Old Tokaido Road, Take Me Home! Pt. 1

Part 1: Otsu

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During the Edo period, two great highways linked the old capital, Kyoto, to the new one, Edo: the Tokaido and Nakasendo roads. They had to pass through Shiga to avoid mountains, following the south shore of Lake Biwa. You can still find remains of that time in Otsu and Kusatsu.

We start our day in Shiga’s capital, where we first visit the bridge over the Seta River, Seta no Karahashi. A short walk allows us to enjoy the scenery and get our fill of vitamin D. Since the winds would blow down Mount Hiei and turn ships around on the Lake, the bridge has always been strategically important as part of the safest direct route to Kyoto. That has caused it to be destroyed countless times during its thousand-year existence, and so its current appearance is modern. Even now, Karahashi is a busy area, where fishermen stand in the shade of the bridge every day and the Senkosai festival happens in August.

Senkosai is a compelling festival, where mikoshi portable shrines cross the bridge and ride on boats up and down the Seta. One of these mikoshi hails from the Takebe Taisha Shinto shrine, our next destination.

Takebe is said to be one of the oldest shrines in Japan. Its proximity to Lake Biwa ties it strongly with water, as can be seen with its various omikuji fortune offerings: one appears when the paper is wet, like a secret message, and another is hidden inside a small fish that has to be pulled up with a fishing rod. The shrine ground is sizable, and there’s a pond and a garden in addition to the main and secondary buildings. One of those, just past a bridge where koi fish gather under our steps, is supposed to help you find love. The area is peaceful, and we take a breath of fresh air before going back to Karahashi.

From there, we make our way to the Karahashiyaki Kamamoto pottery store. Unlike other types of Shiga pottery, Karahashi-style ceramics use clay taken from Lake Biwa. They say it’s made from all the creatures living in the lake, which give it their life energy. It’s also famous for its “Biwako blue” lacquer colour. After an interesting conversation with the master potter, we move to the nearby studio, where we spend the next hour making our very own cups. The master is a great teacher, and we all have fun creating. We leave our masterpieces at the workshop, since the mugs must be glazed and fired several times over a month before turning into the finished product.

We return to the Seta River for lunch, where we board the Yakatabune Shiki, a small boat operated by the Shiga Chuo Kanko Bus company. We feast on tea and a bento box filled with local specialties before going up to the observation deck. Over the next hour, the cruise goes up the Seta River and around the southern part of Lake Biwa before coming back. Of course, the view is amazing. I wish I could see it in the evening as well, but it’ll have to wait another day! For now, we’ll be heading to Otsu’s neighbouring city, Kusatsu, where we’ll spend the afternoon.

To be continued…

Takebe Taisha shrine is a 15-minute walk away from Karahashimae station on the Keihan line, over the Seta river.

Pottery experiences should be reserved in advance. Making a cup costs 2,000 yen. http://www.karahashiyaki.co.jp/tougei-1jikann.htm (Japanese only)

Yakatabune Shiki offers different courses. Check their website for more information (English available).


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