One of the oldest lakes in the world and the largest lake in Japan, Lake Biwa (琵琶湖) possesses a long and rich history. While it is known for the many tourist spots and resorts that surround it, there are also three festivals that should not be missed when visiting the lake. Let’s find out more about the three great festivals of Lake Biwa!
Passed down from generation to generation, each of the festivals at Lake Biwa is recognized as an intangible cultural property. Two festivals are held in spring and one festival is held in autumn. Find out what makes these festivals distinct, drawing thousands of visitors each year.
Popular for the 13 hikiyama floats that are paraded around the city, the Otsu Matsuri is celebrated at the Tenson-Jinja Shrine (天孫神社) every October. Each of the floats represents a town in Otsu City.
Aside from their decorations, what makes the floats unique is that they only have three wheels instead of the usual four. Atop each float is a karakuri, or a mechanized doll. With a history of close to 400 years, the festival is said to have begun in the Edo (江戸) period with a tanuki mask dancing.
The Otsu Matsuri is a two-day event, with the floats displayed on the first day and paraded on the second day. Lively festival music, mainly with the flute and drums, also accompanies the parade. Try to catch the chimaki thrown during the parade which can bring good luck as it has been blessed in the Tenson-Jinja Shrine.
The Sanno Festival, held annually at the Hiyoshi Taisha Shrine (日吉大社), is the oldest of the three festivals with its 1200-year history. It starts in March, but its main festivities happens three days in April: from April 12th to 14th.
On the first day, the Uma no Shinji ritual (午の神事) takes place where two mikoshi (神輿), or portable shrines, are brought down from Mt. Ushio (牛尾山) representing a divine marriage. The Yoimiya Otoshi ritual (宵宮落とし) takes place on the second day where four mikoshi are shaken, representing childbirth. On the last day, the Awazu no Goku ritual (粟津の御供) takes place, where seven mikoshi are loaded on a boat that crosses Lake Biwa, representing an offering.
Hiyoshi Taisha Shrine, the head shrine of 3800 Sanno Shrines (山王神社), is a Japan Heritage site embodying a culture of prayer with water.
The Nagahama Hikiyama Festival has its roots in the Azuchi-Momoyama (安土桃山) period when Toyotomi Hideyoshi (豊臣秀吉) gave money to the townspeople to celebrate the birth of his son. With the money, twelve hikiyama floats were made to celebrate at the Hachiman Shrine (八幡神社). Each of the hikiyama houses a kabuki stage and the highlight of the festival is the children’s kabuki performance on top of the hikiyama. The festival is observed from April 9th to 16th, with incense offerings and shrine visits held on the first four days and the children’s kabuki held on the last four days.
In addition to being one of the three festivals of Lake Biwa, the Nagahama Hikiyama Festival is also one of the three great float festivals in Japan. If you want to know more about the festival and see some of the hikiyama used in the festival on display, you can also visit the Hikiyama Museum (曳山博物館).
Experience the treasured traditions of the Shiga Prefecture through the three great festivals of Lake Biwa! If you’re in the area during spring or autumn, try joining the festivities and experience some ancient Japanese culture.