One area in Japan now enjoying a gradual rise in popularity as a tourist destination, and a place where vacationers say they want to visit again, is Shiga Prefecture.

Located in the Kansai region of the main Honshu island, Shiga Prefecture borders Fukui Prefecture to the north, Gifu Prefecture to the northeast, Mie Prefecture to the southeast, and Kyoto Prefecture to the west.

For both Japanese residents and foreign tourists who have been to Japan a few times, Shiga Prefecture is usually mentioned for one thing alone: Lake Biwa.

Although the massive and majestic lake is impressive (as we've reported before), Shiga Prefecture has so many other charms which can only be experienced upon visiting.

A 300-year-old merchant's home converted into a guesthouse

With the growing number of tourists discovering Shiga Prefecture, it's only natural to expect there would be good lodging accommodations.

Among the many choices available, we particularly recommended the Machiya Inn guesthouse, located in Ōmihachiman City.

You can mingle with other guests at Machiya Inn's lounge | Photo by © Grape

The most common set-up at guesthouses is a dormitory-style arrangement where several guests sleep in the same room. However, at Machiya Inn, all rooms are private and there's plenty of room to unwind. As far as guesthouses go, it's unusually spacious.

This space makes clever use of the attic | Photo by © Grape

The charming guesthouse was converted from a 300-year-old merchant house. Machiya Inn owner Toshinori Miyamura explains that traditional merchant houses are rapidly disappearing from the landscape, so he wanted to do his part by preserving one in this way. The word for merchant house in Japanese is machiya 町家, which is how he came up with the name.

While the plumbing was fully renovated, the pillars and ceilings were left intact, and the original charms of the era can be discovered at every corner.

Vintage sake barrels make for unique bathtubs | Photo by © Grape

A refurbished Meiji era storehouse, the KOLMIO annex has a retro-modern interior | Photo by © Grape

While the facilities are just as comprehensive as a hotel or traditional inn, and the rooms are very spacious, the prices at Machiya Inn are reasonable.

A room for two ranges from 6,000 to 10,000 JPY per person (depending on peak / off-peak season), and the rate goes down to as little as 3,000 JPY per person when you stay in one of their large rooms for parties of up to 10 people.

With the money you'll save, you can enjoy activities, buy gifts from a gift shop or dine on delicious dishes made with unique ingredients you can only find in Shiga Prefecture.

Savor the unique food ingredients of Shiga Prefecture

Shiga Prefecture is famous for its longstanding tradition of fermented foods like funazushi 鮒ずし, a type of sushi using round crucian carp known as nigorobuna ニゴロブナ, which are only found in Lake Biwa.

Situated in historic Gokashō, Higashiōmi City, the Japanese restaurant Ukarokkon is the perfect place to enjoy such traditional fermented foods, as well as a selection of tasty dishes made with produce and natural ingredients sourced from Shiga Prefecture.

Exterior view of Ukarokkon | Photo by © Grape

The restaurant is converted from a 180-year-old Ōmi merchant house | Photo by © Grape

Shiga Prefecture, where Japan's largest lake, Lake Biwa, is surrounded by mountains, is a treasure trove of natural ingredients, including unusual ones you won't find in any other part of Japan.

A dish made with hinona 日野菜, a variety of turnip and a traditional Shiga Prefecture greens | Photo by © Grape

Biwamasu ビワマス, or Biwa trout (Oncorhynchus rhodurus), has a satisfying texture unlike any other fish | Photo by © Grape

Ukarokkon head chef Hiroki Sugimoto creates traditional Japanese dishes brimming with innovation, using ingredients freshly procured every day to vary the menu. Every time you visit, you'll savor new tastes and new ingredients. It's the ideal place to experience the surprisingly rich culinary culture of Shiga Prefecture.

Mube: The traditional fruit even locals don't know about

Among the unusual ingredients you'll find in Shiga Prefecture, there's one which is known as the "legendary fruit": the mube (commonly ムベ in Japanese, but also written as 郁子 or 野木瓜).

