Lake Biwa is located entirely in the Japanese prefecture of Shiga. Shiga borders Kyoto the previous capital of Japan from 794 until 1868. As a result, the lake often appears in literature, poetry, and historical moments. Today, it is a drinking water source for 15 million people in the Kansai region and a popular tourist designation as it makes a stunning background for many attractions that are near the lake.
Lake Biwa is the largest and oldest lake in Japan. It is an ancient lake as it is 4 million years old, the 13th oldest in the world. Its size of 670.4 km(258.69 sq mi) and age has resulted in an incredibly diverse ecosystem.
Wildlife of Lake Biwa
The lake is designated UNESCO Ramsar Wetland to recognize and protect its unique flora and fauna. The reeds around the lake have given it a unique appearance and have a vital role in filtering water for fish and birds.1000 species/subspecies of animals live in the Lake Biwa ecosystem. The majority of them are as you would expect are aquatic.
Because of the lake’s ancient age, it has 60 endemic species. One notable example is the Giant Lake Biwa Catfish, the top predator and largest fish in the lake. It is capable of growing over 1 meter ( 3 feet) and 30 kilograms(66 pounds). It`s the largest species of catfish in Japan.
The other star is the Biwa Trout which despite the name is a subspecies of the Masu Salmon. They are a delicious Shiga delicacy that only lives in Lake Biwa.
*Here is an excellent post about Biwa Trout and other delicacies in Shiga.
The lake is also an important area for waterbirds with 5000 different kinds visiting annually. The little Grebe like its name suggests is a small waterbird and can be frequently spotted hunting for small fish in Lake Biwa. It is Shiga`s official prefectural bird.
Lake Biwa Museum
Besides bird watching and fishing, there is another way to see the habitats of Lake Biwa. You can visit the Lake Biwa Museum, a large museum/aquarium with endemic species of Lake Biwa, and as exhibits on the ecosystem as well as on human`s use of the lake. As Lake Biwa is one of the world’s few ancient lakes, the museum also has exhibits on the biodiversity of other ancient lakes. It also is a conservation center that breeds endangered fish from all over Japan.
The biggest threat to the lake is of course humans. Development has destroyed habitats and vital parts of the ecosystem. For example, reeds, the natural filter system in the lake have been reduced in size because of development.
Believe it or not, but the emperor of Japan is directly responsible for the second threat, invasive fish. The emperor was given bluegill as a gift and they were later released into Lake Biwa. Black Bass were released into the lake for sports fishing. But both fish has disrupted the ecosystem of the lake by preying on and out-competing endemic species. This has resulted in a reduction of biodiversity.
Lake Biwa is a large so there are many places you can visit along the lake. The easiest point of entry for most travelers will be Otsu which is just 9 minutes on the Jr Tokkaido Main Line from Kyoto Station. It takes 40 minutes from Osaka.
For those that I want to visit Lake Biwa Museum, it is a 45 minute train and bus ride from Kyoto station. From Kusatsu Station, take the bus heading to Karasuma Hanto and get off at the Biwako Hakubustsukan mae stop(25-minute bus ride).
Hours: 9:30 to 5:00(last admission at 4:00)
Admission: 800 yen for adults, 450 yen for University/High School Students, and free for elementary and middle school students.
Note: To avoid crowding reservations must be made in advance online