Cycling Lake Biwa: self-guided 5 days

Cycle through historic cultural landscapes and secluded rural villages around Japan's most iconic lake close to Kyoto. 

Highlights

  • Visit sacred Chikubushima Island, known to be a source of great spiritual energy on Lake Biwa, via an exclusive, private boat ride
  • Cycle at your own pace through breathtaking natural scenery and rural landscapes: stunning lake views, vast rice fields, satoyama villages and ancient Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples
  • Explore Omi-Hachiman traditional merchant town, well-preserved Hikone Castle and tranquil Genkyu-en Garden
  • Visit hidden Lake Yogo, known as the "mirror lake", and see the grand views from Shizugatake hill-top lookout
  • Explore atmospheric and secluded Sugaura, a picturesque lakeside village with a rich local history
  • Sample the unique cuisine of Shiga, sourced from the mountains and the lake, while staying at authentic Japanese accommodations
Since long ago, Shiga has served as a strategic link between Kyoto and Tokyo (then Edo), and today this rich legacy lives on. Traditionally known as Ōmi province 近江 - the area set the stage for many epic battles, where fearsome samurai fought to secure power and supremacy over Japan. In times of peace, a thriving merchant culture developed with increased travel along the Nakasendo and Tokaido highways passing through borders of the region. Echoes of Shiga’s past can still be experienced today through its preserved traditional architecture, distinct culture and way of life of its people.
Since long ago, Shiga has served as a strategic link between Kyoto and Tokyo (then Edo), and today this rich legacy lives on. Traditionally known as Ōmi province 近江 - the area set the stage for many epic battles, where fearsome samurai fought to secure power and supremacy over Japan. In times of peace, a thriving merchant culture developed with increased travel along the Nakasendo and Tokaido highways passing through borders of the region. Echoes of Shiga’s past can still be experienced today through its preserved traditional architecture, distinct culture and way of life of its people.

Lake Biwa, surrounding castles and secluded rural villages of Shiga prefecture offers the perfect environment to explore by bicycle. Scenic 1,000 metre high mountains towering over the lake give way to Satoyama 里山 village settlements of plains and rice fields. Centuries of traditional agricultural techniques have preserved the natural beauty of village landscapes around Lake Biwa, where the local people and nature co-exist in harmony.

 

On this 5-day self-guided cycling adventure tour around Lake Biwa, you are free to experience the rustic, rural beauty and culture found around Japan's largest lake - experiencing seasonal landscapes with spectacular views, traditional Japanese architecture, meeting local people, trying regional cuisine and staying in authentic Japanese inns. Our carefully curated and easy to follow routes ride on a mix of mostly flat coastal cycle lanes and peaceful rural backroads, with options suitable for entry-level cyclists through to experienced riders.

 

Giant RX1

Along with our high-quality bikes, tailored itinerary featuring must-see stops and eateries, you’ll be able to make your own unique discoveries and make connections with local people around Lake Biwa. Multiple options also enable you to tailor the ride by using local transport, adjusting the distances on the day to match your level.  

 

We have a variety of self-guided cycling tours available. If you can’t get enough of cycling from our Lake Biwa tour, please feel free to enquire about our extension day to cycle a scenic 60 km valley section of the old Saba-kaido route (mackerel trade route) in western Shiga, or to combine this tour with our 6 or 7-day Noto Peninsula self-guided cycling tour, providing the ultimate cycling adventure in central Japan.

 

What′s included

  • 4 nights at Japanese accommodation
  • 4 breakfasts & 4 dinners
  • Train tickets from Kyoto to Shiga and back to Kyoto
  • High-quality road bike or folding bike rental, plus helmet, tool kit, inner tube, bicycle lock
  • GPS navigation device rental with detailed route information
  • Chartered roundtrip boat ride to Chikubushima Island
  • Detailed day-by-day itinerary
  • Topographical maps
  • Local support by telephone

What′s not included

  • Flights
  • Airport transfers
  • Pay locally for drinks with meals and for lunches
  • Additional transportation for short options

Day 1 - By train from Kyoto; cycle Omi-Hachiman to Hikone

The day before your tour begins, meet an Oku Japan team member in central Kyoto for a brief orientation session to receive your bike and other gear for your journey. You are free to make use of the bike for the remainder of your time in Kyoto before departing on Day 1 of the tour for Shiga.

