Lake Biwa, or biwako in Japanese, is the largest lake in Japan. Located in Shiga prefecture in west-central Honshu, the lake covers a total area of 674 square kilometers, more than the entire city of Tokyo (all 23 urban wards). The lake, which received its name because it is said to resemble the biwa, a traditional Japanese stringed instrument, measures 64 kilometers from north to south and ranges from 3 to 19 kilometers in width. The deepest part of the lake, in the northwest corner, is 103 meters below the surface, while depths of 60 meters are quite common.
Located in the structural depression created by the confluence of four mountain ranges, Lake Biwa remains a place of great scenic beauty, despite the recent ravages of industrial development. While usually a calm expanse of blue dotted by picturesque islets, Lake Biwa is big enough to create its own mini storm systems, and can from time to time become a fierce roil of wind and froth. Fed by a multitude of small rivers and streams from the surrounding mountains, Biwa's only outlet is the Yodo River, which drains southward into Osaka Bay.
Biwa's proximity to Kyoto and the center of Japanese courtly culture has made it the subject of much poetry and other refined expression over the centuries. According to courtly tradition there were eight points of transcendant beauty around Lake Biwa, the so-called Omi Hakkei, and although these traditional spots have been significantly altered by modern development, Biwa remains a popular vacation destination, dotted by numerous lakeside resorts.
Biwa also retains its longstanding importance as a water source, a means of transportation, and a food production region. Biwa is the primary source of fresh drinking water for the cities of Kyoto and Otsu as well as numerous towns, and continues to connect the Kansai megalopolis to the Japan Sea with the help of a system of canals. Biwa abounds in freshwater fish, most notably trout, and is the productive site of a freshwater pearl industry.