Lisa’s Wanderings Through Japan/ Lake Biwa Canal: The Historic Waterway That Saved Kyoto


OK, you’re in Kyoto. What do you do after you’ve had enough of temples, shrines and gardens? Do you eat tofu dishes, matcha this and that, or Kyoto-style light comfort food with boiled vegetables and marinated food called obanzai?

nope You go on a trip first. A fascinating museum awaits you, and a walk that deserves much more attention than visitors to ancient Heiankyo.

The Lake Biwa Canal is a historic waterway first constructed in 1890 and extended again in 1912. The canal connects Lake Biwa, the country’s largest lake, to the city of Kyoto. It is an amazing industrial heritage site. You can learn all about it at the Lake Biwa Canal Museum, operated by the city of Kyoto and just a short walk from the Tozai Line subway station Keage.

After the capital was moved to Tokyo, Kyoto’s reputation, economy and population suffered. The governor appointed a young freshman Sakuro Tanabe (1861-1944) as the chief engineer of the canal project. Tanabe built an irrigation canal, completed in 1890, that would provide water for industry and households, allow for the movement of goods and people, and would later bring hydroelectric power to Kyoto.

When entering the museum, the architecture and lighting give the impression of being in a Channel Tunnel. An informative film loop tells the incredible story of determination and sacrifice despite the many challenges faced by those involved to complete this engineering marvel. Information boards, dioramas, maps and models convey a picture of the feat.

Follow the path outside and you will be brought to Keage Incline. At that time it was the longest railway climb in the world. The boats were hoisted onto a trolley and towed an incredible 120-foot (36-meter) incline from the Keage Boat Reservoir, which was upstream to the Nanzenji Boat Reservoir, without unloading any cargo. Today it’s a photogenic sightseeing destination, and you can see many kimono-clad men and women snapping with their smartphones.

The canal eventually joins the Philosophers’ Walk, a pedestrian walkway that meanders along the canal from Nanzenji Temple to Ginkakuji and is best traveled during the sakura season.

I’ve never taken the time to think much about infrastructure, especially when visiting a historic city like Kyoto. Having learned about this channel and how it laid the foundation that revived the ancient capital and brought it back to prosperity, I want to learn more about such places and visit them.

Now it’s time to eat. I wonder if I can find Biwa trout around here.

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This article by Lisa Vogt, a Washington-born, Tokyo-based photographer, originally appeared in the January 2-9 issue of Asahi Weekly. It is part of the Lisa’s Wanderings Around Japan series, which depicts various locations across the country from the perspective of the author, a professor at Meiji University.


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