A trip to the mother lake Biwako10 December, 2012 by Chad
Another destination on the to visit list would be the famous Biwako. Occupying a surface area approximately the size of Singapore and with rivers stretching 5 times as far, Lake Biwa is easily Japan’s largest lake. Located to the east in the adjacent Shiga Prefecture, Biwako is actually so large that there are actually a whole bunch of different cities around its circumference.
From the ground (or through our narrow airplane window) Biwako appears almost indistinguishable from the sea. Depending on which city you visit, different parts of Biwako are actually equal distance from Osaka, Kyoto and even Nagoya to the east.
Left later this morning though due to us finally deciding that we could no longer postpone the activation of our B-Mobile Sim cards. It was already a week into the trip, and every day of not having a 3G connection meant that the remaining days would effectively cost more.
We decided to finally try calling the international hotlin, even though it would cost another 2,500 yen more to have the sims activated by the staff there. After making the call though, we learned that B-mobile had and would be changing offices for a while and could not help us either as their computers for manual activation were down. Turns out that even if we did want to pay for activation earlier it would had been impossible.
According to the person on the phone, our only option was to activate it by a Japanese cellphone. Was quite irritated by now already, since not being able to activate it that way was precisely the reason why we were calling the help desk in the first place. But the person on the phone said that he couldn’t do anything about it. Worst yet he could not provide a ETA on when they would finish moving or when the system would be up either.
We had no choice but to put the issue on hold again. Having to encounter this so early in the morning definitely dampened our mood, but we likened it to events beyond our control.
The night before, did a little check on Randy’s “Satoyama” that he eagerly wanted to visit. Turns out it wasn’t a place at all but a term. In reality, just about everywhere on the west coast of Lake Biwa was satoyama.
After a little bit of digging, I learned that the satoyama that was referenced in the documentary was actually Takashima at the north end of Biwako. It was another hour or so from our original destination, which I didn’t mind since there was actually a farmers’ market over there that I had originally wanted to visit too.
The rest decided to give it a pass, after learning that it would cost another 2000 yen per way more than our original destination to get there. A little pricy, when considering that Randy only wanted to see the drains there. Though the idea that there are fishes inside is kind of interesting.
In the end, we’d be taking a trip to Otsu, the capital of Shiga, which also happened to be the nearest city surrounding Lake Biwa from Osaka. To be honest, we didn’t know what to expect.
The official Biwako website does a good job of listing many of the sights around the area but except for small websites run by the local village centers that look straight out of the 90s, animated gifs and all, information about Lake Biwa and the cities around Shiga are scarce, and almost non-existent in English.
We will also be visiting Hieizan the nearest mountain near Otsu to hopefully catch a better view of the lake. Hieizan was one of the few mountains that looked remotely accessible since it was also home to the Sakamoto Cable Railway, which claim to fame seems to come from being Japan’s longest cable car ride.
It’s about half an hour from Shin-Osaka where we were staying at to Otsu at the south-west edge of Lake Biwa. The entire journey, we’d be passing by mountains, farm land and lots of low rise housing. From Otsu, its another half an hour to Hieizan. The trains at Otsu are interesting, since they use some really old looking stock. But the stations are even more so. Lots of platforms in the middle of seemingly nowhere.
The stations are too small for bridges, so for stations where the platforms on separate sides, they actually trust people enough to walk across the tracks to get to the other platform. Japanese train stations are amazing like that. Even back in the city, Eri and Randy were rather amused by the narrow platforms inside subway stations, which are often less than a meter in width beside staircases.
Back in Singapore, despite platforms being as spacious as they are, we need to have million dollar gates at every station just to stop people from falling onto the tracks regularly. Singaporean’s aren’t that good at that whole self preservation thing.
Another interesting and lovely point about the stations around Otsu that I noticed was that there were free umbrellas at many stations. Having an abundance of discarded umbrellas is one of those problems you only find in a country like Japan, apparently it’s a very real problem too in populated cities like Tokyo. It’s nice seeing how the people out here have turned that problem into a boon.
