November 16, 2018

Hop off at Okayama

While Okayama has many layers to it, the prefecture also makes for a great half-day addition to most of the standard Hiroshima itineraries.

A traditional Japanese bridge at Miyajima's Itsukushima Shrine which is near Okayama Prefecture

Allow me to begin this one by describing an all too common scenario. Imagine the following. You’re speeding along on the bullet train from Tokyo or Kyoto as you make your way to Hiroshima. As the stations roll by, your excitement continues to build. You approach Himeji and you mull over hopping off for a quick side adventure to the area’s imposing castle. After all, you have a JR Rail Pass and are free to get on and off all but the fastest trains at will. Alas, the Peace Dome and Miyajima are waiting so you decide to remain seated. Some time later, as the train pulls out of Okayama Station, you rejoice. Only one more stop to go you think, completely ignorant of the fact that you just missed some of Japan’s best hidden gems. Fret not though; you’re not alone in making this mistake but hopefully I can help to remedy the situation.

In the following article, I will lay out a plan of how to make a quick pit stop in Okayama before continuing on to Hiroshima. While the prefecture is vast and has abundant content to keep you mesmerized for days, many of its prime attractions are conveniently located near major transportation hubs. This makes for the perfect addition to all traveler’s itineraries and especially so for first time visitors to Japan. For starters, Okayama castle and the breathtaking Koraku-en garden can be found a mere twenty minutes walk or so from Okayama Station.

Moreover, venture another fifteen minutes away by train and you’ll discover the charming area of Kurashiki. Literally meaning something akin to “town of warehouses,” Kurashiki once served as a vital rice distribution center; today, many of its storage facilities remain intact. Kurashiki’s historic Biken quarters are absolutely worth investing the minor extra travel efforts for those keen on a truly authentic experience.

Getting to Okayama Prefecture

The JR Okayama Station, the gateway to all of Okayama Prefecture

Let’s take a brief pause to discuss Okayama’s location and how to get there. As alluded to above, the prefecture sits adjacent to Hiroshima and the Seto Inland Sea. Though much of its northern territories are marked by the towering crags that constitute much of southern Honshu (Japan’s main island), Okayama’s coastal regions are much more welcoming to civilization. Here, you’ll find the bulk of the prefecture’s attractions, urban centers, and transportation networks.

Okayama Prefecture can be reached by both train and airplane. Seeing as this post assumes you’re using the former and will hop off along the way to Hiroshima, I’ll only cover rail travel. Unlike many of the locations I’ve featured, getting to Okayama is a breeze and can be done via a single train from any major bullet train nodes on the Tokaido Line. The only secret to visiting Okayama is actually knowing it’s there to begin with. As always, please refer to our friends at Hyperdia or a similar service for the best train schedules and connections.

Koraku-en & Okayama Castle

Okayama Prefecture’s famed Kouraku-en woth Okayama Castle in the backgroun

Okayama’s claim to fame is none other than its gorgeous traditional garden, Koraku-en. Along with Mito’s Kairaku-en and Kanazawa’s Kenroku-en, Koraku-en is often hailed as one Japan’s finest of three gardens. Located conveniently within walking distance of Okayama Station, Koraku-en is much easier to reach for those traveling the standard Tokyo, Kyoto, and Hiroshima route. If you want to experience breathtaking natural beauty (that has even inspired a garden in Tokyo), I cannot more strongly urge you to make the journey to Koraku-en.

In addition to being a place of phenomenal beauty, Koraku-en also claims a long historical pedigree as well. The garden was originally constructed in 1687 at the behest of Ikeda Tsunamasa, the local feudal lord ruling over the area. It was designed to be used as a place of entertainment when receiving important dignitaries. Unfortunately, both the years and elements have not been kind to Koraku-en. It was heavily damaged in a 1934 flood and thereafter nearly bombed flat during World War II. Thankfully though, Koraku-en has always been faithfully restored to its original state thanks to the accurate record-keeping by the original designers.

Okayama Castle set against a number of vibrant trees during the months of autumn

One of the spectacular things about Koraku-en is that it makes marvelous use of the nearby Okayama castle as a dramatic piece of “borrowed scenery.” While an imposing sight, Okayama castle is unfortunately not an authentic medieval fortress like Hikone Castle and a handful of others. Though the original castle dates back before the year 1600, it was unfortunately lost to the ravages of war so you’ll need to settle for a replica. The current rebuilt was completed in 1966 and skillfully maintained the original Azuchi-Momoyama period (1573–1600) design.

