Shiga is an inland prefecture appropriately known as the ‘Lake Country’ in both senses of the word. Shiga prefecture completely encompasses Lake Biwa (Biwako) which covers about one-sixth of the prefecture’s total area. It is also sparsely populated, with only 1.35 million people spread over the prefecture’s 4,000 square kilometers, many of whom are engaged in a rural lifestyle. Some are truly unique, such as the few hundred people who live on the small fishing village on Okishima – an island on the lake. The region’s natural setting, historical attractions and culture draw more than 40 million visitors every year, but the pace remains laid back.
Despite it’s inland position and sparse population, Shiga has always been an important location throughout Japan’s history. Lake Biwa and the Tokaido, Nakasendo, and Tokuriku roads comprised a vital transport network between Western and Eastern Japan, all going through Shiga. The region’s fertile grounds and rich natural resources also helped to provide for the imperial courts in nearby Kyoto and Nara.
These attributes were all important in the development of the Omi Shonin, or Omi Merchants who were traders who developed a base in Omi Hachiman during the Edo Period from where they organized a branch location product distribution system in major centers such as Kyoto, Osaka and Edo (now Tokyo). These merchants were the forefathers of many of today’s major Japanese trading houses, department stores and other businesses.
In addition to the strategic advantages, the beauty of the region’s natural environment may have been the reason why the prefecture has been able to attract some very important historical figures:
*For a brief period (567 to 572), the city of Otsu located on the southwestern shore of Biwako was Japan’s capital during the reign of Emperor Tenchi and is currently the capital of Shiga Prefecture.
*Oda Nobunaga built his grand castle in Azuchi from where he had intended to rule the country. The man who would follow him in that title, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, built his first castle in Nagahama and was the lord over three provinces in the northeastern region of Biwako.
*Ishida Mitsunari, the man who lost his bid for control of Japan to Tokugawa Ieyasu at the Battle of Sekigahara, was based in Sawayama, now known as Hikone. Hikone Castle, one the country’s oldest and most beautiful, was built in the battle’s aftermath. It is now listed and protected as a national treasure.
While its natural resources and transport networks made the region important from a military standpoint, Shiga’s natural beauty and proximity to Kyoto and Nara also inspired many outstanding cultural achievements. There are many famous temples and treasure in the prefecture, so much so that Shiga possesses the fourth highest number of designated cultural assets in the nation. Chikubu Island, inside the northern waters of Biwako, is a fine example of the impressive and unique religious destinations in the region. The island is home to several ancient buildings including Hougonji Temple and Tsukubusuma Shrine set on a hill overlooking Lake Biwa. The island is one of the 33 stops on the Temple Pilgrimage route of the western country as is Ishiyama Dera near the Seta River.
Ishiyama-dera was also where Murasaki Shikibu created the plot of the literary masterpiece Genji Monogatari (the Tale of Genji) which is now recognized by many to be the world’s first novel. Nearby Otsu city was a favourite of haiku master, Matsuo Basho, who chose to be buried at Gichu-ji, one of its historic temples. At the other end of the vast lake, is the beautiful town of Nagahama.
Of course, the natural setting offers many recreational opportunities, from cruising Biwako, to hiking the surrounding shore and mountains, or skiing in winter at resorts such as Mount Ibuki. Shiga is bordered by mountainous areas in every direction: Nosaka Mountains form its northern border with Fukui, Ibuki Mountains constitute the eastern border with Gifu, the Suzuka Mountains (including Gozaisho-dake) form the south-eastern border with Mie, and the Hira and Hiei Mountains constitute the western border with Kyoto. Shiga prefecture also shares a border with Nara.
Eastern Lake Biwa area – Hikone, Hikone Castle and Genkyu-en, Chikubu Island, Mount Ibuki, Mount Ibuki Skiing, Nagahama, Daitsuji, Hakodate-yama Skiing, Kunizakai Skiing
Ohmi Hachiman area – Choumeiji, Okishima, Suigo Meguri, Azuchi Castle Ruins, Taga Taisha
Western Otsu area – Ishiyama-dera, Hiei-zan
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