Unwanted or lost umbrellas are left at the platform inside each station for people who had forgotten to bring one. Bet the umbrella companies aren’t too pleased about it. But it’s something that would only work in the sparsely populated countryside.
It was quite a distance (elevated by the fact that it was uphill) from Sakamoto to the cable car station. The weather was nice though, so no complaints there. We looked around for some reassurance that we were headed in the right direction, eventually finding a sign, which could had been easily missed since it had been grown over by plants.
A two way ticket up Hieizan by Sakamoto Cable Railway costs 1,570 yen. There should be another way up from the Kyoto side too, but not sure on the price of that. We got our tickets and still had a little time to spare since the carriages only came every half hour. The tickets were printed on some really nice paper.
True to its claim, the Sakamoto car car ride took quite a while, far longer than those I’ve encountered in other mountains around Japan. Unfortunately, the view wasn’t as good as expected. Part of this was due to us visiting too early for fall, but also because the cable cars only faced downwards, so you ride in reverse on the way up. The view was nice, but mostly obstructed by the dense forestation.
We were dropped off at a small station at the top, Cable Enryakuji Station. Past this point, we were effectively lost. It’s fun to get a little lost sometimes, provided that that is the intention. There wasn’t much information about Hieizan, both online and on the mountain itself. But it looked like the main attractions here were some temples, a garden and the overall view of course.
Even from up here at the top, the view of Lake Biwa was broken up by the trees, which was kind of a waste. Only a small bit of Biwako could be seen, since the only viewing areas looked toward the south and east. The larger parts of Lake Biwa spans to the north.
Messed around for a bit near the station, where Eri and Randy attempted to emulate self shots. Then headed up the only path through more forest, eventually spotting a temple building in the distance.
Here we came across a parking space and a crossroads leading in two directions. Taking a turn to the right, we immediately found an entrance to a temple complex, one of the few on Mount Hiei.
I wanted to visit the flower Garden Museum Hiei, but it looked to be located somewhere on the left side instead. Backtracking to the other path, we found a highway here. The garden probably wasn’t far off but there was no walking route and it didn’t seem like a good idea to walk on the highway (especially since we didn’t know which direction the garden was at either). Would had been useful to have a data connection now.
There was a bus stop and a sign with hardly any information to be helpful. Couldn’t figure out how much it’d cost to get there, but these mountain buses tend to be pretty expensive. So we decided to play it safe and give it a miss.
Back at the temple, we were confused as to which ticket to buy here. There were two different tickets one at 550 yen and another at 1000 yen. Thankfully the ticketing person was nice enough to explain to us that the only difference was that the more expensive ticket included entry into the temple’s treasure museum too. You can purchase the ticket separately for 450 yen anyways. We went with the first option which gave entry to all of the temples in the Enryakuji area.
Enryakuji covers an extensive area at the top parts of Hieizan and the temple buildings are spaced out accordingly. Being built into a mountain meant that getting around from building to building required quite a bit of walking and climbing. Thankfully, the signs inside the temple were more straight forward.
Was quite amused by these fool proof, signs located near the entrance. The directions are dependent on which facing you are reading the sign from. Probably useful when considering that most of their visitors are from the aging population.
First off, we needed to get something to eat. Randy and Eri had skipped breakfast this morning in favor of getting more sleep. We spotted signs for a temple lunch and headed in that direction.
Here we came across a hotel run by the temple staff, the first floor of the hotel sold various temple related souvenirs. Checking out the restaurant on the second floor, we learned that the lunch timings were already over. So much for that thought. Our only remaining option was to trek back to a small omiyage shop at the front of the grounds which also served some tea and snacks.
Back at the omiyage shop, Randy and Eri bought the tea and mochi set here for 300 yen, this was despite my protest that you could get a whole box of the same mochi here in boxes for much cheaper. Only later did they regret the decision.
Bought some tea with sticky goma tofu myself. Was awesome. The texture was really thick and it made a fine snack with the sweet sauce. Eri later bought a whole bunch of boxes of the mochi while Randy got a pack of the sticky bean curd. These were sold in packs of 2 for 600 yen. Regretted not getting some myself.
