Lake Biwa is the largest lake in Japan. Many people from all over Japan come to see this lake and embrace its far-stretching beauty. Most of these travelers aren’t swimmers or photographers, but cyclists.
In 2017, Biwaichi (the road surrounding Biwako) became known as the number one tourist destination for domestic travelers during Golden week. It’s easy to see why. Golden Week (April 29th — May 6th) is notorious for being crowded. What better way to free up some space than hopping on a bike and riding around Biwa?
Once on board, you’ll notice along the way blue arrows indicating the appropriate path, making it easier for travelers to navigate the 200 km around the lake. In 2015, the Japanese government put 900 billion yen into repaving it and painting blue arrows along Biwaichi to aid riders.
In my personal experience, it has made riding Biwaichi a pleasant experience with no confusion as to where to go. I’ve actually ridden it five times now, and I’ve never got lost on the way. Most people finish it in about 2 days, opting to stay at a hotel along Lake Biwa. More serious cyclists will finish in one day, and some such as my UK friend Joni Longden have even finished it as fast as 7 hours. But that’s just insane.
In terms of difficulty, answers vary based on experience and overall fitness. My first time I had almost no experience riding a proper road bike; however, being a runner, I found it manageable to finish in about 12 hours taking plenty of breaks along the way to take pictures or snack on convenient store food. Although that’s not to say it was easy. There were plenty of times I wanted to give up and hop on a train. However, if you have good biking friends, they will cheer you on till the end.
On this same trip, I met a 75 year old Japanese man on the road whose done Biwaichi every month for several years now. This man’s scrawny stature would hardly indicate he was a man of such physical strength, but the passion in his eyes clearly showed that he was serious. He told us that if you add up all the mileage he’s done, the distance is equivalent to cycle from Shiga prefecture to Sapparo, Hokkaido in the north.
But it got me thinking: “why would someone do Biwaichi religiously? Once a year, let alone once a month?”
I’ve thought about it, and the first answer is obvious. Lake Biwa is simply beautiful. You may cycle anywhere in Japan and have a good time, but Biwaichi is long enough to be a challenge, and scenic enough to capture your imagination along the way. I don’t need to convince you though.
The second answer is that finishing Biwaichi leaves you with new perspectives about life. The first time I finished it, I felt destroyed by the experience laying on my kitchen floor, but afterwards, I developed a new respect for fitness and a new appreciation for life, perhaps simply for having survived.
Each time i’ve done it since then has become a lot easier and more meaningful. Each time it’s gotten easier and over my two years in Japan I’ve created some awesome memories on a bike. From the secrets shared in the tiny historic districts, to the monkeys blocking the road in Makino, to the big scare when our friends crashed, and finally to talking with the owners of our hotel about America– All those tiny moments over my three years in Japan would not have happened if I didn’t get on that bike and just go.
Now when i ride Biwa, it’s meditative. The hours slip by, pedaling, singing, laughing, and peering at the grandiose lake that both separates the inhabitants of Shiga and yet somehow brings them all closer together on the road. Riding around Biwaichi isn’t just awesome, it’s spiritual.
So if you ever wonder if it’s worth it. Stop wondering.
It’s worth it, even if you have to suffer for it.
And of course my personal ritual of a cold beer and a hot bath afterward always helps.