Touring Lake Biwa on a Mama Chari Bicycle

By Michael Gakuran | | Adventure, Japan | 21 Comments |

A couple of weeks ago I headed out with a group of friends from work to take on the challenge of touring Lake Biwa, the largest lake in Japan, just north of Kyoto. All on a cranky old Mama Chari too – the sort of bicycle old ladies like to ride. With the weather on our side amidst the rainy season we set off to our starting point in the south.

Here’s a satellite version of our destination. We were to do the complete circuit over 2 days, with a stop overnight at a riverside cabin. Ahh, it brings back wonderful memories of my school days where everybody would bring a sleeping bag over for a night in at someone’s house…

We actually cheated a little though, as I found out to my disappointment afterwards. The little section at the bottom of Biwako (the Japanese name for Lake Biwa) was cut off in our route, knocking the full distance down from 170km to around 130km. We instead took a scenic bridge over the waters towards the grand, rusting haikyo ferris wheel in the distance. I actually explored this ruin way back last December while I had a sprained ankle of all things. But anyway, that’s a post to look forward to for another day. For now I’ll just give you this little morsel of rusty goodness.

Pushing on then, we set off along the cycling route around the lake. It was quite busy, despite it being the rainy season and it quickly became obvious we weren’t the only people attempting to do a circuit of the lake, although apparently we were the only ones stupid enough to come and rent mama chari to do it. The first place wouldn’t even rent us the bicycles after he found out we intended to take them all the way around!

For the most part, it was a flat, wide path that ran close to the water’s edge, but certain sections took us through old towns and farming villages, as well as mountain roads covered by forgotten pine trees. Making good use of my new 40-150mm zoom lens, I dangled the camera from my neck and snapped up as I rode. Once again I was reminded of the pleasures of small, light micro 4/3 cameras. There would be no way I could dangle a DSLR with the equivalent zoom around my neck and do the same thing while riding.

Work pal of mine Koumei and I pose for the camera. Note the hideously uncool rolled-up trousers and hairy legs. Yes, I did not think my legs would get hot… Koumei on the other hand looked an equally bizarre sight riding a pink women’s cycle while wearing pro cycling tights. A right pair, the two of us.

A rather dandy-looking yacht caught my eye as everyone set off again. I ended up getting left behind on more than one occasion and having to peddle hard to catch up, getting lost in the process. But it was all worth it. Some nice pictures to remember the day by.

I mentioned the beautiful old villages we passed through. You might quite rightly imagine that there were a fair few haikyo that caught my eye as well. Alas, nowhere near enough time to stop and explore. I did snap some interesting signs along the way though. This appears to be a brand of mosquito repellent. Oh how I hate those little buggers.

As you can see in the next picture, while the rain held off, we didn’t quite get the brilliant blue skies that make perfect pictures. But perhaps that was best; the heat stayed lowish and despite my hayfever flaring up it probably wasn’t as bad as it could have been. Everyone is still grinning and laughing in the picture – obviously this was still early on day 1 ^^;.

After lunch we made a stop at Guillver’s Kingdom (though not the haikyo theme park that is long since demolished…). A roadside station with a hulking great model of the man. I was happily snapping pictures when the rest of the team decide to start doing air poses. Just something I wouldn’t have thought of (or dared do) alone. I sometimes forget how much fun travelling with friends is. I don’t often get the chance.

After a slight detour around a landslide caused by the earlier heavy rains, we zipped through a few tunnels and past some wild monkeys. Unfortunately, I forgot to tweak my camera settings to grab sharp pictures, but they darted up from the water across the road and back into the trees. It turns out that the water was really nice too. Bloody cold at first, and the rocky bottom sharp as anything on bare feet, but so refreshing after a day’s cycling once used to it.

Koumei, Shouta and I decided to go for a little swim out the buoy and back. I later learned that this lake has a few gar in it, as result of people releasing pet ones there. I would not have liked to have met those nasty teeth…

In the evening we went out for food (a 40 minute drive in the van we brought along, changing the driver every so often). Afterwards, back in the wooden cabin we played some Daifugo with some insect-shaped chocolates with a nasty filling for the booby prize. Tickling matches and shimo-neta followed between the time drifting off to sleep. Awesome stuff ^^.