A member of the Lardizabalaceae family of flowering plants mostly found in Asia, the mube (scientific name: Stauntonia Hexaphylly) produces a delicious fruit which is regularly presented to the Imperial Family.

Photo by © Grape

The Imperial connection may be deeper than that. According to one theory, the fruit earned its name after Emperor Tenji (661-672) tasted it and said: "This is indeed good mube naru ka na."

The tradition of presenting mube to the Imperial Family continued for over 1,300 years until it stopped in the 1970s when there were no more successors in merchant families to preserve it.

However, due to local volunteers' strong will to restore community traditions, it resumed in 2002 and continues to the present day.

Photo by © Grape

At the Maede Mube Plantation in Tsudacho, Ōmihachiman City, you can pick mube and enjoy the sweet labors of your work on the spot. As you'll see in pictures displayed at the plantation, Empress Emerita Michiko enjoyed mube as well. When you visit the region, why don't you come and try this "legendary fruit" which is rarely seen outside of Shiga Prefecture?

Photo by © Grape

Enjoy picturesque Hachiman-bori and feel local pride

After you've eaten your fill of tasty Shiga Prefecture delicacies, you can help your lunch settle with an enjoyable walk through a historic neighborhood.

Of course, unplanned explorations are fine, but if you've taken the trouble of visiting Ōmihachiman City, you might as well take advantage of the guided walking tours led by local volunteers.

The tour charge is basically free, and you'll be happy to know that they can even create a course to accommodate your wishes if you tell them in advance what you're interested in seeing.

You can recognize volunteer guides by their "Biwa Blue" jackets | Photo by © Grape

There are countless attractions to enjoy, such as the Hachiman-bori Canal lined with old merchant houses and storehouses, or Chōmeiji Temple which affords a panoramic view of Lake Biwa. Listening to the knowledgeable guides as you appreciate your tour, it's sure to be a memorable experience which will also satisfy your intellectual curiosity.

You'll be rewarded after climbing 800 steps to Chōmeiji Temple, where a panoramic view of Lake Biwa awaits | Photo by © Grape

The guides' anecdotes are part of the charm

We particularly recommend the area of Hachiman-bori Canal, a famous tourist attraction in Shiga Prefecture. Since it retains the appearance of an old Japanese city neighborhood, it has often been used as the setting for Japanese historical dramas.

Many tourists flock to the area to enjoy the changing of the seasons. From cherry blossoms in spring to multi-hued foliage in fall, the trees lining the canal combined with the backdrop of this charming location makes it eminently photogenic.

The "Hachiman-bori meguri" tour along the canal flanked by white-walled storehouses is also recommended | Photo by © Grape

With the exception of the Hachiman-bori Festival in October and November, one thing you won't find here no matter how many tourists come is night-time illumination.

Volunteer guide Tasuke Miyazu explained the reason behind this decision:

Nighttime is sleeping time. If we were to turn on the lights here at night, more tourists might come, but it's also important to think about how members of the community feel. Unless it's a place where residents like to live in, tourists won't come to visit.

Tasuke Miyazu, volunteer guide

Perhaps the pleasantly tranquil atmosphere which flows through Shiga Prefecture comes from the calm and relaxed disposition of its residents.

Shiga Prefecture: Where you can enjoy "real luxury"

Photo by © Grape

The residents of Shiga Prefecture continue to value not only the tangible representations of their history and their traditions but also the intangible intentions of the people who forged that history and created those traditions.

This could only be possible because of the residents' deep attachment to their communities and the pride they have in their history and culture.

Perhaps the true reason why so many vacationers come back to Shiga Prefecture time and time again is not only because of its rich culinary culture or its neighborhoods steeped in history, but because of the spiritual richness of its residents.

As Antoine de Saint Exupéry once said: "There is only one real luxury – human relations." If you come to Shiga Prefecture and talk to the people who live there, you may also get a taste of real luxury that no five-star hotel could provide...

By - Ben K.

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