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 complications as to where to go.
I’ve actually ridden the 200 km road 5 times now. most people finish it in about 2 days, opting to stay at a pension halfway from their starting point. more serious cyclists will choose to do it in one day, and some such as my UK friend Joni Longden have even finished it as fast as 7 hours. But he’s just crazy 😉
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 cobini food. Although that’s not to say it was easy. There were plenty of times I wanted to give up -the burning sensation in my legs echoed such feelings– however, my biking companions cheered me on to the end.
On this same trip, I met a 75 year old Japanese man on the road who said he has 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 went on to tell us how if you add up all the mileage of doing lake Biwa 12 times in one year, you would be able to cycle all the way to Sapparo, Hokkaido. Pretty impressive for an old geezer.
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. I don’t need to convince you though; just look at the featured photo of shigahige shrine and you’ll see what I mean. The second answer is that riding Biwaichi becomes a sort of spiritual journey for many.
If you’re like me, the first time you finish Biwaichi in one day, you’ll be left feeling both triumphant and defeated. “yes, victory is mine. I’ve conquered you! Now I may rest, again, perhaps for eternity”, i remember thinking as I was sprawled out on my kitchen floor still aching from the pain. I remember thinking “why did I do this, why did I do this” the entire time though, but afterwards, it’s hard to explain but you sort of develop 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 very good 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, to talking with the owners of our hotel who poured us profuse amounts of wine– All those tiny moments over the years accumulate into an a sort of reflection for how i’ve grown in my time in Japan.
Now when i ride Biwa, it’s meditative. The hours slip by, pedaling, singing, laughing, and staring at the grandiose lake that both separates the inhabitants of Shiga and yet somehow brings us all closer together.
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.