The lake is most likely named after the Japanese stringed instrument biwa, whose shape resembles the lake. The entire lake is now designated as a protected Quasi-National Park.
The JR Tokaido Main Line and the Tokaido Shinkansen lines run more or less along the southern and eastern coasts of the lake, connecting Otsu and Hikone to Kyoto and Osaka in the west and Nagoya in the east. The private Keihan Keishin Line (京阪京津線) provides the cheapest way of getting from Kyoto to Otsu and onward with a change of train to Sakamoto.
The quieter western and northern coasts are covered by the JR Kosei Line (湖西線).
Largely covered in thickets of reeds, it would be a stretch to call Lake Biwa particularly scenic, but it attracts many birds and along with them birdwatchers.
Lake Biwa's tourism industry subsists on fishing, boat rentals and a tame assortment of watersports, including even scuba diving for those who want to plumb the depths of this rather murky lake.
Bring a portable BBQ set out to Omi Maiko or Shiga Beach.
Alternatively, at Omi Maiko, in summer are food vendors. A bicycle rental was 500 yen per day for a MamaChariot type bicycle (a single speed 26 inch bike with a highly adjustable seat and a basket in front) from right next to the train station from Osaka. (121 yen per US dollar currently) Bicycling around Lake Biwa is great fun, with wide paved paths in many places, approximately a 220 kilometer bike ride to go around the lake. Bicycle friendliness is evident everywhere and you should be able to find places to stay at various points around the lake if you bike tour. Witness four man or woman rowing teams in action on the Satagawa River during your tour. Ride a functioning sternwheeler, the "Michigan". Many parks, public restrooms and places to get water or drinks are near the southwestern part of the bike path. A Volleyball court is on the beach northwest of of the southernmost bridge. Fishing from a boat or the shore, kayaking and sailing are popular here.
Load up a cooler full of whatever you like. There is a reasonable, tropical-themed, outdoor beach bar on the eastern end of Omi Maiko. Part of a hotel, they offer BBQ dinners at brick tables.