A visit to the city’s Lake Biwa provides Hanna Hussein a glimpse of its magnificent beauty

WHEN my family and I visited Kyoto, one of Japan’s popular tourist destinations early last year, we stayed in the outskirts which has a scenic view of the country’s largest freshwater lake, Lake Biwa.

The lake serves as a reservoir for the cities of Kyoto and Otsu, providing water to some 15 million people in the Kansai region. However, we didn’t really give the lake much thought as we were too excited to visit all the famous locations in Kyoto.

As Japan is unconsciously becoming our annual family retreat, we thought why not go on a repeat trip to Lake Biwa and spend time exploring the charming undiscovered attractions surrounding it. And what better place to stay than at Lake Biwa Marriott Hotel, Marriott International’s new property that is located right on the shore of the lake.

BEAUTY OF OMIHACHIMAN

We kicked off our Lake Biwa discovery with a visit to Omihachiman, a quaint little town located further east from the lake. The town got its name due to its resemblance to the lute-like instrument less than 30 minutes from the hotel. 

Well, if you like the busy city-scene, Omihachiman is everything but that. It is a quiet, charming town with an ancient Japanese feel. It is also where many Japanese samurai films were shot.

The town was founded in 1585 by Toyotomi Hidetsugu, who had built a castle and developed a commercial area where merchants gathered. Prior to the invention of trains and cars, this area used to be the hub for canal transportation.

According to our guide, the town was divided until the mid-19th century by the Hachiman-bori canal where the samurai lived in the north while the common people lived in the south.

Walking along the narrow street with rows of old-fashioned Japanese homes makes you feel as if you are in a samurai movie. The architecture is mostly well preserved but instead of private homes, most of the houses are now shops selling local products as well as fancy Japanese restaurants.

However, you can still view one of the remaining homes of a rich merchant named Nishikawa Riemon on Shinmachi-dori street. Riemon’s family lived there for over three centuries and the home provides an insight into how the rural wealthy lived in Japan. Today, it is open to the public.

Next door is the Omihachiman City Museum (Omihachiman Shiritsu Shiryokan) which showcases exhibits of everyday life from the past.

We also get the chance to visit the biggest Shinto shrine known as the Himure Hachimangu Shrine, located beside the Hachiman-bori moat. The shrine is almost 2,000 years old and it is said that its original location was on the top of Mount Hachiman before it was moved in 1590.

HISTORY OF HIKONE

Next on the list is Hikone, a more vibrant part of Shiga. This city is famous for its castle and it is located an hour from Lake Biwa Marriott Hotel.

Hikone Castle is one of only four castles in Japan designated as national treasures. But visiting a castle would not be complete without me trying on the traditional costume!

This time, instead of wearing the tight kimono, I am trying the hakama, another type of Japanese traditional costume, which I rent from Something Four Bridal House located not too far from the castle. Unlike the kimono, hakama is worn by women especially during graduation ceremonies. It is more comfortable and the skirt is more flowy so you can walk easily.

There are heaps of colours and patterns to choose from. I select a piece that matches my shawl, a white base hakama top with pink flowers and dark purple skirt. Someone will tie it for you — all you have to do is pick your choice and wait to be dressed like a princess.

Hikone Castle is located on a hill and you need to go on a light hike on steep stairs. It was constructed in 1603 by Ii Naokatsu, son of the former lord Ii Naomasa. It took 19 years to complete the structure. This is because the land was taken from Naokatsu by the Tokugawa shogunate, and it was not until Naokatsu’s brother Naotake assumed control of Omi Province that he was able to complete the castle by collecting stones from the former Sawayama Castle.

It is a lovely castle and you can climb up to the top to see the surrounding view. You can also enjoy the view of the lake from the corner of the garden; I was lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a rainbow stretching across the lake. 

If you still have time, go on a walk around the town. It’s a vibrant old-fashioned town with lots of shops, cafes and restaurants. There’s also a lovely restaurant called the Sen-nari-tei Kyara which is worth trying out. It serves sukiyaki with omi beef. Delicious!

ART OF TEA

If you love art, you can head to the Sagawa Art Museum in Moriyama, five minutes from the Lake Biwa Marriott Hotel. It is a floating museum and is very unique. Built with a modern architecture — very sleek surrounded by glassy pool — the museum is said to represent Lake Biwa. 

