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Friday, Dec. 26, 2003

NORTHERN LAKE BIWA

Slip into slo-mo Shiga-style


Staff writer

OMIHACHIMAN, Shiga Pref. -- Tired of group-tour hell? Does a four-cities-in-five-days' trip to Europe, or being herded like hyperactive cattle through the temples of Kyoto make you wish you could take a vacation from your vacation?

News photo
Sunset over Lake Biwa, whose northern reaches now abound in visitor attractions.

If you're ready to slow things down a bit, get away from the hordes of tourists and sample organic local cuisine rather than overpriced hotel fare, you may find that a trip to the northern end of Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture is definitely worth your while.

For years, Lake Biwa was less than an ideal tourist spot. The southern part nearest Kyoto, where the average depth of the water is less than 5 meters, was notoriously polluted and not recommended for swimming. The northern part close to Fukui Prefecture, where the water averages more than 50 meters deep, was considered much cleaner, but also far more remote and inaccessible.

While you'd still be advised to think carefully about taking a dip in the southern end of the lake, the middle and northern parts of Japan's largest expanse of fresh water are now being developed into what Shiga officials hope will become a center of ecotourism and an attractive alternative for those seeking a quiet, relaxing vacation.

Most of the luxury hotels on Lake Biwa are around the industrialized southern tip. But the Omihachiman National Vacation Village, which was established by the central government, sits about one-third of the way up the eastern side of the lake facing Okishima Island. It's actually a large, combined hotel/Japanese-style inn with modern Western-style and traditional Japanese-style rooms. Surrounding the vacation village are campgrounds and hiking trails.

Especially popular are the two hot springs, both of which offer a great view of the lake and island. Fishing boats and canoes can be rented nearby for those who want to spend their time on the lake.

After a day on the lake or hiking through the surrounding forest, a dinner of the local delicacy, Omi beef, is highly recommended. Like Kobe and Matsusaka beef, Omi beef is famous throughout Japan for its marbled texture and tenderness. At the vacation village, Omi shabu-shabu, served with local, organically grown vegetables, is the house specialty.

Up for duck?

If just gazing out at tiny Okishima fails to satisfy your curiosity, there are ferries that run there about once every 30 minutes from a dock right beside the vacation village, and the trip takes about 10 minutes. Those who love freshwater fish will find several small guesthouses there that offer everything from ayu (sweetfish) to black bass sashimi. Or, if you're up for something completely different, try the kamonabe, which is wild duck cooked in a pot.

News photo
Lake Biwa ayu (sweetfish) being coocked the traditional local way in a pungent soy and sake sauce.

After lunch or dinner, stroll through the small village along the shore of Okishima and visit the factories where the sweetfish are baked, packaged and sent to customers throughout Japan. The pungent soy and sake sauce that the fish are baked in is most definitely an acquired taste, and smell, but is considered quite a gourmet treat.

In and around Omihachiman are a number of important historical sites, most notably the remains of Azuchi Castle, originally built by warlord Nobunaga Oda in the 16th century.

For those who love the water, and boats, the Hachimanbori Canal, in Omihachiman city, is the place to go. This was once part of a series of waterways that connected Kyoto to the Japan Sea. Though that traverse is no longer possible, the Suigo Meguri Canal, also in Omihachiman, offers scenic boat excursions through the local rice fields.

While Lake Biwa, and the surrounding canals, constitute an important part of Omihachiman, the area is also renowned for agricultural products, notably sweet potatoes and awabi mushrooms, which are very high in vitamin B, and are said to help lower cholesterol levels and aid digestion. They are also especially good with such dishes as sukiyaki and miso soup.

News photo
Blumen Hugel Nature Park (above) and a fishing boat on the lake, which is Japan's larges expanse of fresh water.
News photo

A number of farms in the area now cultivate these mushrooms organically. One is Vitamin Mura, about a 20-minute drive from Omihachiman Station, where visitors can see the fungus growing in darkened rooms, and order them. They're not cheap, but the meaty texture is quite delicious.

After you've shopped for mushrooms, head over to Agripark Ryuo, a farmers' market about a 5-minute drive from Vitamin Mura. There, local farmers sell their produce directly, including apples, peaches, pears, grapes, sweet potatoes and persimmons. In fact, if you're so inclined you can pull your selection right off the tree or out of the ground, as special tours of the local orchards and fields are available.

Kids of all ages will also love the small animal farm inside Agripark. Sheep, goats and a pony are all kept here, while right next door is a museum of traditional farm tools that offers city slickers a glimpse of how their rural neighbors used to, and in many cases still do, live and work.

Surprise, surprise

If, by this time, the rural life is getting a bit, well, rural, and you're interested in something more lively, the Blumen Hugel Nature Park, which is a 50-minute bus ride from Omihachiman Station (or about a half-hour drive from Ryuo Interchange on the Meishin Expressway) is worth a visit.

At first glance, this is more than a bit tacky. Fake German-style buildings and German drinking songs playing over the outdoor speakers are enough to make anybody with good taste grimace. But, once inside, the park surprises. The flower garden is beautiful and very well laid out. The park itself offers visitors a chance not to hop on a roller coaster or themed ride, but to relax and try their hands at crafts like weaving and egg painting.

And for those who, by this time, have grown sick of all the healthy foods they've had to sample, Blumen Hugel will come as a welcome relief. While those who wish to may sample the handmade crafts and praise the nutritional value of local vegetables, you can head over to the handmade sausage and cheese shop for some real food to chomp on as you relax with a large glass of the local microbeer. Not, perhaps, the healthiest way to end your "slow food" tour of the Omihachiman area -- but definitely a satisfying way.

Despite all this, prefectural officials say they are well aware they face an uphill battle to attract eco-tourists from around Japan, and especially from abroad. First, Japan's cultural capital of Kyoto is reasonably close, and is more likely to lure those with limited time and money. Then there is the problem of access. While buses run from Omihachiman Station to many locations mentioned here, you really do need a car, and lot of time, to travel around, as train services are really poor.

Secrets of success

Finally, there is the problem of competition. Hokkaido has recently become the first choice in Japan for ecotourism. With round-trip flights to Sapporo from Osaka and Nagoya, plus one night in a hotel, available for as little as 23,000 yen per person, it's no surprise more people are turning their eyes northward when they want to enjoy nature.

However, Shiga tourism officials recognize the lure of Hokkaido and have visited there to learn how to promote tourism -- hence the creation of Blumen Hugel Park.

But Shiga has its own charms, and a trip to the quiet shores of Lake Biwa, a feast of either Omi beef or fresh fish from the lake, and excellent fruits and vegetables make a trip to the Omihachiman area both worthwhile and memorable -- as well as healthy and nutritious.

For more details, contact Shiga Prefectural Commerce, Industry, and Tourism Policies Division at (077) 528-3741, e-mail kanko@ref.shiga.jp or visit www.info.kankou-shiga.or.jp/biwakonotabi/english/menu.html


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