Lake Biwa sightseeing craft celebrates 40 years

The Yomiuri Shimbun
The Michigan navigates on Lake Biwa.

OTSU — The Michigan sightseeing ship, a paddle wheeler resembling a classic U.S. steamboat, is celebrating 40 years of taking people out on Lake Biwa pleasure cruises.

The vessel entered service on April 29, 1982, and has become a common sight on Japan’s largest lake. It was named Michigan in honor of the 1968 Sister State Agreement between Shiga Prefecture and Michigan State.

To date, more than 8.9 million passengers have boarded the pleasure craft.

The Yomiuri Shimbun

The Michigan tours the southern part of the lake starting from Otsu Port. Passengers can enjoy scenic attractions including Lake Biwa Flower Fountain, which spans 440 meters in an array that shoots water 40 meters up into the air.

The ship’s fancy interior has also garnered attention.

‘Changed my life’

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Emily Hammond speaks in front of the cruise ship Michigan in Otsu.

“The Michigan has made me who I am. It changed my life a lot,” said Emily Hammond, an American living in Otsu.

Hammond spent three months aboard the Michigan as a crew member after arriving in Japan in 2011 through an international goodwill and business trainee program for Michigan State students. The program originally ran until 2007, seeing 545 participants for 26 years. But Shiga people missed the program so much that it was relaunched between 2011 and 2017. Hammond served food on board the paddle wheeler.

“My pronunciation of irasshaimase! [welcome!] and arigatogozaimashita! [thank you very much!] quickly became perfect,” she said.

Her place of work also became a place to meet people. She took photos with students on school trips, saw the smiles of children receiving balloon art and made friends with the Japanese crew aboard the Michigan.

She increasingly wanted to speak more Japanese and ask questions such as “What are your hobbies?” “What do you usually do?” and “What are your future dreams?”

However, her language skills were not up to the task. That frustration, she said, motivated her to learn Japanese in earnest.

Hammond returned to Japan in 2014 through another program and became the Otsu city coordinator for international relations in 2015. She said it was a position she had longed for. After five years of service, Hammond now works at a facility providing nature experience learning in Otsu.

Courtesy of Shiga prefectural government
Lake Biwa Flower Fountain

Even these days, Hammond, 31, sometimes boards the Michigan when she is feeling overwhelmed about something. The beautiful views from the lake — Lake Biwa Flower Fountain, Mt. Hiei and the Otsu skyline — help her relax.

“Through the Michigan I learned about Japanese culture and the charms of Otsu. This city is my home,” Hammond said.

‘Like a daughter’

Otsu-based Mokube Shipyard Co. was involved in manufacturing the Michigan’s hull.

“I had never seen a boat this big before,” said President Kaoru Nakano, 69, who worked on the ship’s construction 40 years ago.

Lake Biwa saw large-scale development from 1972 to 1997, which was a national program. People worried at the time that mass construction would cause the lake’s water levels to drop. Such concerns affected the design of the Michigan’s hull.

The Michigan’s operator Biwako Kisen Co. opted for the flat-bottomed, paddle wheel design as it would reduce the risk of the 59-meter, 1,000-ton boat running aground in shallow water.

Courtesy of Biwako Kisen Co.
The Michigan’s bow section is seen under construction by Mokube Shipyard Co. in 1982.

But the structural choice reduced the interior’s size and complicated the manufacturing process, Nakano said. He recalls the pain he endured squeezing into small spaces and welding in extreme heat.

It took about a year to complete the ship and Nakano said he was relieved when the vessel safely sailed away from the company’s dock.

Mokube Shipyard Co. inspects the hull once a year. Some parts are replaced, such as corroded pipes and wooden decks, but the majority of the hull remains the same as when it was built. As it operates in freshwater, Nakano said the Michigan can be used for 100 years if it’s well-maintained.

After 40 years of involvement, the Michigan is “like a daughter coming home once a year,” Nakano said. “I see her off, wishing her a safe return in another year.”