Biwako Sosui (Lake Biwa Canal) (琵琶湖疏水)

Biwako Sokui (琵琶湖疏水) or Lake Biwa Canal (since 疏 is not included in the national list of Chinese characters in common use, 疎 is also used as in 琵琶湖疎水) is a waterway that was built to transport water from Lake Biwa to Kyoto City.


Although it is mainly used for tap water now, since it was completed it has been used for hydroelectric power generation (Japan's first commercial hydroelectric power) which contributed to Kyoto's modernization, such as Japan's first operation of electric railcars (Kyoto Electric Railway, which was later bought by Kyoto Municipal Streetcar). It was also used for freight transportation, connecting Lake Biwa (Otsu) and Kyoto, Kyoto and Fushimi, as well as Kyoto and the Yodo-gawa River. A railroad called Cable Car Incline (slope railway) was built to connect places of large difference in height, which allowed boats to be placed on a dolly to move on land. Although the inclines fell into disuse along with the demise of water transportation, part of the facilities of Keage Incline has been preserved (although they are currently not working).

The canal is now used for garden water for shrines and temples in the Higashiyama area, such as Murinan and the Garden of Heian Jingu Shrine.

It is designated as a National Historical Site. It is also listed on the selection of 100 fine canals in Japan called Sosui Hyakusen (疏水百選).


Because the industry and population of Kyoto City declined after the Meiji Restoration and the capital was transferred to Tokyo, Kunimichi KITAGAKI, the third governor of Kyoto Prefecture, planned Lake Biwa Canal with irrigation, public water supply, transportation, and generating power for water wheels in mind. He assigned Sakuro TANABE as chief engineer to design the canal.

In 1885, construction of First Canal or Dai-ichi Sosui started, and a part of the waterway that connected Otsu and the Kamogawa River confluence point, and another part Sosuibunsen Canal, which branches out at Keage, were completed in 1890. The construction of First Canal (connecting Otsu and the confluence point of the Kamo-gawa River) and Sosuibunsen cost \1.25 million in total, which was financed by communal industrial funds, prefectural expenditures, national bonds, municipal bonds, donations, and special taxes on the citizens of Kyoto City.

Although hydroelectric power generation was not included in the initial plan, utilizing the ideas Tanabe and other engineers picked up during their study tour in the US, they built Japan's first hydroelectric power station, Keage Power Plant, and it started its operation in 1891. Using electric power from this plant, Kyoto Electric Railway started the operation of Japan's first streetcar which ran between Kyoto and Fushimi from 1895. Construction of Kamogawa Canal, connecting Fushimi and the confluence point of the Kamo-gawa River, was started in 1892 and completed in 1894.

Later, with the goal of accommodating the water and electric power demand which First Canal was unable to meet, the construction of Second Canal, or Dai-ni Sosui, was started in 1908 as one of the three major projects of Kyoto City (the Second Canal, the water supply, and transport projects such as the city streetcar and expansion of main roads in the city), and was completed in 1912. Keage Purification Plant was built as a part of this project.

Biwako Sosui prospered from transporting a huge amount of freight and a large number of passengers between Kyoto and Otsu, and between Kyoto and Fushimi, but due to the development of competing land transportation such as the Kyotsu Electric Railroad (later, Keihan Kyotsu) which started in 1912, Biwako Sosui's freight and passenger businesses both declined, and it abolished the passenger service and ceased operation of Keage Incline in 1948. Later, its freight transportation also gradually disappeared.

Between Otsu and Keage

Its head gate located at Mihogasaki of Otsu City, takes in the water of Lake Biwa. The flow runs through First Tunnel under Nagarasan Mountain to Yamashina Ward (this part in Yamashina Ward of Kyoto City is also called Yamashina Canal). It goes west along the north side of Yamashina Basin, runs through Second Tunnel and Third Tunnel, and reaches Keage to join Second Canal. This confluent point was "funadamari," or a harbor where ships rested, and from here ships used to travel by the Incline to Nanzenji-funadamari, another terminal.