 

On the morning of tour Day 1, travel by a short train journey to Omi-Hachiman, a picturesque old merchant town on the eastern side of Lake Biwa and begin today's ride here from the station. Explore charming Omi-Hachiman by cycling through the historical district, lined with wonderfully preserved old merchant houses, some now open as museums, and then along Hachiman-bori canal which runs through the scenic section of the town.

 

Leaving Omi-Hachiman, ride an optional extended coastal loop course to Lake Nishinoko and onward, taking in the breeze over its waters. Nearby is the hill-top Azuchi Castle ruins, another historically significant spot and a primary castle of Oda Nobunaga, one of Japan’s three great unifiers during the 16th century.

 

Further on the journey you will pass vast rice fields, scenic Japanese pine tree-lined beaches and follow cycling lanes along Lake Biwa through to Hikone, your destination for tonight. The town is home to Hikone Castle, one of the country’s best preserved Edo-period castles, and the tranquil Genkyu-en Japanese landscape garden housed within its walls.

 

Spend the night at a family-run Ryokan inn, or at a wonderfully preserved traditional Japanese folkhouse.

 

Distance: 42 km / 26 miles
Elevation gain: 93 meters / 305 feet
Avid Option: 58 km / 36 miles with approximately 335m / 1,099 feet elevation gain

 

Cycling time required: 3 - 4 hours

 

Accommodation: Ryokan (Travellers inn) or preserved traditional Japanese folkhouse
Meals: Dinner

 

 

Day 2 - Nagahama to Kinomoto

In the morning, ride a few kilometers into the center of Hikone and board a train for the brief ride to Nagahama. Spend part of the morning cycling through the old merchant district and stop by the Hikiyama float museum to learn about the local Hikiyama festival, dating back over 400 years from the Edo period. Colourful floats on display exhibit fine examples of traditional Japanese metalwork, wood carvings and lacquer work common in the Edo period.

 

Leaving the town, the course then cycles past lakeside Nagahama castle - with wonderful views out across Lake Biwa from its upper keep - before cycling further north along scenic coastal cycle lanes and rural backroads, through small villages and on to the hidden Lake Yogo, surrounded by mountains on three sides. The lake's serene environment earns it the name “Kagami-ko”, or Mirror Lake. After a gentle 6km loop ride around Lake Yogo, enjoy a nearby café to soak up fine views of the area.


Today’s ride finishes at nearby Kinomoto, an old post town along the ancient Hokkoku road - once a main trade route connecting Kyoto with ports on the coast of the Sea of Japan. Here you can see remnants of the old merchant townscape and enjoy scenery as it was in the past. Kinomoto is also home to a long-standing Sake brewery with over 450 years of history and considered the 3rd oldest in Japan.


Your accommodation tonight is a charming traditional Japanese inn nearby. Fresh seasonal delicacies sourced from the lake and surrounding mountains are a highlight of tonight’s dinner.


Distance: 43 km / 27 miles
Elevation gain: 409 meters / 1,341 feet
Cycling time required: 3 - 4 hours


A shorter option is available by using a train transfer.

 
Accommodation: Ryokan (Travellers inn) or Minshuku (Family-run Guesthouse)
Meals: Breakfast, Dinner

 

Day 3 - Kinomoto to Sugaura

Today the journey is the destination as you ride along quiet winding roads between the mountains and coastline. While cycling from Kinomoto this morning, enjoy a side trip up a short cable lift to Mt. Shizugatake’s 360 degree summit lookout, with breathtaking views of Lake Biwa and Lake Yogo. In the distance, the Hira Mountain Range and Chikubujima Island to the southwest, and towering Mt. Ibuki to the east can also be seen. Continue cycling along gentle bike lanes through some of the most picturesque shoreline in Shiga.

Rest for lunch along the way before then arriving at the hidden lakeshore village of Sugaura, which only a few decades ago became accessable by road and is enclosed by mountains on three sides. Spend the afternoon exploring the quite fishing village and its ancient shrines and temples, or relaxing along the coast.

