Name in Japanese: 西の湖巡り
Pronunciation: nishi no ko Meguri
Lake Nishi, or Nishinoko, is one of the subsidiary lakes of Lake Biwa. Until the 1940s, it was one of the smaller of the subsidiary lakes, but most lakes in the system were filled in for rice production starting in WWII. Today, it’s one of the two largest. You can take a pleasant cruise of Lake Nishi, and experience its fascinating natural features up close.
The cruise starts at the lakeside facility called Nishinoko Station at the eastern end of the lake. The boats are long and narrow with an enclosed cabin. Windows protect you from the wind, and the roof provides shade. The elderly boatman sits at the back, operating the outboard motor and providing commentary on the sights and sounds.
As the boat heads out into the lake he points out Mt. Azuchi and Mt. Kinugasa behind us, both sites of castles in the Warring States period. The big lakes that existed then formed part of their formidable defences.
The lake is shallow at 1.5 m. It’s surrounded by beds of dense reeds that grow several metres high. These are home to a wide variety of birds and fish that use their protection for nesting and breeding. You can hear the sweet song of the reed babbler, but this shy bird prefers to be heard and not seen.
Reeds play an important role in slowing the flow of water and removing contaminants which they use as nutrients. They were once an important material used widely in traditional Japanese houses – for roofs, blinds, screens, and flooring. In winter, the above ground portion of dried out reeds are harvested. What’s left is burned, and in spring, the live part underground sends up green shoots again that grow at a prodigious speed.
The boatman, Inoko-san, steers the boat close to the reeds and pulls off a few of the long, flexible leaves. He tears and folds them here and there, producing a little green boat, which he tosses into the water. Surprisingly, it lands right side up and bobs about gaily on the ripples of the lake. Now it’s your turn to make one. Patiently, he shows you how it’s done. “This is called sasabune, a reed boat. As long as you do a half-decent job of it, it should land the right way up and float”.
Inoko-san lived beside the lake for all of his eighty years. As a child, he would swim in it and catch fish. When he was older, he’d paddle to his rice field in a tabune, a boat with a long oar on the back. When he started doing boat tours, he would sometimes get lost in the maze of reeds – they grow so quickly that the landscape is always changing, and only fixed landmarks like big trees and sheds can be trusted.
As we make our way around the lake, we encounter other people. They’re on various kinds of canoes or paddleboards, and in boats similar to ours. Some are there to fish, others to enjoy the exercise and fresh air.
There are various tour options available around Lake Nishi and the Suigō Meguri. You can charter a boat for a group and enjoy a delicious and filling hotpot meal onboard.