Cycling Lake Biwa | Japan’s Largest Lake
Just 5 kilometers east of Kyoto, the cultural capital of Japan, is Japan’s largest lake, Lake Biwa. Cycling around Lake Biwa is quickly becoming a staple of self-guided and guided cycling tours in Japan. And, thanks to colorful road markings much like the Shimanami Kaido or Kasumigaura Cycling Roads one can navigate the route with relative ease.
What is Lake Biwa?
Besides being Japan’s largest lake, Lake Biwa is also home to everything from dense Japanese cities on its southern edge, to sprawling rice fields and inaka countryside towns towards its north. Named for the lakes shape that is said to be similar to that of the Japanese musical instrument known as “Biwa”, the lake is a regular stop for Japanese tourists with lots of infrastructure in place such as hotels and ryokans.
The Lake Biwa Ichi Cycling Route
The official name of the Lake Biwa cycling route is the Biwa-Ichi or “Biwa Loop”. And as mentioned earlier, the Japanese government has now applied blue route arrows around the full loop to help cyclists navigate the route.
The most direct route is around 180km to complete the full loop around Lake Biwa. That said, this direct route misses many of the most beautiful places along the way such as the Okubiwako Parkway 奥びわ湖パークウェイ and opportunities to ride through car free satoyama rice fields.
With a few scenic stops added to the route a more typical distance cyclists will cover is around 200-250km for a full loop, and my favorite loop comes in at around 205km hitting lots of the nearby sites and most scenic stretches of road while also avoiding the most congested parts of the route.
I will go into more detail below with a full route and file you can download to your phone or GPS cycling computer, but in short, the north and east sides are the most enjoyable while the south/southwest side of the route is probably the least enjoyable part and can easily be avoided for more scenic roads if you like.
Lake Biwa Ichi Cycling Route Osusume Course ~
Check out my interactive map below of the route, and be sure to open the legend by clicking the upper left hand icon so you can see what each color means. For example, light green is a quiet road with a dedicated bike path along side it, and on the contrary, dark red is a heavy traffic road with no bike lane (yikes!).
As said above there are lots of ways to ride this route, and while the government did a great job marking the main route, the reality is that a very large portion of it follows adjacent to very busy roads and sometimes directly on roads with heavy truck traffic, traffic lights, and no shoulder for cyclists.
That being said, there are also stretches that are really magical and beautiful.
So again, the north and east sides are significantly more enjoyable to ride than the west and south sides. With that I focused on finding suitable alternatives to the busy, and honestly dangerous, sections on the south and west sides like in the photo above.
You can also use the above interactive map in a nifty trick by adding it to your Google Maps App on your phone for when you are riding the route yourself. Alternatively, if you have a GPS cycling computer download the route file here to have it guide you on the route!
For phones simple start by clicking the little star icon just to the right of the map name in the interactive map above. This adds the map to your “saved maps” Then follow the steps on your device outlined on this help page by Google (works on iPhones as well).
Which Direction to Ride
At the moment, the route is only marked for the counter clockwise direction. This means it will be much easier to follow the arrows if you ride this direction. Also, as an added bonus, this direction will allow you to stay closest to the lake at all times as you will be cycling on the left side of the road. Nifty!
If you do decide to ride it clockwise I would heavily recommend using some form of navigation such as a GPS cycling computer as it is quite hard to follow the arrows when you reach intersections.
How to Get to Lake Biwa
The most common way to access Lake Biwa is by train from Kyoto Station. In just 10min from Kyoto station you can arrive at Otsu Station where you are just a kilometer or so from hopping on the route. Nice!
Alternatively those coming by car will typically choose a starting point such as Otsu to book a hotel at and ask to leave their car in the parking lot for the following day/days as they make their lap around the lake. While some hotels will allow this for free, some will also charge a small fee for doing so. Just give the hotel a quick call and they will be happy to let you know their process for this.
Other Cycling Routes in Japan
So you might be asking then, are there any other interesting cycling routes in Japan? And if so, how does the Lake Biwa Ichi compare to them?
While the list continues to grow of officially marked cycling routes in Japan, the reality is many are not too dissimilar to Lake Biwa Ichi, in so far as they are often alongside or simple marked on main/busy roads for large portions of the route.
This is not to say they are all bad, indeed these routes often have many great parts, but due to the natural congestion of Japan’s costal urban areas, and interesting planning choices of the governments contractors who designate the routes, you end up with a fair share of cars around you.
For those that have ridden the Shimanami Kaido, you will understand this all too well. Truly another great cycling route in Japan, but very far from a low traffic experience when you follow the main route. Those that venture off the main Kaido will find many quieter scenic spots, but much of the route is quite literally along the busiest road on each island.
Personally my favorite, still very unknown, cycling route in Japan is the Tone River Cycling Road. The longest contiguous cycling path in all of Japan, the Tone River stretches from deep in the mountains of Gunma Prefecture, crossing through 4 prefectures before reaching the ocean a whopping 230km away.!
The best part of the Tone River Cycling Road? It really is car free for over 200km of the route and rarely follows busy main roads where you hear a constant hum of traffic. Instead you get to ride through small towns, tranquil rice fields, and huge stretches of fertile land that is considered “the rice basket of Japan”.
Another route worth considering is the Kasumigaura Ring Road just north of Tokyo. This loop, while almost entirely on roads is very low traffic due to the very rural nature of the loop. A great loop for those looking to complete a lap around a lake in Japan, and at least for me, a much more enjoyable ride compared to the Lake Biwa Ichi.
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