Lake Biwa Canal hike
If you visit Kyoto’s famous Nanzen-ji temple, you’ll see an aqueduct on the temple grounds. Going up the steps, you see a channel carrying water around the hillside and over the aqueduct… and you may wonder, as I did during my very first visit to Kyoto, where this water was going and from whence it came. Well, a few years later I found myself living just around the corner in Keage and decided I’d get to the bottom of it.
Asking around and looking it up, I learned that the water going over the Nanzen-ji aqueduct comes from the same source as does the water in the canal alongside the Philosopher’s Path and the Okazaki Canal near the Heian Shrine. That source is Japan’s largest lake, Lake Biwa (Biwako, びわ湖), in neighbouring Shiga prefecture – a place I was already very familiar with from my weekly snowboarding trips there in winter – from where the water is transported via the Meiji-era Lake Biwa Canal.
The Lake Biwa Canal was constructed between 1885 and 1890 for a number of reasons – chiefly for transportation, to provide water to the city for irrigation and fire fighting, and to power Japan’s first (small) hydroelectric power station. It was apparently seen at the time as a symbol of Japan’s rising industrial might as it was the first such project to completed without the input of foreign engineers, though not so very long after construction it was rendered obsolete for transportation by the road and rail network. Today the power station continues to provide a small portion of the city’s energy, and the canal is still useful for helping to control water levels during rainy season; it’s also lined most of the way along with cherry blossom trees, making it perfect for an early-April hike. One of Kyoto’s most famous cherry blossom spots, the Keage Incline, was where the boats were mechanically raised and lowered between the upper Lake Biwa Canal in Keage and the lower Okazaki Canal at the level of the Kamo river (which it feeds into).
When going snowboarding in Shiga, the train you take from Kyoto passes through Kyoto’s Yamashina district, and from the train you catch glimpses of the Lake Biwa Canal. After clocking this and having a good look at Google Maps, I figured it would make for a pretty neat hike to follow the course of the canal from the shores of Lake Biwa to the banks of the Kamo, especially during the cherry blossom season – and so, on one not-so-fine spring day with the sakura in full bloom under leaden skies and sheets of drizzle I took the Keihan line to Miidera (三井寺) station and did exactly that.
(This would also be a great hike in autumn as there are plenty of maple trees along the canal, and Nanzen-ji and Bishamon-do temples are famous for their autumn leaves)
Unfortunately I got rained on pretty heavily going up over the ridge from Shiga to Yamashina as the drizzle gave way to buckets, and ended up stopping in at my apartment (along the route) for a cup of tea and change of clothes before finishing off the walk to the river. This means I can only give an estimate of the hiking time, but I think it was around five hours. The cherry blossoms along the route were beautiful, and the canal with its Meiji-era architecture adds an interesting historical touch to the hike; the route also takes you to or near Nanzen-ji temple, Eikan-do temple, the Heian Shrine, and the Philosoher’s Path (some of Kyoto’s most famous sights), making this route a good way to combine some Kyoto sightseeing with a nice hike while seeing a part of the city that you otherwise wouldn’t.
Starting from Miidera station (on Keihan’s Ishiyama-Sakamoto line), first of all wander over to have a look at the view of the lake, and then follow the Lake Biwa Canal the other way towards the mountains.
Before long, it enters a tunnel which carries it under said mountains to the Yamashina district – but you’re going to have to go up and over (only a climb of about 200m) before rejoining it.
You might want to stop in at Miidera first – this is one of the largest temples in Japan, and although overshadowed by the more famous temples in Kyoto it’s of great historical importance. Here you can see the famous ‘Benkei bell’ – legend tells us this enormous bell was a gift from the dragon princess of Lake Biwa to the hero Fujiwaru-no-Hidesato after he slew the giant centipede which was her mortal enemy (a famous story in Japanese folklore). As he couldn’t carry it, he donated it to Miidera. A few centuries later it was stolen by the great warrior monk Benkei, and he dragged it back up Mount Hiei to his home temple Enryaku-ji (he was said to have been a giant of superhuman strength – and you would have to be to move that bell single-handedly). When he rang the bell, however, it cried and wailed to be returned to Miidera and so Benkei kicked it back down the mountain, and the bell still bears the scratches to this day. The temple grounds are also home to a huge number of cherry trees making it spectacular while they’re in bloom, and the raised elevation of the upper section gives better views of Lake Biwa than you get from near the station.
Once you’re done at Miidera, skirt around the temple precinct to the south through the residential neighbourhood. There’s a pretty little Shinto shrine there (Nagara Jinja, 長等神社) which you should come across on your right, and turning west away from the lake from there you’re on the road which takes you up and over to Kyoto.
Walk past the last few buildings and keep going straight (ignore the left turn), and you’ll be on a fairly steep climb up the hill. This is on a road (with no sidewalks), but it seems to see little to no traffic so it’s not unpleasant. After about 15 minutes you’ll reach the highest point, marked by a small shrine on the left side of the road, and a short distance beyond that there’s a footpath leaving the road on the left hand side just before a large building (Otsu City Business Administration). There’s a map there at the start of the footpath:
Following this path down, you’ll eventually pass under an elevated highway into Kyoto’s Yamashina district. Just on the other side of the highway you can pick up the trail of the canal again, and it’s then a simple case of following the sakura-lined canal-side path across Yamashina.
After a while it again passes through a (shorter) tunnel, just keep following the path around the hill and you meet the canal again on the other side. Shortly after this you can make a detour to Bishamon-do temple (毘沙門堂, about a ten-minute walk north), a temple noted for its autumn colours.
Continuing on from here you pass behind an ancient imperial burial mound, soon after which the canal goes through another (much shorter) tunnel before entering yet another (long) tunnel that takes it under the Higashiyama mountains to Kyoto proper. At this point you once again have to take the road up and over, but this one’s a much more major road with sidewalks and buildings (this road is actually Sanjo-dori (三条通), the downtown section of which is part of Kyoto’s main shopping district. My old apartment was located just off this road, at the highest point)
It takes about twenty minutes to go up and over to Keage station. Turning right just before the station brings you to the top of Keage Incline (it basically runs over the top of the station entrance), where the canal re-emerges from the tunnel (if you find yourself in front of the station, go back around and up behind the station entrance). The incline was constructed to raise and lower boats on rails, due to the water having to descend from here to the level of the Kamo river.
The rails are still there, preserved as was, and an old boat can be seen resting on one of the wagons that used to transport them up and down. Cherry trees line the incline on both sides, and if you time it right to be here when they’re in full bloom it is absolutely spectacular… though it’s obviously also ridiculously crowded with smartphone photographers! (I used to walk home from work up this incline, it was pretty magical walking under the moonlit blossoms after the crowds were gone)
From Keage you have two options, as the canal splits. Most of the water goes down the pipes next to the Incline, forming the Okazaki canal at the bottom of the slope, while the rest of it goes through a channel to Nanzen-ji and over the famous aqueduct.
Going down the incline to the Okazaki canal will get you to the end of the hike faster, and the Lake Biwa Canal Museum (free entry, closed Mondays) is at the bottom of the Incline. Following the Okazaki canal, you pass near the Heian Shrine and past the canal’s hydroelectric power station and finally arrive at the Kamo river (depending on the season, the water may be flowing directly into the river, or it may be diverted down a separate channel to eventually flow into the Uji river a long way south, in Fushimi Ward – don’t bother following it!)
On the other hand, if you want follow the water to Nanzen-ji, just around the corner from the top of the Incline you can find a path through the forest running alongside the water channel. A short walk brings you to Nanzen-ji’s ‘back door’ and you’ll emerge from behind the aqueduct into the temple grounds. You can’t cross the aqueduct to follow the water behind Nanzen-ji and neighbouring Eikan-do temple (another temple noted for its autumn colours), but after checking out Nanzen-ji (and perhaps Eikan-do) you can walk a short distance north to the Philosopher’s Path, which again follows alongside the canal after it re-emerges from behind Eikan-do. This is another spectacular place when the blossoms are in full bloom, and is probably Kyoto’s single most famous cherry blossom spot – if you’re there in spring be ready for the crowds, and remember to sample the cherry blossom & green tea ice cream!
At the northern end of the Philosopher’s Path you can visit the famous Silver Temple; from here you can continue to follow the waters of the canal for another thirty minutes through residential Kyoto until it flows into the river, but it isn’t so interesting – you can instead catch a bus on Shirakawa-dori or walk 20 minutes west to Demachiyanagi station, on the Keihan line.
(The Silver Temple’s also the starting point for two other hikes I highly recommend – the ascent & descent of Mt Hiei finishing in Ohara (about 8 hours), and the much shorter romp up to the Daimonji-yama viewpoint which just takes a couple of hours up & down)
Have you been to Lake Biwa? Do you have any questions about the Lake Biwa Canal or the hike? Leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you.
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