Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Biwako-Sosui Canal - The Waters of Time

31st October, 2006 - As the afternoon draws to a close, we made our way back towards "civilisation"... but there's one last surprise that can be found in and around Nanzen-ji that's worth talking about. Water - or more particularly the transport of water. In a country as blessed with rainfall as Japan is (especially coming from somewhere as dry as Adelaide, Australia), it's perhaps easy to take water for granted. Finding a means of transporting water from Biwako was something that had inspired the city's leaders since Taira-no-Kiyomori's time in the thirteenth century...but had to wait for the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate to come to fruition.

One of the major achievements of the modern era within Kyōto was the building of the great Biwako-Sosui Canal. Lake Biwa is the largest freshwater lake in Japan, and is located just the other side of the higashiyama mountain range. The Biwako-Sosui Canal was built in 1885. It carries water from the lake seven miles (11 km) away. It also provided a major transport route between Kyōto and Otsu to the north east, carrying some 157,000 persons per year, and powered the hydroelectric plant constructed in 1891. It was a feat of engineering brilliance - and audacity. It also cost 1,250,000 yen...something like ten times the city's annual budget. I've marked out a very small portion of the canal from around Nanzen-ji below in the google-map.

View Kyoto Map in a larger map

The chief architect, Tanabe Sakuro, was barely graduated when he took on the responsibility - one that would take five years to complete the first canal. That's a lot of responsibility - but it was also one of the most important tasks in modernising the city. A second canal was constructed in 1908, and took about four years to complete.

Today as you walk around Nanzen-ji you see the original red-brick elevated canal passing along the temple grounds. They seem quite natural now (though perhaps an unexpected sight). One might almost expect to see the puffing steam train trails erupting from above... but alas only water flows on this structure.

This construction highlighted the speed with which Japan industrialised (from the feudal times of the Edo period that ended in the 1860's, and corresponded with the complete transferal of all power from Kyōto to Tokyo).  To meet the demands of this industrialisation, the city needed power, transport and irrigation. Thankfully, sense prevailed enough to be sensitive to the cultural heritage of the city at the same time, and avoid undue destruction of the city's temples. Japan's modern history is replete with examples where that environmental and cultural sensitivity was not so prominent.

It's been a while since we've seen my mystery wife... whilst she was putting on a brave (emoticon) face at this stage, she was definitely tired... as was I. It had been a hard day... T-chan...I even love your smiley face!

The canals were used for transport - Due to the height difference, boats needed to be towed up the mountain on a giant steel rail structure... known as the Biwako Incline which originally travelled for some 587m to allow the boats transit up/down the steepest sections of the canal. Some of this can still be seen as a memorial to this day (shown here thanks to Google Streetview). It's actually hard for me to imagine boats travelling through the canal tunnels... especially considering the distances of around 11km!
Google Streetview of Canal train that took boats up-hill.
It's not something that immediately stands out nowadays, but the city is actually criss-crossed with canals and waterways that were used as rapid transport routes in the developing city. The hydroelectric plant is still providing limited power to the city to this day, and the water continues to be used to provide drinking water for the city.

Waterways are the veins and arteries of many city... and in the case of Kyōto, they also add to the charm of what has otherwise become a highly concrete urban (and some might say ugly) environment.

It may not be as romantic as the clear waters of Kiyomizu Dera... but this was an important component in the re-generation of the city. One of the direct beneficiaries have been the cities gardens. Ogawa Jihei, the designer of the Heian Jingu gardens, as well as the Maruyama Kouen, was famous for using the waters from the canal as an important feature in his gardens. Thus as the city industrialised, it also reclaimed some of it's beauty. As we walked back to the bus to take back home, we paused by the canal, and were very thankful.


  1. Awesome post, as always.
    I'm one of those who thinks modern cities are ugly and, even if I haven't been in Japan yet, I'm glad some ancient aspects are preserved as a heritage.

    It should happen more often, worldwide.


  2. Thnx. Kyoto is a strange beast - on one hand it's preserved much of the cultural heritage that marks it through time... yet on the other hand, modern development have also certainly made it one of those "ugly" cities that you talk about.

    I guess we have to be thankful for the parts that have been preserved, and forgiving for those parts that were lost, replaced by concrete and steel blocks and factories that now dominate much of Kyoto. Japan has a strange duality that runs through all of it's history.