After the break, we ended up feeling a lot colder. Perhaps it was due to the afternoon sun having now disappeared, or being warmed up from the tea meant that we now had more heat to lose. Up till now, I had yet to find a chance to use any of the new jackets that were purchased from Kobe. Hopefully the temperature continues to fall over the next few days.
Past a flight of stairs down, we found the main temple hall at Enryakuji. It was really quite old. Didn’t take any photos inside since it’s a general rule of all temples and shrines in Japan that unless otherwise stated, photography is not allowed indoors. This should be common courtesy and out of respect of the people praying there but the staff tend to give up stopping people at touristy places like Asakusa, where every foreigner is busy snapping away or video recording inside the temple.
We were limited to an inner circumference of the temple, so there wasn’t much to see inside anyways. I did wonder though, back in the old days before electric heaters, how did the monks here survive the harsh winters. Or perhaps that was precisely why fires were so rampart in Japan in the past?
Climbing up another steep flight of stairs, we found a large gate at the top. Stopping a moment to consider what would happen should one lose their footing there. Seems like there was a vantage point from the second floor of the gate, but decided to give it a pass since there was a queue to get inside since a local tour group was making their rounds.
Amusingly, the stairs up were so steep, it really was more of a ladder. Still, the elderly people who comprised most of the group could climb up quite effortlessly. Quite amazed at how fit the old are in Japan.
Was starting to get late, so we it was time to start heading back to the cable car station, lest we miss the last ride down. Along the way, passed by this large bell outside the Amida hall. Randy really wanted to hit the bell.
Made it back to the station a little early, so we had to wait a while for the next car down. Warmed up to the heater around the benches. Slowly more people began to arrive and take refuge here too. The heater was really just a stove, there is fire burning on a metal plate floating over the entire barrel of oil stored inside the heater.
Below, we made our way back to Sakamoto station, passing by a lot of other temples and old houses as well as this large 7-Eleven that tried its best to fit in with the rest of the buildings. It had a traditional Japanese roof and even swapped out the company’s iconic red and green colors for a plain black logo.
Next was to take a train back to Otsu. According to the only tourist information available, they apparently have a light show on the lake there each evening. From the train guide, we were supposed to stop one stop before and switch trains but the train map showed that it might pass by Otsu anyways so we decided to stay on. It didn’t.
Goes to show that Hyperdia is always right. Ended up wasting about 20 minutes waiting for a train back in the direction of Otsu. Turned out we could had stopped one stop earlier at Hamaotsu too. It’s not so fun getting lost when you don’t plan for it.
Took a walk to Otsu Port where the night show was supposed to be held. But midway, we stopped by a Lawson to grab some snacks, since we had yet to have anything substantial to eat so far today. The yakitori from Lawson was good, or perhaps we were really hungry.
This was the first time Eri and Randy were being introduced to the wonders of Lawson. I very much prefer their food to Famima’s. There was even a cute gyaru cashier here who looked like Kikuchi Ami.
The entire route to the port was pitch dark, with the only buildings in Otsu being 2 story office buildings that had closed for the day. I’m not sure why most have the impression of Japanese people being overworked salary men, when most businesses I’ve encountered here close by 5 PM.
I think Singaporeans or rather humans in general prefer to believe in the misinformation their parents or friends tell them so that they can feel better about their own lives. It’s an excuse most use to convince themselves that they don’t have to leave their comfort zone, or work harder to achieve more.
The light show turned out to be a pretty underwhelming. Just a couple of lighted water jets. Cold and hungry, we opted for shelter at the nearby shopping mall instead.
The A-qus mall at Hamaotsu turned out to be the strangest mall we would encounter in Japan (so far). Apart from being located in the middle of nowhere, the place looked to be from 20 years ago. Even the signage of the Lotteria bears the company’s old logo. Everything seemed to be in quite a bad state, the only things open were a bunch of eateries and a Tsutaya.