Inside, it features three separate halls where you can take in the works of three of Japan’s greatest artists — Ikuo Hirayama, sculptor Sato Churyo and ceramics master Kichizaemon Raku. The museum also holds special exhibitions several times a year, along with workshops for parents and children, concerts, and tea parties.

I got the chance to go on a tour of the tea house, a special part of the museum not many can go and see. Known as the Raku Kichizaemon-kan, and based on the vision of Raku Kichizaemon, the 15th descendent of Chojiro (the first tea bowl master to take the title Raku which means comfort or ease) and the man who revolutionised the techniques and aesthetics of ceramic art in Japan), this is where grand tea ceremonies are held.

It is quite a long process and guests aren’t allowed to take photos. The tour starts by following the underground path where I am invited into a mysterious room enshrouded in darkness. It is the waiting room, a space for waiting and purification before a ceremony.

Next step is into a stunning zen space where you can see the light of day shining in while reflecting the movement of the water and followed by a small tatami mat room where guests are served with thick tea.

It ends in the main large-roofed tea room, which appears as if it is floating on the water garden. The view is stunning, and the lake is surrounded by grass. A peaceful feeling settles over me when I’m in here. It is so relaxing that the three hours spent on the whole tea ritual seem to fly by. Really amazing!

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SIDEBAR

LUXURY BY THE LAKE

Located at the southeast shore of Lake Biwa, Lake Biwa Marriott Hotel offers visitors a convenient getaway to explore the Shiga Prefecture. It is not too far from Kyoto actually, less than an hour’s drive and it takes less than two hours from Kansai International Airport.

Since the hotel is situated by the lake, you can imagine the view you will be waking up to every morning. On top of the beautiful view, my Premium Room also comes with a private natural onsen bath in the bathroom. Total luxury! 

The room offers ample space with two super-comfy single beds, a day bed by the high-ceiling window so visitors can enjoy the stunning lake view, and a working desk. It is nicely furnished with a modern design and comes complete with all high-tech facilities including complementary WiFi, electrical outlets thoughtfully placed so guests can stay charged, and a mini bar as well as tea and coffee making facilities. 


Lake Biwa marriottMarco Chow

Besides the room, my favourite part of the hotel is the Grill and Dining G, a lively space which is located at the topmost floor offering a panaromic view of the lake. The restaurant also serves delicious cuisine, featuring specialties from the Omi region. 

The breakfast buffet is really generous too. There’s international options as well as Japanese selections. Most importantly, there’s a lot of seafood and vegetarian selections, perfect if you have food restrictions.

The hotel also boasts a planetarium at the adjacent building, sports centre offering hot spring bath, gym, indoor pool, driving range, futsal courts, table tennis, tennis courts as well as basketball, volleyball, and badminton courts which can be used with extra charges.

FAST FACTS

LAKE BIWA MARRIOTT HOTEL

2876 Imahama-cyo, Moriyama, Shiga 524-0101 Japan

TEL +81 77-585-3811 

WEBSITE www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/osalb-lake-biwa-marriott-hotel

STAY The hotel offers 274 non-smoking rooms ranging from superior, deluxe, Japanese-style rooms, Premium Hot Spring rooms and Excutive Suites. 

EAT The Grill & Dining G, an all-day restaurant with a stunning view of Lake Biwa, serving international and Japanese cuisine for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

DO Enjoy the onsen!

GO Kyoto is an hour away, but there are plenty of attractions in Lake Biwa area including Omihachiman and Hikone.

HIGHS It has a planetarium, one of it’s kind! And, of course a room with private onsen.

LOWS Train station is a bit far. 

WIYO LETS YOU STAY CONNECTED

My travel couldn’t have been made easy, thanks to Wiyo WiFi! This handheld mobile device provides me with wireless Internet access anytime, anywhere while I am travelling abroad. It is small and fits in my pocket and simultaneously supports five to10 WiFi-enabled devices!

This has made it possible for me to upload my story into social media such as Instagram and Facebook, and lets me stay connected with my family and friends too!

It is totally worth the money — RM20 a day for unlimited access in Japan. They also provide mobile WiFi in Indonesia, New Zealand, Cambodia, Macau, Vietnam, the Philippines, Korea, Thailand, Singapore, China, Taiwan, Australia, United States, Hongkong, Europe and even Malaysia! For more info, visit www.wiyo.my.