Biwa Island sits just out of reach of Lake Nojiri’s western shoreline. Scanning the landscape, this tree-topped mound would fade into the background if not for the striking red torii gate demarking its entrance. The gate identifies Biwa Island (also known as Bentenjima) as sacred Shinto ground. And hiding on this ground, amid the dense crop of trees, is the almost 1,300-year-old Uga Shrine.
Disconnected from the already quiet hamlet of Nojiri, Bentenjima and its wildlife have long enjoyed the partial seclusion afforded by island life, interrupted only by the occasional fishing boat or religious pilgrim. Perhaps it’s the air of mystery, or the challenge of accessing the island, that makes a visit to Uga Shrine so desirable. Worshippers, believing it to be a ‘power spot’, have wandered through the towering cedars to pray at the main hall of Uga Shrine since its founding.
An Uga Shrine pilgrimage
At one time in the 1800s, Bentenjima was connected to the land by a long bridge, though it was removed once it fell into disrepair. There is still no bridge, but the methods of accessing the island are various. The local town of Nojiri has multiple venues from which to hire a rowboat, swan boat, kayak or even a stand-up paddleboard (SUP). If you go for one of these methods, you can reach the island in around 20 minutes but will need to tether yourself there or pull your vessel ashore.
A less physical option is to enjoy a sightseeing cruise that does a loop of the 4.5km2 Lake Nojiri before berthing at the island long enough for a visit. These ferries depart from Line Plaza Dock every hour between 10:00 am and 3:00 pm (except in winter) and cost 1,100 yen for adults and 550 yen for under 15s.
Enjoying a Lake Nojiri cruise
As the ferry backs out to begin its journey, the entire waterfront community is spread out before you. Behind it, the enormous Mts Myoko and Kurohime, with ski runs trickling down their faces like rain on a window.
The cruise slowly loops around Lake Nojiri, passing windsurfers, pleasure boats, fisherman and summer cabins. Underneath, potential elephant fossils lie in the water’s depths. Circling Lake Nojiri by boat is a much faster way to see it—compared to the 16km loop hike. Though, for those who love to walk, the 4-hour trek is a great way to get acquainted with the land.
After 35 minutes, the boat cruises behind Bentenjima and we pass many hopeful fishermen waiting for the fish to jump. At this point, we recall hearing that Biwa Island got its name from its resemblance to the lute-like instrument called a Biwa. Not having seen one, we can’t confirm, but accept it nonetheless.
When the boat docks at Bentenjima, passengers have around 15 minutes free time before making the final 5-minute journey back to the shore. The island, just 660m, can easily be seen in this time frame. However, it’s possible to stay longer on the island and catch the next return ferry—provided you’re not on the last ferry of the day!
Stepping onto the island, you immediately feel a sense of otherness. From the boat, the mainland, all of it. While Nojiri has the heady feeling of summer fun and freedom to it, Bentenjima is much quieter, more spiritual. Standing on the narrow concrete pier, with the lake water lapping at the sides, the desire to explore is strong.
The shrine’s torii gate, like all torii gates, represents the barrier between the real world and the spiritual one. Once through, crooked stone steps lead into the shady forest. As you wander, you’ll pass stone lanterns, more torii gates, gnarled cedar roots and even gravestones belonging to the locals of yesteryear.
At Uga shrine proper, you can pray to any or all of the roughly 15 enshrined deities; this should cover just about anything you could think to wish for.
Though you can wander around freely, many visitors come with the express purpose of getting a goshuin stamp from the Uga shrine staff, which takes around 5 minutes. The office is open roughly April to November from 10:30 am–3:00 pm, but closed if the weather or lake conditions are bad.
Events at Uga Shrine
As with any good shrine, Uga Shrine has an annual festival, held between August 26th and 29th. Another event, the Shikinendai Festival, occurs once every 6 years. It usually starts about a week before the annual festival, making it an extra-long celebration on the island. During the Shikinendai Festival, the 15 Doji statues and Katsu Kaishu Kakehi are open for viewing. The next one will take place in 2022.
Accessing Lake Nojiri
Lake Nojiri’s access point is Kurohime Station. From Tokyo, take the Hokuriku Shinkansen 90 minutes to Nagano, then switch to the ‘Shinano Tetsudo Kita-Shinano Line’ bound for Myoko Kogen (35 min). Once at Kurohime Station, it’s a 6-minute taxi or 45-minute walk to the lake.