Tucked deep into the Shiga Prefecture is a city with a rich history and stunning lakeside scenery. This city is none other than Otsu – an underrated town just outside Kyoto.
In the past, Otsu was best known among locals and travelers for being a massive trade port – with the famous Lake Biwa serving as the central hub for trade in the ancient Omi Province. Because of its strategic location, Otsu prospered and grew immensely during the Edo Period.
Nowadays, many travelers overlook all that Otsu City has to offer in favor of hotter tourist spots like the bustling metropolitan center of Tokyo or the iconic heritage that you can find in Kyoto. This is no surprise, as Otsu does have a reputation for being cold, wet, and gloomy to the unfamiliar traveler.
Don’t let gloomy photos of its ports stop you from enjoying a visit to this quaint city, as Otsu is home to magical-looking temples, exciting surf spots, and scrumptious food made with the Omi region’s famous produce.
If you have been looking to travel to Otsu but have been unsure of what to do there, then this is the perfect read for you. Discover everything you need to know about this lakeside city in this handy Otsu guide!
The 10 Best Things to Do In Otsu
Otsu is more than just gloomy skies and slow living. Here are the top 10 best things you can do in and around the Otsu area.
1. Try Your Hand At Some Extreme Water Sports
Because of its deep waters, Otsu is an exciting water sports destination among locals and tourists alike. Try out extreme water activities like white water rafting, as well as kayaking and canoeing. Feeling brave? Daredevils should give jetskiing and windsurfing in Otsu a shot if they wish to feel a true sense of thrill.
2. Live the Surfer Life
While Chigasaki certainly takes the spotlight when it comes to Japan’s surfing scene, Otsu is still an impressive surf spot for both casual and experienced surfers. The city’s slow and relaxing pace of living adds to the surf town charm that visitors can enjoy when they catch some waves.
3. Hike Otsu’s Many Trails
One of the biggest draws to Otsu in modern times is its rich bounty of natural beauty. From lush mountains like Mount Bunagatake and Mount Horai to mountain trails peppered with temples and shrines – there is no shortage of trails to choose from! Make sure to pick a trail that suits your skill level and experience!
4. Take a Dip Into A Soothing Onsen
With so much of Otsu’s best activities being so physical and intense in nature, it is important to set aside some time to rest and relax so that your body can heal. What better way to do that than to take a dip in an onsen?
Ogoto Onsen is an onsen town that is a mere 13-minute car ride away from Otsu’s city proper, and 41 minutes by train. Biwako Ogoto Onsen is one of our favorite ones in this guide. Complete your dip with a perfect cup of Shiga Sencha tea for an experience that is truly healing.
5. Go For a Temple Run
One of the things Otsu is best known for is its large concentration of Buddhist temples. These stunning shrines pepper the city and are great sites to visit no matter how long or short your stay in Otsu.
Mount Hiei’s treasured Enryakuji Temple is considered a prime pilgrimage site among Buddhists, with a rich history spanning 1200 years. This ancient temple still stands now and has since been listed as a World Heritage Site. Definitely add this to your temple list!
6. Visit a Magical Floating Temple
While we have already mentioned that Otsu has plenty of temples, this one is so special it deserves its own spot on this list. Make sure to visit the magical Ukimido Hall, which seemingly floats on the surface of Lake Biwa’s crystal blue waters.
This serene sight is considered one of the Eight Views of Omi and has been revered as far as the Edo Period. Even the famous poet Matsuo Basho has written about its beauty, calling it a ‘floating pavilion’ in his musings.
7. Ride a Cable Car
Otsu is a city with natural scenery that is best enjoyed slowly. For this reason, it only feels right to gaze upon it aboard a cable car from the Sakamoto Cable Railway. This railway spans an impressive 2,025 meter long track, and gives you a unique and clear view of Otsu’s mountains and Lake Biwa’s calm waters. It is also the perfect way to head up to the Enryakuji Temple if you don’t fancy hiking the trail.
8. Stay in a Ryokan
What trip outside the bustling city of Tokyo would be complete without a stay in a traditional ryokan? Ryokans often provide a great taste of the local culture, architecture, and hospitality. On top of this, they also feature great regional eats especially if you are staying in a ryokan of exceptional quality.