In Keage, Keage Purification Plant and Keage Power Plant produced tap water and electric power.

From Keage via Ebisugawa Power Station to Fushimi (Oto Canal and Kamogawa Canal)

The main stream of First Canal runs from Keage-funadamari to Nanzenji-funadamari via Keage Incline, travels via Ebisugawa Dam and Ebisugawa Power Station, and runs south along the east side of the Kamo-gawa River to Sumizome Dam. From Sumizome Dam, it goes via Fushimi Incline (which does not exist today because it was used to widen National Route 24) to join Hori-kawa River. From here, it goes through the Hori-kawa River (which runs through old Fushimi Harbor), or the Canal Discharge Channel, the Takase-gawa River, and empties into the Yodo-gawa River. A part of the path between Nanzenji-funadamari and the confluence point of the Kamo-gawa River is also called Oto Canal, and the downstream part from the confluence point, Kamo-gawa Canal.

Sosuibunsen Canal (from Keage via Nanzen-ji Temple, Matsugasaki, to Horikawa)

Sosuibunsen Canal branches out to the north from Keage, runs through Suirokaku (a high-rise waterway structure) over the precinct of Nanzen-ji Temple, goes north along the west side of Honen-in and Jisho-ji Temple (Ginkaku-ji Temple), runs 700 m parallel to Imadegawa-dori, and goes north again to Matsugasaki Purification Plant. From there, via Shimogamo it reaches Horikawa. The bank of Sosuibunsen Canal from Wakaoji-jinja Shrine to Jisyo-ji Temple (Ginkaku-ji Temple) provides a walking trail called Philosophers' Walk.

Second Canal

Second Canal takes water in at Mihogaseki just like First Canal, and almost all of it runs through tunnels (underground channels) until it joins First Canal at Keage. The reason that Second Canal was built underground is said to have been prevention from contamination so that it could be used as a drinking water source.

Biwako Sosui and civil engineering technology

Because technology used for the first time in Japan was applied to many sections of Biwako Sosui,it is a very valuable marker on Japan's path to modernization.

The construction of First Tunnel used Japan's first vertical pits. First Tunnel has two pits.

Keage Power Plant was Japan's first utility power plant. A Pelton wheel for the power generator is displayed at Lake Biwa Canal Memorial Museum.

Keage Purification Plant used Japan's first rapid filtering system.

The Incline was also Japan's first railway facility to connect canals.

In the tunnel under Keage Incline, the bricks are arranged in a twisting manner, so it is called 'Nejirimanpo' (twisted tunnel) ("manpo" is considered a dialect word meaning tunnel).

Tourist attractions of Biwako Sosui

People can enjoy beautiful riverside scenery of cherry blossoms in their season because cherry trees are planted along most of the canal sections without tunnels: Otsu City (in the neighborhood of the entrance of First Tunnel of First Canal): Yamashina Ward of Kyoto City (Yamashina Canal): and in Higashiyama Ward of Kyoto City (from the area around the Incline to the Kamo-gawa River).

Small pleasure boats sometimes cruise along the canal section on the south side of Heian-Jingu Shrine in the tourist season. Proposals to operate pleasure boats along the whole section from Otsu to Kyoto have not been put into practice because there are too many tunnels.
(Kyoto Chamber of Commerce and Industry is leading efforts to operate pleasure boats along the whole course including tunnels and to revive the Incline as the main project for the commemoration of 'the 120th anniversary of the completion of Sosui' in 2010.)

There was opposition against building Suirokaku in the precinct of Nanzen-ji Temple as some feared it would be a threat to the beauty of the ancient capital (Yukichi FUKUZAWA was said to be against it), but Suirokaku is now famous as a typical scenic spot in Kyoto as it often appears in TV drama scenes.


Intake of First Canal

Intake of Second Canal

First tunnel entrance

The Incline

Keage Funadamari


[Original Japanese]