Much like other reconstructions, the castle’s main building has been remodeled into a museum that exhibits the structure’s past. Inside, you can learn all about the function that Okayama castle played throughout the Edo period (1603–1868). Additionally, those looking for a bit of authenticity will be pleased to know that the Tsukimi Yagura (lit. “Moon Viewing Tower”) escaped the devastation of war. In addition to the turret dating from the year 1620, there remain unearthed foundations of former buildings to explore that bring the castle’s lost legacy to life.

Oh yeah, for the Game of Thrones fans out there, know that Okayama Castle is often referred to as the “Crow Castle” due to its black appearance. If you’re looking to join the Night’s Watch or something, this one is probably a must visit. Just sayin’ folks…

Okayama’s Charming Kurashiki

Okayama Prefecture’s beautiful Kurashiki district

Keen on diving a little deeper into what Okayama has to offer? Why not head on over to Kurashiki’s historic Bikan warehouse district. Located only a short train ride away from Okayama Station, this part of Kurashiki is bound to please all types of travelers. During the Edo period (1603–1858) this area was a vital node for the transportation of goods. Kurashiki’s Bikan quarters are characterized by its collection of dazzling yet authentic warehouse facilities. Quite the site to behold; what’s more, this area has even earned the distinction of being an Important Preservation District for Groups of Traditional Buildings.

Now Kurashiki is a location that is best explored leisurely, (possibly even while dawning a kimono) as there’s a lot to see and do. Wander around at your own pace and simply savor it. Just remember one thing though. Given the additional time investment needed, a side trip to Kurashiki will mean that your visit to Okayama ends up being longer than just a quick stopover. Still, I would wager that this charming spot more than makes up for the lost time. If you’re a fan of places like Kawagoe in Saitama, you’re definitely going to love Kurashiki. While pursuing the historic Bikan quarters, keep your eyes out for the following attractions.

The exterior of the Ohara Museum of Art in Okayama Prefecture
  • Ohara Museum of Art
    Pictured above, this museum exhibits an impressive collection of works by famous Western artists. Apparently it claims to be Japan’s first museum of Western art and was funded entirely by the wealthy Ohara merchant family. Inside, you’ll find works by Picasso, El Greco, Gauguin, Modigliani, Rodin, Klee, Pollock, and Kandinsky among others. The museum’s notable collection spans a wide variety of periods and nationalities.
  • Former Residences
    In Kurashiki there are a handful of former merchant family residences that are open to the public including that of the family that financed the Ohara Museum of Art. During the late Edo era, the growing economic prosperity of the Kurashiki region supplied its inhabitants with enough means to afford domiciles such as these. Though the minutia may be lost on those who cannot speak Japanese, just about anyone can enjoy the stunning architecture.
  • Achi Shrine
    Sitting on a hill that overlooks the historical Bikan quarters, this ancient shrine allegedly dated back to the 4th century. Ever since, the shrine had been an important stop for seafaring travelers who pray for safe passage through the Seto Inland Sea.
  • Kurashiki Ivy Square
    This red bricked facility is a reproduction of a former textile factory that once resided on the site. It has a spectacular hotel to boot but is worth a quick perusal even if you don’t plan on staying.

Many assert that the best way to enjoy the historic Bikan area is to hop on any of the small boats that cruise up and down its canals. Additionally, if you manage to stay past sunset, you’ll be treated to the spectacular sight of the area being illuminated by adorable street lamps. The lamp light gives off a calmer, different vibe from that what Kurashiki offers during the daylight hours. Lastly, if you want to get some shopping in before leaving, there’s an outlet mall on the opposite side of Kurashiki Station from the historic quarters.

There’s Still More to Okayama Prefecture

Okayama Prefecture’s Bitchu-Matsuyama Castle, a fortress that is often called the “castle in the sky”

Honestly, I must say that Okayama Prefecture is much akin to an onion. While its most notable attractions are all clustered around the major train hubs, there are endless options awaiting once you peel back the surface levels. For example, Bitchu-Matsuyama Castle (pictured above) is a true wonder to behold and is often hailed as the “Castle in the Sky.” In the interest of brevity, I’ll cover these other allures in another post but let me end by saying that Okayama is actually a super convenient way to reach the art island of Naoshima. Many travelers often come up by boat from Shikoku but Okayama is likely a more convenient transit for JR Rail Pass holders. For my art fans out there, perhaps this is a good option on your your way back from Hiroshima?

Until next time travelers…