The next morning we stretched out and packed up the van ready. The usual game of rock-paper-scissors ensued in order to determine who got the best bicycle. Only two of the bikes had gears – one a fold-up bike and the other a semi-decent mama-chari with a high seat. Over the two days it was a constant battle to be the winner of the game in order to get the best possible ride, and it really did make a difference! After a losing streak I had to ride on Gin-chan, the crappy silver bicycle we so affectionally named whose seat was so low my knees hit my chin. A few hours of that and my thighs were burning. Luckily I came out on top a few times too. We invariably stopped after 10 or 15km to change drivers and swap bikes, although I ended up being the only one foolhardy enough to cycle the entire trip :p.

Above, myself, Takeuchi and Madoka. Along the way we passed many interesting types of buildings. This next one was just after the campsite we stayed at. Quite a sight nestled between the trees in the morning sunlight. Almost fairytale.

Or this next building. Perhaps some kind of storehouse? I wonder what the logo is on top – perhaps a family crest? I’ve seen this style of old building with fold-out window in houses before, especially around the old villages.

The second day turned out to be fairly easy-going. We were now into a good rhythm and somehow the track felt more downhill than the day before.

Another sight I came to see a lot of was these little winged creatures – tsubame (swallows). They like to make their nests under the alcoves of buildings, or canopies. One rest stop we visited had an indoor market with the ceiling covered in upside-down umbrellas to catch droppings because there we so many swallow nests up above!

If I was a bird I’d probably take advice from these little fellas. No cat is getting up here!

Another interesting sight along the way – a pirated Mario! A least he’s doing a community service – ‘watch out for kids jumping in front of cars!’ says the sign.

Finally then, we reached the last stretch of road. Kachikawa (above centre) and I raced on one side of the road, while Shouta and Takeuchi bombed along the other side. What had been a relatively pleasant trip throughout the afternoon turned into a heated push to see who would be first back. Kachikawa got left behind somewhere, probably riding Gin-chan, so it was left to me to fend off the other two challengers. Luck was on my side though, as they got stopped at a crossing, so I sailed through to the end, unceremoniously splashing an energy drink on my face in a moment of lax concentration. Oh well. Good times! Madoka and Manami (above right) were waiting with the van at the finish line. Everyone was back safely and in good time.

A weekend well spent and definitely something I have to do more often. Thanks everyone! :)

21 comments on “Touring Lake Biwa on a Mama Chari Bicycle
  1. Peter says:

    Really enjoyed your adventures in Japan

  2. Felicity says:

    When we were getting ready to cycle Biwa, I came across your site. I wish we’d had the option for roadies, and swapping tired riders into a van – I think that’s a smart choice :P We went on mama-chari, in the rain, but we had fun and made it!

    If you have time, check out our video:

  3. Brian says:

    Thanks for the description of your visit, it sounds great if you have friends to share it with. I’ll be visiting Kyoto for a few weeks in October, can you suggest an interesting village to visit on a day trip to Lake Biwa?

  4. Mark O'Brien says:

    haha Mario, I have also seen Doraeman in public speaking, telling kids to watch out for cars!!!

  5. Dkjm74 says:

    So you were in my hood – for more on that morsel of rusty goodness check out my visit there

  6. Jeffrey says:

    “I later learned that this lake has a few gar in it, . . . ”

    I was also under the impression that it is one of the most heavily polluted bodies of water in Japan as well.

  7. Keiko53079 says:

    楽しそうだ~。Sometimes I also see your blog. Always interesting. Thanks!  Gakuranmanさんは、大阪来たことあるのかな?

    • Gakuranman says:


  8. しぇい says:

    うちの大好きな滋賀県^O^ 今度は彦根においでやす~~^^/

  9. Ikinone says:


  10. Eflask says:

    i read you a lot, but never say anything. thank you for your pictures and your commentary.  they make my life just a little better.

  11. Jamaipanese says:

    awesome photos and commentary, looks like something I would enjoy as well.

  12. Jon says:

    Great photos. Looks a great place to ride. I would love to do that.

  13. Anastasia says:

    Great post, looks like a fun trip. Envy your weather…
    Never tried a bike trip myself.  Bringing a van is a brilliant idea!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Get the Gakuranman Newsletter!

Greetings, fellow Adventurer!

For a limited time, subscribe free and get:

Just enter your name and email below: