lake Biwa and Hikone castle
Want to travel from Tokyo to Kyoto with some original stops?
Visit Nagahama old town at lake Biwa and Hikone castle
In this article:
- why lake Biwa and Hikone castle make a great stop on your East-West itinerary
- where to overnight in your camper car, enjoying lake view
- suggestions how to connect with highlights like Kiso valley and ‘the Ninja Museum’
A rewarding stop for a night
Hidden between the Kanto region to the east (Tokyo, Hakone and the Japanese Alps) and the Kansai region to the west (Osaka, Kyoto and surroundings) is lake Biwa, the largest fresh water lake in Japan. Besides being a refreshing and natural spot, lake Biwa and Hikone castle are great for an off-the-beaten-track overnight on your camper trip from east to west or vice versa. Fancy waking up to the sound of gentle waves flapping the shore next to your camping car? Exploring the old streets of quiet Nagahama town? Discovering a gem of a Japanese castle, not overrun with foreign tourists? Read on!
Picnic dinner, picnic breakfast and a swim
We are travelling in Shiga prefecture now, and on your map or gps, the Biwa lake is just impossible to miss. It is huge. It is long and not very narrow, measuring 63 by 22 kilometers. Grassy shores and lake view guarantee an overnight spot where you could have a picnic dinner and a picnic breakfast. Even a swim if you like! The area is green and rather quiet, towns are mostly low-rise and fields and farmland are blissfully mixed into the light urbanisation. Where? How? You get all practicalities below, in the Ride Summary.
Nagahama, a traveller’s surprise
It was the lake that caught my eye on the map, when planning our trip. But it was Nagahama on the northeast shore, that turned out the biggest surprise. The town is off-radar and easy to miss. It might not merit a full day yet you should make time to arrive in the Kurokabe area, the old part of town by say, 3pm. That leaves you about 2 hours to quietly stroll the streets lined with traditional shops (Kura) and houses (Machiya) before they close and things get a deserted feel. Stroll and enjoy the local flavour before parking for the night at our quiet spot on the lake.
The Daisuji-temple is well worth to have a look at, especially since it has a hidden parking spot that fits your camping car, and it is as central as it gets. Four o’clock is snack-time right? So we enjoyed some fried balls made of rice, from ‘a well-experienced ball-fryer’ who also helpfully pointed out the neighbourhood Sento or bathing house. It even has a small sauna! So we already had a splash before even driving off to the lake.
lake Biwa and Hikone castle
If you can, arrive at the lakeside before sunset. From Nagahama it is around 15 minutes only. You will be looking across the water to the west, that’s why. Besides, choosing a spot in the dark is always more tricky. Because who knows what the view will be like when you wake up? But now you have the Go Camper Japan!-suggested spot already, so no worries there. Our spot today is quiet, right on the lake where you can picnic in the grass and even enjoy a refreshing swim! But it does not have a toilet. There is one at the 7/11-convenience store right across the road. You might even park there once night falls, moving back to the lake shore when you wake up. Speaking of a compromise being the best solution!
Following the lake, you can get to Hikone in less than 30 minutes. You will see more possible spots to park and camp along the way, would you not approve of the earlier suggestion. First you will see the castle, towering high overhead. Is has the pretty Japanese style that I at first glance do not directly associate with a stronghold and a successful ruler. But you have to take the weaponry of those times into account of course. Bow and arrow, samurai with swords and a local population ready to defend make it another story. Not even talking about ninja, that comes later, keep reading.
You can drive around Hikone castle, to have a look from all angles. You can even drive across the moat and inside the outer walls at one spot. Easy to see on the map. Parking is on all sides too.
Practicalities: where to sleep
A lot I have written down above already. And choosing between Nagahama, Hikone castle or lake Biwa, I would still go for a lake-side spot again. Convenience stores you will find plenty along your way, gas stations too. Every now and than a bigger supermarket. Local snacks you could best buy in the old streets of Nagahama. For washing and bathing, there is a proper onsen in the big hotel towering over Nagahama, on the lakeshore. I haven’t tried it though, the mentioned sento did fine and is a lot easier on the budget.
Combine your trip
Tip: use the Go Camper Japan!-map on this page for an overview of all destinations in Japan that we have explored and documented.
East – Kiso valley. About 2 hours (by toll road) east from Nagahama takes you to the more scenic part of the lovely Kiso valley. Here, along mountains streams and through dense forests meanders one of the old postal roads. In the old days, these connected Kyoto and Edo, present day Tokyo. For the travellers to rest there were road stations at a day’s hiking distance from each other. It is really scenic and you can still hike parts of this old trail. Read the article about Hiking the Kiso valley for all details, including where to park your campervan for the night.
South – Ninja museum. Worriers specialised in stealth and tricks. You may think Hollywood taught you all about this. But you haven’t seen 30% yet! Kids or no kids, the Ninja Museum in Iga-Ueno is a great look into Japanese history. It includes a guided tour through a real ninja-house, revealing lots of secrets and awesome techniques. Additionally there is a show, which is surely entertaining, and a must for kids. You can even dress up as a Ninja and throw shuriken, ninja stars.
North – Kanazawa. It is easy to talk East-West in Japan, but do not forget you can head (or come from the) north too. One of the most rewarding cities in central Japan is Kanazawa. Another castle, a top-3-Japanese garden and a well preserved old quarter. A must if you ask me. There is more in this article about going and staying there. Also the Noto peninsular, just past Kanazawa should be mentioned.
(South-) West – Kyoto, Nara and the Ise peninsular. Popular destinations like Kyoto and Nara are beyond the scope of Go Camper Japan. But they are well within easy reach of lake Biwa and Hikone castle. Especially by toll road. I prefer to tell you about the Ise peninsular instead. This amazing area is a bit further south. Highlights are the Ise grand shrine, sacred mount Koyasan, a nearly uncountable number of hot springs in the middle of nature (like my favorite Kawayu hotspring-in-a-river), lots of hiking, stunning coastal scenery and well, that should be enough to get you enthusiastic!
The Wiki-page for Lake Biwa is here
For the information on Hikone castle, fees and opening times, go to Japan-Guide
All about how you can actually do this, exploring Japan by rental camper car, check our How to–pages