For a luxurious stay, we have recommended the Yumotokan Ryokan in the past, especially for its soothing rotemburo baths overlooking Lake Biwa. With Ogoto Onsen so close to Otsu, it feels like the perfect time to unwind and seize the opportunity!
This Ryokan is actually tattoo friendly and you will find here more tattoo friendly onsen near Osaka and Kyoto.
9. Sample Omi Specialties
Consider yourself a foodie? Otsu is a great stop for travelers that love finding delicious eats in their adventures. Otsu belongs to a region formerly known as Omi. This region is now the modern day Shiga Prefecture, and it still boasts of the same high-quality ingredients that it was known for in the past. This is largely due to the rich natural resources in the region.
Some local delicacies that you cannot miss while in Otsu are Omi rice and Omi beef – -with the latter being one of the most established wagyu variants to ever exist. Omi rice is known to have a deliciously soft and sweet flavor, while Omi beef has a rich aroma and a melt-in-your-mouth texture like no other.
You May Also Like: The Different Types Of Wagyu Beef
10. Try Lake Biwa Seafood
Lake Biwa is known for being a bountiful spot for fresh and almost sacred seafood, with each catch coming from Japan’s largest lake. Deserving of its own category on the list, Lake Biwa seafood has certainly shaped Shiga Prefecture’s culinary scene. Make sure to try Biwa Trout and Seta clams, as these are unique to the lake. Sweet fish called Koayu are also excellent for dining, and provide unique flavors to any meal.
Pro Tip: Youtuber Chris Broad from the Abroad in Japan Youtube Channel has said that ryokans live and die by the food they serve. If you are having trouble locating a restaurant in the city, take advantage of your ryokan booking and sample the local Otsu food here.
Where to Stay In Otsu?
While we do recommend staying in a ryokan at least for a night while you are in town, having accommodations more accessible to the city proper is also a good option if you have a full itinerary or a shorter stay.
Inase Otsu Machiya Bed & Breakfast
Do you want the intimacy and uniqueness of a ryokan stay without the hassle of leaving Otsu? Inase Otsu Machiya Bed & Breakfast offers a similar sense of immersion, with its stunning and well-preserved architecture and delicious traditional breakfasts!
This B&B is actually the former home of a local merchant, and it has been renovated to have modern essentials like WiFi and TV in all the rooms.
The best part is its strategic location, as it is a mere 1.6 kilometers away from the famous Biwako Hall and a 30-minute train ride away from JR Kyoto Station. Simply choose a room layout that works for your travel group and relax on the property’s stunning grounds.
Looking for more modern amenities? Biwako Hotel is a stylish 4-star hotel with modern designer rooms, an enormous indoor lap pool, in-house spa facilities, and an impressive lakeside or cityscape view. While it is more reminiscent of Tokyo’s city vibe, the experience is no less relaxing and definitely feels like an elevated and modern take on your Otsu visit.
Each room is airy and spacious, with bright interiors and fixtures. Best of all, they also serve Omi specialties and Lake Biwa seafood dishes right at the convenience of your hotel. Aside from the many amenities and the seven restaurants housed within it, it also has a convenient location – with the Kyoto Station a mere 15-minute train ride away and various local temples being less than an hour by foot or rented car.
How To Get To Otsu
There are two ways to get to Otsu from Kyoto: by train, or by car.
Otsu is a 10-minute train ride from JR Kyoto Station, with a quick stop at Yamashina. The train from Kyoto to Otsu departs every 30 minutes, so it should be easy to catch a ride!
Alternatively, travelers can also book a taxi or rent a car and drive from Kyoto to Otsu Station. It is around 12 minutes for a car ride, so we do recommend riding the train instead for the fastest and most cost-effective option unless you have an existing car rental.
Is Otsu Worth Visiting?
While it may look slow-paced and gloomy to some, Otsu’s natural beauty is breathtaking and is best enjoyed in person so that you can see its charm for yourself. We especially recommend it for nature lovers and those looking for a change of scenery beyond the usual stops of Tokyo and Otsu’s neighboring city of Kyoto.
Give Otsu a chance and enjoy historical sites, delicious local cuisine, exciting experiences, and natural scenery that you will never forget!