December 7, 2018

Deep Okayama

While Okayama Prefecture does make for a great half-day add on to Hiroshima and Miyajima, there's a heck of a lot more to this part of Japan.

A statue of Momotaro outside of Okayama Station in Okayama Prefecture

Welcome back to yet another one of my area guides where I go irrationally deep on a single location. Today we’ll be taking an exhaustive look at Okayama Prefecture, the so-called “land of sunshine.” This peculiar moniker comes from the fact that Okayama has the lowest recorded rainfall of all the prefectures. Now as those who follow me on social media know, I have a bit of a tumultuous relationship with Okayama. You see, every damn time that I’ve tried to visit the prefecture, it seems almost as if the fates conspire for me to meet my makers. During my very first expedition, I almost drowned in a torrential downpour and then upon my return, left I with a badly broken collarbone and elbow. For such an upbeat and cheerily nicknamed place, my experience has been rather morbid.

My injuries and brushes with death aside though, I must admit that I have a bit of a grim fascination with the “land of sunshine” that keeps me wanting to come back for more. Why would I foolishly risk life and limb to return to Okayama you ask? Well, much like those comedic Russian matryoshka dolls, Okayama is a place of layers. The deeper I dig into the prefecture, the more amazing hidden gems I discover. In fact, I’d wager that Okayama is more of a treasure trove of undiscovered attractions than just about any other prefecture that I’ve traversed thus far. While many of the allures are spread out and therefore likely require a rental car to be best explored, you could easily spend three to four days just in Okayama alone. What follows is a bit of a smorgasbord of locations that I’ve uncovered thus far.

Note that this posts is DEFINITELY aimed at repeat visitors to Japan. If this is your first time traveling to Japan and you’d like to sample what Okayama has to offer, please refer to this piece on Koraku-en and Kurashiki. It’s much more oriented to those following traditional routes that include Kyoto and Hiroshima and therefore fits better into the itineraries of first timers.

Getting to Okayama Prefecture

The JR Okayama Station in Okayama Prefecture

OK, let’s pause for a second to get our bearings and handle some logistics. To begin with, know that Okayama Prefecture can be found located just to the east of Hiroshima Prefecture nestled up against the Seto Inland Sea. As such, when it comes to transportation, initially accessing the “land of sunshine” is a breeze. Most of you will likely be taking the bullet train so plug in Okayama station into Hyperdia or a similar service to find the best route for you. While it is possible to fly from any major airport, I find that this option is just more of a hassle than it’s worth. Especially for holders of JR Rail Passes, it’s a lot easier to just stick to the trains.

Anyway, once you’ve arrived at Okayama Station, you’re going to want to get yourself a rental car. While many of the following destinations are somewhat reachable via a combination of trains, buses, and taxis, having your own set of wheels will both reduce unnecessary headaches and decrease dead time wasted on transportation. In the interest of brevity, I’ll be assuming that you’re traveling by car and therefore will NOT be covering public transportation at all. If you insist on not heeding my advice, be sure to dig around in Google to figure out how to get there.

Okayama’s “Castle in the Sky”

Okayama Prefecture’s Bitchu-Matsuyama Castle, the so-called “castle in the sky”

The first destination that I’d like to introduce today is the majestic Bitchu-Matsuyama Castle. Known also as Takahashi Castle, this impregnable fortress is one of only twelve remaining original castles in the country. As with the likes of Hikone Castle, this adds a sense of historical authenticity that modern reconstructions simply cannot replicate. In fact, of the surviving structures, Bitchu-Matsuyama Castle is actually one of the oldest. Moreover, it is the only original mountaintop castle to survive past the Edo period (1603–1868). Even when accounting for the various reconstructions, Bitchu-Matsuyama Castle is Japan’s highest stronghold at an elevation of 430 meters. As you might imagine, it’s not exactly easy to reach.

In the year 1240, the imposing Bitchu-Matsuyama Castle was erected on top of a collection of stepped mountains that were all but impossible to attack. At the time, structures like this were not yet the status symbols that they would become in the two-hundred plus years of peace that was the Edo period (1603–1868). No, instead, castles of the time were far more concerned with being stalwart bastions of defense rather than easily accessible administrative centers. I’ve seen my fare share of castles during many adventures over the years but few can compare to this jaw dropping garrison. I definitely wouldn’t want to be tasked with having to take this one!

Note that if you plan on visiting Bitchu-Matsuyama Castle be sure to do so in the very early morning. Especially in autumn, the damp cool air gets trapped in the valley below, giving rise to the ethereal scene pictured above. This phenomenon is known as unkai in Japanese and loosely translates into something like “sea of clouds” in English. On particularly good days, Bitchu-Matsuyama Castle almost appears as if it’s floating in mid-air. Because of this, the fortress is often referred to as “the Castle in the sky.”

Fukiya & Okayama’s Bengara

The crimson bengara-died townscape of Okayama Prefecture’s Fukiya

The second location that I’d like to introduce is a quaint little town named Fukiya. This mountain village once flourished as a copper mining town and was also known as a major producer of a vivid red pigment known as bengara. The dye is made from oxidized iron and is extremely resistant to the gradual entropy of the ages, making it prized all across Japan. In fact, bengara is so durable that many of the town’s buildings that have been coated in the dye retain their hue despite not having a touch up in decades. The uniform red of all of Fukiya’s structures have earned the hamlet recognition as an Important Preservation District for Groups of Traditional Buildings. Much of the town has been organized around a single main street which hosts a collection of charming shops and several museums.

