area, which means it collects rainwater and has a stem-like pattern of distributing this water around its body. The catchment area is 3,174 square meters.

The maximum length of the lake measures 64.49 km long, with its maximum width at 22.8 km. The lake, in its deepest measurement, is at 104 m. It holds 27.5 square kilometers of water, which usually lasts in the lake with a residence time of 5.5 years. Its shore length is 235.2 km, with the surface elevation at 85.6 m. There are 3 islands by this body of water, the only inhabited island being Okishima Island.

Where is Lake Biwa on the Map of Japan?

Lake Biwa can be found in the lower-middle part of Honshu Island, around its west side, a bit near the shore. Around the lake, itself are many different towns (Takashima, Imazu, Makino) and cities (Nagahama, Hikone Oumihachiman, Otsu). It’s a very big lake, so it is somewhat visible if you look closely around the area of the Shiga prefecture in any detailed map of Japan. 

Great Hotels Near Lake Biwa

If you find yourself around the area of Lake Biwa, be it for a fishing event, or just to tour the area, there are two hotels that you may want to look at if you’re aiming for a comfortable stay around this part of the Shiga Prefecture. 

Otsu Prince Hotel: A Taste Of Home in Lake Biwa

Given a rating of 4 out of 5 stars by 567 reviews by TripAdvisor, Otsu Prince Hotel is known to have a spectacular view of Lake Biwa itself, especially if you take an elevator to the 47th floor for breakfast over an easy atmosphere and soft music. The room size in this hotel quite large, compared to other hotels in Japan. The service is said to be very helpful, and establishments such the train station and stores are not too far away. A night here would cost you around 12,800 yen at a good rate but can hit amounts of 47,000 yen per night.

Marriott Hotel: Another Great Choice

With fewer reviews, but also scoring 4 stars out of 5 according to TripAdvisor, the Lake Biwa Marriott Hotel carries a well-known brand that you are sure you’re getting your money’s worth from. Rates average at around 18,000 to 19,000 yen a night. This hotel contends with others when it comes to having a spectacular vista of the lake, and a delicious and varied breakfast selection. 

Though the rooms may not be as new as other hotels, the hotel prides itself in its cleanliness. It also isn’t as near to establishments, but its 15-minute drive away from such stores gives the entire hotel a more peaceful ambiance where you can truly relax. 

Buy Pearls from Lake Biwa

Aside from containing a vast wildlife of fish for sporting, Biwa is also known for cultivating beautiful pearls from its mollusks. Some say that a biwa pearl has a special shape to it, also resembling the traditional Japanese lute, as the pearls are more rectangular, elongated and rough compared to the usual round-shaped pearls. 

Lake Biwa is precious, and both the world and national heritage. It sets an example of how people should care for their environment more, as it brings them an abundance of resources and sustainment. Adults should set an example for both themselves and their child to respect these bodies of water. From Lake Biwa’s history, efforts must be put into conserving not just this lake, but all the lakes around the world.