For more cycling, enjoy a further optional loop course around the peninsula, which begins with a sharp but manageable uphill of 3 km to the panoramic lookout over the surrounding bay - and another perfect café stop. Enjoy the short ride back down to the village, or continue cycling on for another 25 km along the peninsula’s scenic loop course and return to Sugaura.
 
Tonight enjoy the lakeshore views from your accommodation in Sugaura, along with fantastic indoor and outdoor Japanese baths to soak away in.

Distance: 25 km / 15 miles
Elevation gain: 409 meters / 1,341 feet
Avid optional extension course: 27 km / 17 miles and approximate 425m / 1,394 feet elevation gain
Cycling time required: 2 - 4 hours
 
A shorter option is available by using a train transfer.
 
Accommodation: Japanese-style Hotel
Meals: Breakfast, Dinner

Day 4 - Sugaura to Takashima

After breakfast, enjoy part of the morning with a chartered exclusive boat ride to visit nearby Chikubujima Island, one of the eight most scenic spots of Lake Biwa and known to be a source of great spiritual energy. On the island, the two old buildings of Hogon-ji Temple and Tsukubusuma Shrine have been dedicated as objects of faith from the distant past, both still wonderfully decorated with traditional Japanese architecture and décor representative of the elaborate Azuchi-Momoyama period (1573 - 1603).

Upon returning to Sugaura by boat, the second third of the day will have you cycling the scenic Kaizu-Osaki shoreline (where over 600 sakura cherry trees form a tunnel of light and color in spring) before diverging inland. With a few short, sharp uphills, the route gives way to beautiful countryside dotted with traditional thatched-roof houses surrounded by hills, then a gradual sweeping downhill into another Satoyama village (with a lovely thatched-roof folk house museum) and onward through a beautiful 2.5km stretch of road lined with a tunnel of hundreds of Metasequoia trees. A nice cafe lunch is recommended nearby. The remainder of the afternoon allows for further discoveries, cycling the scenic river-side bike lanes connecting to numerous hamlets in the area, and onward to nearby Makino lakeshore and its scenic pine-tree lined beach.

*Avid cyclists may wish to ride on towards the surrounding mountains for an optional hill climb loop course of around 31 km / 19 miles and 774m / 2,211 feet elevation gain, passing through Mt. Hakodateyama with spectacular views overlooking the countryside below and of Chikubujima Island and Mt. Ibuki far off in the distance.

Your accommodation will be in Takashima this evening where you'll receive a warm welcome at your final inn.
 
Distance: 43 km / 27 miles
Elevation gain: 62 meters / 203 feet
Avid Option: 58 km / 36 miles with approximately 669 meters / 2,194 feet elevation gain
Cycling time required: 3 - 4 hours

A shorter option is available by using a train transfer.

Avid optional extension course: 31 km / 19 miles and approximate 674m / 2,211 feet elevation gain ( 2 hours )
 
Accommodation: Traditional Japanese folkhouse or Minshuku (Family-run Guesthouse)
Meals: Breakfast, Dinner

Day 5 - Cycle to Omi-Maiko, and return to Kyoto

After breakfast, wave goodbye to your hosts and cycle your final leg of the tour through to Omi-Maiko along the lakeshore. The western side of Lake Biwa is home to a unique water village called Harie, with a network of natural springs formed from mountain rainwater as it flows underground to the lake, and where people live sustainably with the land and water. Cycle through this charming village then make your way to Shirahige Shrine - with its grand vermilion-lacquered Torii gate standing in the lake. The name of the shrine, "Shirahige" means “white beard” in English, and is one of Shiga's oldest Shrines with over 2,000 years of history. The area makes for a nice café rest stop before riding a few kilometers on to the pine-tree lined beaches at Omi-Maiko. You are free to explore before heading onwards by local train to Kyoto where our tour ends. In central Kyoto, visit Oku Japan to drop-off your bike and other rental equipment.

A shorter cycle option is available by using a train transfer.

Distance: 39 km / 24 miles
Elevation gain: 189 meters / 620 feet
Cycling time required: 3 - 3.5 hours

Meals: Breakfast

After completing the journey, you will have a special place in your memories for Lake Biwa long after.