If you’re interested in making a visit, know that Fukiya is located high in the mountains of northwest Okayama. At a height of 550 meters above sea level, this village is a bit removed from the rest of civilization. Because of this, Fukiya’s population continues to grey more and more every year. Likewise, the townsfolk are having a bit of trouble filling some of its historic buildings. This creates a bit of a conundrum because these structures have been labeled as important cultural assets by the Japanese government. It’s not like the structures can just be abandoned and forgotten about. To rectify this issue, the local residents have transformed one of the empty buildings into a stunning room for rent. If you are on the hunt for an authentic experience and traveling to Fukiya, I highly suggest taking it slow and spending the night in this enchanting village.

Okayama’s Hiruzen Highlands

The hills of Okayama Prefecture’s Hiruzen Kogen

Ah, the Hiruzen Highlands. What a wonderful place of unsurpassed natural beauty! Alas, I’m sure I’d have much fonder memories of the lush vistas and autumn foliage if only I didn’t almost die here in a cycling accident. Regrettably, most of what I remember from the Hiruzen Highlands is associated with pain and the fact that my left shoulder was hanging suspiciously lower than my right. Hopefully, you, the reader, do not bear the curse of Okayama as I do and will be more suited to savoring this region’s many delights. Call me crazy, or even reckless, but I truly want to venture back here again sometime to be able to experience the highlands without an intense throbbing throughout my body’s upper left side.

My excruciating sob story aside, what makes the Hiruzen Highlands so special? Well, for starters, how about the fact that the area is the largest breeding zone for Jersey cows in Japan? That’s right, this means in addition its adorable bovine collection, the Hiruzen Highland also produces some top notch cheeses and soft-serve ice cream. These local specialties are sourced directly from the milk provided by the area’s own Jersey cows. As if these cuties weren’t enough, the majestic scenery alone is enough to warrant a visit. The entire Hiruzen Highland basin is nestled between three towering volcanic peaks that are hailed as the “three seats of Hiruzen.” Trust me when I say it’s as breathtaking as it sounds, especially with Torori Prefecture’s Mt. Daisen, the “Mt. Fuji of West Japan,” staging the background.

The Hiruzen Highland is popularly considered in Japan as a domestic resort area in western Honshu (Japan’s main island). In fact, the area surprisingly welcomes the second highest number of tourists per year within Okayama after Kurashiki. With the myriad of options for outdoor fun, it’s easy to see why. Those who visit will have the chance to choose from horseback riding, cycling, and hiking as well as camping during the warmer months. Moreover, once the snowfall starts to accumulate, winter sports also become a popular draw. Hell, there’s even an amusement park!

Unfortunately though, the Hiruzen Highlands seem to be a bit of a local secret and rarely pop up on the radars of Western tourists. Still, if you’re a fan of nature and can manage to spare an extra day to explore this remarkable region, I cannot more highly suggest that you do so.

Okayama’s Smitheries & Pottery

Thus far in this piece, all of the hidden gems that I’ve introduce have been located up in the mountains. So, in the interest of shaking things up, let’s head back down south to the area of Bizen for my final recommendation. Situated at the southeastern corner of Okayama Prefecture, Bizen offers an entire archipelago to explore. Here, great cycling routes await that offer miraculous views of the Seto Inland Sea. Moreover, the region is equally famed for its distinctive rustic pottery that is prized all over the world. For those who like to get their hands dirty, Bizen has ample opportunities to try your luck at making your own ceramics. To top it all off, Bizen boasts some stunningly fresh seafood that is caught just off-shore in the waters of the Seto Inland Sea. Should you visit, be sure to sample the oysters! They are a local delicacy and something you’d be a fool to miss out on.

Not a fan of pottery and ceramics? Don’t worry, I never was much of an arts and crafts guy myself. Instead, one of my favorite draws in the region is the exhaustive collection of traditional Japanese blades at the Bizen Osafune Sword Museum. This facility proudly displays the works of many master artisans and also offers a learning center where visitors can learn all about the craft. Why is this museum located in Bizen you ask? Well, as it turns out, this region is responsible for producing one of the premier schools of bladesmithing in Japan. In fact, over half of the weapons holding the distinct honor of being national treasures emanate from this area. Truth be told, I could dedicate an entire article to just nerding out on this facility. So, to keep myself from going on a tangent, I’ll direct you to the video I’ve linked above if you’d like to know more.

There’s Still More to Okayama Prefecture

Okayama Castle and Koraku-en in Okayama Prefecture

Of course, no piece on Okayama would be complete without mentioning the prefecture’s main claims to fame, Koraku-en and Kurashiki. Now I’ve already covered these two cultural sites at length in this piece so rather than reinventing the wheel, I’ll just direct you there. In addition to these two locations, one other attraction that is often overlooked is the art island of Naoshima. This place has a number of splendid installments, including a pumpkin that you’ve probably seen pop up on Instagram from time to time. Although the islet is much closer to Okayama, it administratively belongs to Kagawa Prefecture in Shikoku. That said, Naoshima’s proximity to the Okayama means that the prefecture is actually the perfect point of departure for overseas visitors.

Until next time travelers…