After a round of the area, we learned how limited our choices were. Apart from the Lotteria, there was an overpriced Japanese grill, one shop selling typical Japanese food and a couple of western styled restaurants. We settled for one of the two, an omurice place called Rakeru. Learning later that we couldn’t had made a worse mistake.
The setting in Rakeru was actually quite nice. It’s a chain restaurant with an Alice in Wonderland theme going on. The friendly waitresses here wear red checkered pinafores like some sort of proto-maid cafe. It should be noted, that this was the same chain of restaurants that Takai Tsukina and Hiramatsu Kanako introduced some years ago.
Meals were not cheap, but still within expected prices for a restaurant setting. Mains go for between 800 to 1000 yen. That was about all the good things we could say for the shop though.
I ordered a “haruchii” omurice, which turned out to be healthy rather than hearty. The potato was barely cooked, the rice and omulet tasteless. They even took the liberty of mixing in unpolished grains inside of the omurice which I hated. Worst yet, the entire dish was drenched in a sweet sauce instead of the usual demi-glace.
According to their reactions, Eri’s and Randy’s choices did not fair any better. Regrettably, we should had braved on our hunger to try out the Kushikatsu buffet near our hotel that the two of them had been wanting to try.
After dinner Eri wanted to spend some time at the Tsutaya. It was quite a large store, with plenty of books and video games for sale in addition to the ton of usual CDs and DVDs for rental.
Learned from some of the advertisements that they’d be releasing a special edition 3DS XL (LL in Japan) for Animal Crossing next week. But we will need to wait till Tokyo to see if can get one. Spotted a nice mook in the local travel section about the “100 Aquariums in Japan” wanted to get it, but decided to perhaps wait till we reach Tokyo too, since my luggage was already filled to the brim. On hindsight, a single book couldn’t had hurt.
On our way back, we stopped by a Lawson near our hotel this time. Out of all the convenience stores in Japan, Lawson tends to have the widest variety of foods for sale. Grabbed a second dinner here, since our first dinner was so disappointing. Also, a bottle of overpriced Coca-Cola. Hadn’t had any in a week, since was hoping that we’d visit a supermarket sometime earlier but we hadn’t had the time to.
Since I had been staying off coffee for the past 2 months, cola had been my only source of caffeine recently and I was starting to get withdrawal symptoms without the carbonated caramel drink. I guess my overall mood would improve after.
Back in the hotel, our first package had finally arrived. Inside were tickets for the Happy Music Live 2012 show that we would be attending in Tokyo. Originally, the show was supposed to feature Scandal, Becky and Nogizaka46. But upon receiving the tickets, learned that NMB48 and more importantly Kyary Pamyu Pamyu would be joining the live too.
It was a nice surprise, since we would be reaching Tokyo one day too late for Kyary’s Budokan concert and I doubt the rest would be too keen on taking a Shinkansen one day earlier for the sake of that.
Since I had bought tickets a month earlier directly, seating was randomly assigned. A bummer that we ended up with center row 55 seats, which were nearly right at the back of the hall. The concert would be at Yokohama Arena too, so I was quite worried, from past experience the other end of the hall was at least 100 meters away from the stage.
The pasta from Lawson was good and it cost less than half the price of the first dinner. Since we were back early, that meant that I could also do some laundry before heading to sleep. Only after hearing an intense rattling sound coming from the dryer did I realize that both the ticket and medallion from Kobe Tower were still in my shirt pocket. The coin survived with just some scratches, while I would have to spend the rest of the night peeling off bits of the ticket from the shirt.
Overall, today ended up being quite unfulfilling. We were left wondering if the day would had been better spent at some other city along Biwako, while Randy was also quite keen on revisiting the monkeys at Arashiyama.
Perhaps the most important thing we would achieve today was in getting our B-Mobile data sim cards finally activated. Back at the hotel, it came across to me as to why I hadn’t tried asking one of the deputy contacts in Japan for help. Within 15 minutes of sending out one e-mail, our sim cards were up and working just like that. Japan would get a lot more convenient now.