August 14, 2008

Lake Biwa Vacation

With Mike off for the Obon Week Holiday, we took the first of our two planned local get-away trips last Saturday through Tuesday. Our destination was Otsu, a small town on the southern end of Lake Biwa (Biwako). Biwa is the oldest and largest lake in Japan, and is about an hour and a half from Kobe by train, just past Kyoto.

We stayed at the super posh Otsu Prince Hotel. With great views of the lake from our 27th floor room, a beautiful (and huge) swimming pool, six restaurants, bikes to rent, and easy access to the lake-front promenade, this was a destination in and of itself. It was chock full of families on vacation, and apart from the fact that we were the only gaijin staying there that we saw, we felt like we were at a resort outside of Japan.

On Saturday evening, after settling in and getting our bearings, we went for a walk out on the promenade. It was loaded with fishermen, runners, and bikers and had huge flat rocks for Jacob to climb on.

On Sunday, we took a short train ride to Hikone, a nearby castle town farther up north along the lake. The Hikone mascot, Hikonyan, is one of the more recognizable mascots in Japan. He is cute, but it is hilarious that he now symbolizes the Hikone Castle, a massive 17th century fortress that was awarded to a warrior daimyo for his contributions in battle. The castle itself is one of the more impressive and classic castles of Japan, very reminiscent of Himeji Castle.

With Lauren still a little bit ginger on her injured foot, we were in no condition to be doing any serious wandering through the castle grounds or up to the top of this castle. Instead, we took a flat-boat tour of the castle moat. This gave us some nice views of the castle and grounds, as well as of the white and black swans that now live in the moat. It was a pretty unique and relaxing little trip.

Chikubushima Island
Hikone Port is one of the points from which boats depart to some of the small islands in the northern part of Biwako. We walked over to the port, and took a 35 minute boat ride over to the ancient sacred island of Chikubushima. On our way out, we passed some sail-boats and some jet-skiers trailed us out, getting some serious waves off our wake. (This was fascinating to Jacob and Lauren.)

Chikubushima is a total gem. What an amazing place. First of all, there were maybe 3 or 4 other people on our boat out there (the last one of the day). On the island, once past the small port area, we felt like we were the only ones there. In fact we pretty much were. Approaching the tiny island, you can see the vermillion Tori gates, shrines, pagodas, and temples, all nestled in between a lush forest along the mountainside. Steps carve their way up and through these sites. It was like a mini-scale version of Miyajima in many ways - the types of architecture and shrines, the magical enchanted sort of feel - but way more secluded and in a more serene and peaceful setting.

We spent about an hour on the island, climbing the steps (carrying Lauren all the way), exploring the various temples and shrines (which date back to the 700s), and taking in the terrific views. The neatest part was the interconnected Karamon gate, Funa (ship) corridor, and main shrine. Wandering through these ancient wooden halls really felt like we were transported back in time.

Boating on Biwako
Back in Otsu, after enjoying a day at the pool, we took another boat ride on The Michigan, a Mississippi River style paddle-wheel boat that was given as a gift by the sister city of East Lansing, Michigan. The extremely Americana-Huck Finn-ness of The Michigan on the very Japanese ancient Lake Biwa is a bit jarring and quite hilarious. But it was a great time aboard.

Jacob and Lauren indulged in a snow-cone and hammed it up trying on the captain's hat and jacket and "driving the boat." It was a nice being on the water, and the weather was perfect. (That is our hotel in the background of the last picture below)

The rest of our vacation was strolls along the Lake, enjoying the hotel's restaurants, runs along the Lake (Mike and Jacob), bike rides along the Lake (Ilena and Jacob), and family time playing dominoes and watching the Olympics (pretty much all judo, as earlier noted). At the end of our little three day get-away, we felt as if we had been on vacation for a week.


Semsavblanc said...

Your travel stories are so inspiring.

The Kasdan Family said...

Thanks! We started this blog as a journal and way of communicating with family and friends, but "meeting" readers like yourself (AKA "randoms"!) has been such an unexpected and interesting part of the experience.

Lisa said...

Loved these pictures at the bottom...i must have missed them last time. Everyone looks so tan and happy! Not only beautiful ppl, but scenery too!