Otsu curves elegantly across Lake Biwa and is home to a wide variety of temples, gardens and shrines. It's located a few kilometres east of Kyoto and is a popular day-trip destination for visitors staying in Kyoto. However, the serene atmosphere and wealth of attractions make Otsu a charming alternative to staying in the more famous Kyoto.
Otsu was the Japanese capital for part of the 7th century and is home to many designated national treasures and World Heritage sites. Situated on Mount Hiei and gazing longingly across Kyoto is the 8th century Enryaku-ji Tendai monastery. Mii-dera in the heart of the city is one of Japan's four largest temples. Various early Buddhist manuscripts fill Ishiyama-dera, an 8th century Shingon temple. Omi Otsu Palace, just about still standing after being built in AD 667, is the other of Otsu's national treasures.
Osaka Itami Airport and Kansai International Airport are the closest to Otsu. JR Kyoto is the closest station on the shinkansen bullet-train network and Otsu is connected to Kyoto by the Tozai subway line and JR Biwako line. The city is long and thin, making it easy to navigate on the Keihan Ishiyama Sakomoto train line, which curves across Otsu.
Otsu literally translates as big port and grew to prominence as a trading centre in the 7th century. When the ruling Emperor Tenji was dethroned, Otsu was briefly renamed as Furutsu, meaning old port.