Foodie hotspots: Otsu, Hamaotsu, Karatsu, Katata, Sakamoto, Omihachiman, Hikone, Ritto, Koka, Takashima, Mandokoro, Nagahama, Moriyama.
Foodies Look Out For: Funazushi fermented sushi; Omi-gyu high quality beef; koayu sweetfish; freshwater fish from Lake Biwa; red konjac; charcoal-filled octopus balls; local sake.
The Basics: Shiga has often seemed a little lost in the shadows of its illustrious, ancient, Imperial neighbor, Kyoto. Even its inhabitants play it down. But the one there’s one thing that fills them with instant and enormous pride, the great water mass at its center: Lake Biwa.
Foodies Go Shiga: The first time a Shiga resident told me “There’s not much good to eat in Shiga. If we want good food, we just hop on the train to Kyoto”, I assumed she was kidding. Later I learned there was more than a grain of truth in what I had assumed to be a typically self-deprecating comment. It’s not that there isn’t good food in Shiga. It just takes a little seeking out, and indeed, the best stuff does often end up in the kitchens and restaurants of its neighbor over the hill, Kyoto.
Shiga's old name was Omi, and today that name refers to many parts of the prefecture and to the highly-prized beef cattle, (and its meat) raised around the 'Mother Lake', Lake Biwa. Omi-gyu beef dates back more than 400 years, making it by far the nation's oldest wagyu brand. The Omi Beef Promotion Board offers up this interesting nugget: "Even during the Edo Era (1603-1868), when the consumption of meat was forbidden, miso-marinated beef was sold as the health curing agent Henpongan by the Hikone Domain". Those cheeky Hikoneans.
The site also tells us something interesting about the Omi and Kobe beef 'rivalry'. "Entering the Meiji Era, shipments of Omi Beef to Tokyo got underway along with the development of a distribution network. During this period, all Omi Beef was shipped under the name Kobe Beef.
This was because Omi Beef was shipped to Tokyo via Kobe Port, and in those days it was customary to refer to a brand of beef by the name of the port from which it was shipped. Therefore, Omi Beef was handled as “Kobe Beef” even though it was actually produced in a different region. This is the reason why the name “Kobe Beef” became widely recognized throughout the world.
The best places to eat Omi-gyu are Matsukiya in Karahashi-cho, Otsu, and the long-standing Kadoman in central Otsu. In Omihachiman, try the casual Bar and Grill Bistecca, the very reasonably-priced Tiffany (open for lunch too, unlike many Omi-gyu specialists), and the upmarket Morishima. At Le Point de Vue, situated perfectly right beside the lake in Omihachiman, Chef Manabu Sugimoto uses the Omi beef and other local ingredients to create a French-Japanese cuisine infused with the spirit of Wa, or 'harmony'.
Shiga's beloved Lake Biwa created a unique food culture. The massive Lake Biwa is home to a great range of fish and shellfish. It is claimed that fifty types of freshwater fish out of a total of eighty varieties indigenous to Japan inhabit its waters.
The eight most 'famous fish' of Lake Biwa even have their own collective title: Biwa-ko Hacchin, 'The Eight Rare Delicacies of Lake Biwa'. They are the Biwa-masu trout, nigoro-buna Crucian carp, honmoroko gudgeon, isaza, gori, koayu small sweetfish, suji-ebi shrimp and hasu 'three lips'. Seta-shijimi clams are also excellent.
Funa-zushi is a heavily fermented sushi made using the nigoro-buna Crucian carp. Creating it is a time-consuming, highly skilled, and pretty stinky business. Pregnant Crucian carp caught in the spring are pickled in salt, and in the summertime, pressed together with cooked rice, and further pickled. The pickling process may last from one to three years. The longer it is left to ferment, the stronger the smell becomes. Fans absolutely love it, but as with most powerful, rotten, gourmet treats, it isn't for everyone. Otsu's Ganso Sakamotoya and Uoji in Takashima city are famed funa-zushi specialists.
Other local products include the rare Mandokoro-cha green tea, named after the remote region in which it is grown, Omi rice, and aka konnyaku konjac containing red chili.
If you feel like an overnight stay for some serious Lake Biwa-based foodie self-indulgence, take a look at Uoseiro in Honkatata, the impossibly refined Ryotei Ryokan Yasui near Hikone, and Chimoto in Nagahama. All are good high-end options. Hirasansou is the place for ayu sweetfish cuisine in the high mountains.
If you plan to visit the picturesque Hiyoshi Taisha shrine, and are feeling hungry, how about a bowl of the local buckwheat noodle soba? We suspect there's no love lost between 300-year old Honke Tsuruki Soba and its next-door neighbor Hiyoshi Soba, both located in the settlement of Sakamoto, a short walk east of the shrine entrance. We usually head to the former, a slightly fancier option.
The Shiga Budget Gourmet
Try the hakusai vegetable explosion that is the toriyasai-nabe hotpot at Biwako Shokudo in Nagahama. That same city gives us the 'BQ Gurume' budget legend Nagahama Sarada Pan. Literally 'Nagahama salad bread', this is a slice of soft bread filled with mayonnaise and... takuanzuke daikon pickles! Quite frankly we would award this our 'Are You Out Of Your Mind?!' prize, but the fact of the matter is it's very popular. Find it at the place of its conception, Furuya Pan breadshop in Nagahama. They've been making it since 1951!
Nearly as loopy is ganso kurotakoyaki, takoyaki octopus balls containing... charcoal. Find them at Takorou in Hikone. Sweet lovers will want to check out Mii-dera's completely sensible Chikaramochi Honke in Hamaotsu.
The Ramen Professor Recommends: Shiga has plenty of ramen, but most of it is part of one of the larger chains that originated elsewhere in Kansai: it seems that there's a Rai Rai Tei and a Tenkaipin on every corner. For individually-owned establishments, try Ramen Ittetsu in Sakamoto's Miso Ramen, the shoyu ramen at Ezo in Ritto, or the excellent Unazuki out in the wilds of Koka. Chuka Soba Manmaru in Moriyama is another good option.