The Harie district in Takashima, Shiga Prefecture, reminds one of good old Japan, with traditional tiled-roof houses lining the streets. Located roughly 1.5 kilometers from Lake Biwa in the northwest part of the prefecture, it is a place full of natural beauty, with fish swimming in numerous canals and streams that transect the district. For some 300 years, residents have fostered a unique water culture that centers around "kabata" -- a water supply system that utilizes the region's abundant underground water.
The water originates in the Hira Mountains in western Shiga Prefecture. At each household in Harie, pipes are sunk about 10 to 20 meters into the ground to obtain the underground water. This spring water -- which the people of Harie refer to as "shozu," or living water -- flows into a basin called "motoike" and is used for drinking and cooking. One refreshing sip was enough to tell the difference from normal tap water.
The water that overflows from motoike into a connected basin called "tsuboike" is used for washing and cooling vegetables.
"The water stays around 13 degrees Celsius year round, so it is perfect for cooling vegetables and beer," said Maeda Masako, a local volunteer guide.
The water flowing out of tsuboike goes into a third basin called "hataike." This is where people clean dirty dishes and pots by allowing fish -- mostly carp -- to eat the food remnants.
"If you leave a pot here that you used to cook curry, it'll be completely clean in three hours," Maeda explained. "These fish even eat watermelon rinds."
No wonder most of the carp are huge. Apparently, some weigh over 25 kilograms. These fish are free to go anywhere they please, since each hataike is connected to a canal or stream running outside. The water travels through canals until it reaches the Harie-Okawa River and eventually flows into Lake Biwa. People living upstream, therefore, have long been careful not to taint the water -- and this spirit of thoughtfulness lives on today.
Harie became famous after NHK aired a TV program featuring kabata in 2004. People from across the country and overseas started flocking to the village to see this unique water culture. To protect the livelihood of the residents, a volunteer committee was established. The group conducts paid tours of the area, and the money is used to maintain and clean the canals.
Maeda said that among 170 households, only about 60 regularly use kabata now. This is because most homes in the area are equipped with modern kitchens.
President of the volunteer committee, Minobe Takehiko, however, gave these encouraging words: "We will strive to protect this community and its water culture."
Another must-see spot near Lake Biwa is Ishiyama-dera Temple in Otsu City. Lying on the west bank of the Seta River -- the only river flowing out of Lake Biwa -- it was founded during the Nara Period by an imperial order by Emperor Shomu. This temple is not only renowned for various important cultural properties and national treasures, but for being the place where Murasaki Shikibu came up with the idea for "The Tale of Genji."
It is said that she went on a pilgrimage to Ishiyama-dera Temple when the empress asked her to write a story for a princess. Murasaki Shikibu was gazing at the moon reflecting off Lake Biwa on "jugoya" -- the late-summer harvest moon viewing night -- when ideas for the story suddenly popped into her head. She immediately wrote them down, and this was the birth of what would later be considered the world's first novel.
The very room in which Murasaki Shikibu worked on "The Tale of Genji" is in the temple's main building. Called the "Room of Genji," the view out the window is now blocked by a tree. Looking at swaying leaves instead, I tried to picture Lake Biwa shrouded in the moon's mystic aura -- and the moment when the legendary novelist was struck by inspiration.
During my stay in Shiga, I also enjoyed a variety of delicacies from Lake Biwa. "Ebimame," or cooked lake prawn with soybeans, and Biwa trout sashimi both tasted wonderful. It was a great trip through the land of water, one that filled my heart as well as my stomach. (Story and photos by Aya Satoh, Staff Writer)