Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

June 17, 2012

Incline and Lake Biwa Canal Museum, Kyoto

Kyoto is often seen as purely a historical city for tourists. Indeed, when you sit in a quiet Zen garden you tend to forget that it is also a hothouse of advanced research and industry.

That was already so in the past. In the last 30 years of the 19th century, after the capital was transferred to Tokyo, the city was indeed in danger of becoming an oddity for tourists. But despite the loss of economic power and status, Kyoto's citizens fought back and realized a stunning number of modern "firsts." Kyoto became the first city to found a system of modern elementary schools, already in 1869, at the initiative of its citizens (the bangumi schools). In 1891, it realized the first hydroelectric power generation project (remember, the 90s of the 19th c. were still an age of gas lights and candles!) and in 1895 the first electric streetcar of Japan started to run in Kyoto. The first Japanese Nobel Prize was won in 1949 by Yugara Hideki, a physicist of Kyoto University.

[The Biwa Lake Canal coming out of the last tunnel at Keage - Photo © Ad Blankestijn]

The hydroelectric power project mentioned above is linked to the construction of a canal between Kyoto and Lake Biwa, seven kilometres to the east, to provide waterpower to modernise the city's textile industry, supply drinking water, provide water for fire fighting and irrigation, and, finally, make transport between Lake Biwa and Kyoto easier (mainly for the transport of rice from Shiga and Fukui Prefectures to Kyoto).

Such a canal had already been the dream of leaders as Hideyoshi, but it would take modern technology to realize it in the Meiji-period, on the strong promotion by the then Governor of Kyoto Prefecture, Kitagaki Kunimichi. The canal starts from Lake Biwa and runs through Yamashina and Keage before reaching the eastern part of Kyoto. The most difficult part of the construction was building three tunnels through the mountains - the longest measures 2.4 kilometres. Engineer of this difficult project was the Tanabe Sakuro, a "young genius" who had just graduated in 1883. Starting in 1885, it took five years to complete the whole canal. A second, almost parallel canal purely for drinking water was added in 1912.

[The boat cradle at the place where the boats were loaded unto it - Photo © Ad Blankestijn]

One problem was how to bring the flat-bottomed wooden canal boats down the sharp drop of 36 meters at the pass of Keage (near the Westin Miyako Hotel), leading from central Kyoto to the suburb of Yamashina. Finally, an inclined slope with rails was laid out here, over which flat railroad cars moved onto which the boats were hoisted out of the water (and in it again at the other end). These "boat cradles" moved down the slope of half a kilometre in about 15 minutes - one up and one down at the same time, connected by a steel cable.

[The Incline at Keage - Photo © Ad Blankestijn]

Interestingly, these railway carts were moved by electric power - the other innovation introduced by Tanabe Sakuro was building a hydroelectric plant at Keage which could use the same steep drop of 36 metres to direct the canal water through steel pipes and have it drive the wheels of two turbines. Tanabe Sakuro traveled expressly to the United States to see the first hydroelectric power plant built there, in Aspen, Colorado. Later, the electricity generated by the Keage plant was used for Kyoto's first streetcars as well as for streetlamps.

[The "boat cradle" on the Incline at Keage - Photo © Ad Blankestijn]

It is - by the way - surprising that there was still the need for such a canal for shipping, considering the fact that the first railway line between Kyoto and Otsu had already been opened in 1880!

I do not know when shipping through the canal stopped, but the incline is still there with a boat cradle and model of a flat bottomed boat - and what is more, the canal still brings drinking water to Kyoto and the power plant is also still in operation. It has been joined at Keage by a water purification plant.

The Lake Biwa Canal Museum of Kyoto is a free facility set up to commemorate the canal, the Incline and hydroelectric power plant. You will find ample photo's and materials here on the large project, as well as a power generator.

[Statue of Tanabe Sakuro at Keage - Photo © Ad Blankestijn]

From the courtyard of the museum there is a good view of the Incline, which is now a popular cherry blossom viewing spot (as are parts along the canal in Yamashina). When you follow the incline east from the museum, you come to a small park graced by a statue of Tanabe Sakuro and a memorial to workers who lost there lives when building the canal.

A branch of the canal goes east and north for irrigation purposes and passes through the grounds of Nanzenji temple via a redbrick aqueduct - a modern piece of architecture that blends remarkably well into the temple grounds and is now a popular landmark.

[The aqueduct in the grounds of Nanzenji - Photo © Ad Blankestijn]
Museum Tel: 075-752-2530
Museum Hrs: 9:00-17:00 (Dec-Feb: 16:30); CL Mon (next day if NH), NY
Access (both to museum and incline): 5 min walk from Keage St on the Tozai subway line
Materials: There are several interesting articles on the Lake Biwa Canal project on the web: