[From September Issue 2012]
Okayama Prefecture, situated in the southeast of the Chugoku region, has been called the “land of fine weather,” due to the fact that for many days during the year less than one millimeter of rain falls. To the north is the grandeur of the Chugoku Mountains and to the south is the beautiful Seto Inland Sea. The prefecture enjoys a mild climate and is extremely fertile. It’s blessed both with the bounty of nature and the fact that natural disasters, such as typhoons, rarely occur. Its capital Okayama City is a historical city that has thrived as a castle town since the Warring States Period.
In front of Okayama Station is a statue of “Momotaro” (Peach Boy), the hero of the fairy tale Momotaro. Okayama is the birthplace of Momotoro, who set off from the region towards Oniga-shima (Demon Island) with a dog, monkey and pheasant. It is said that the statue of Momotaro is still looking towards of Demon Island.
Okayama Castle, about a ten minute bus ride from Okayama Station, is a famous castle of great historic value and is the most important historical landmark in the prefecture. It was built in 1597 by UKITA Hideie – one of the five daimyou (lords) chosen to form the Council of Five Elders by TOYOTOMI Hideyoshi to rule Japan. It’s is said that the castle was modeled after ODA Nobunaga’s Azuchi Castle. Because of its black exterior, the castle has been nicknamed “U-jou” or “Crow Castle.” With three stories and six levels, the keep has valuable items on display such as matchlocks and suits of armor. Built for defense there is also a tsukimiyagura observation post, which has been designated as an important cultural asset.
Spread out beneath Okayama Castle, is Korakuen, a beautiful Japanese garden that is counted among Japan’s three most famous gardens. IKEDA Tsunamasa, the feudal lord of Okayama, ordered one of his vassals to build the garden, and it took 13 years before it was complete. Featuring a spacious lawn, a pond, a miniature hill, and a tea house, the garden allows visitors to enjoy a traditional Japanese atmosphere and the beauty of each season. Seasonal events are held there, such as cherry blossom viewing in spring and moon viewing in autumn. You can drink maccha (powdered green tea) inside the garden while enjoying the views.
Taking the JR Ako Line from Okayama Station for about 20 minutes, get off at Saidaiji Station, from there walk about ten minutes and you’ll come upon Saidaiji Kannonin Temple. In February each year, the Saidaiji Hadaka Festival is held to determine the year’s fuku-otoko (lucky men). This festival, which is also known as “Saidaiji Eyo,” is one of Japan’s three most bizarre festivals. Held to herald spring, men wearing nothing but a loincloth fight for the shingi – a sacred, cylindrical, wooden stick about 20 centimeters in length – at this traditional event.
Also known as “The Fruits Kingdom,” Okayama produces large amounts of quality fruits, such as white peaches and muscat grapes. Plump and bursting with juice, white peaches make especially pleasing gifts.
Reflecting the bounty of the nearby mountains and sea, Okayama’s most famous local dish is bara-zushi. It’s a kind of chirashi-zushi: a rice bowl, topped generously with ingredients harvested from the mountains and the sea. Each ingredient is cooked separately to bring out its optimum flavor and this dish has been loved by the people of Okayama since the old days. It’s often eaten on festive occasions.
Bizen-yaki (Bizen ware), is a handicraft that has a history going back 1,000 years and is produced at one of Japan’s six oldest kilns. Because glaze is not applied, these pieces of ceramic look simple, but are imbued with the deep warmth of the soil. Bizen-yaki has been appreciated by people for a long time, but these days aficionados come not only from outside the prefecture, but also from abroad. Increasingly, new bizen-yaki artists are establishing their own studios.
Taking the JR Sanyo Main Line from Okayama Station and traveling for about 20 minutes, you arrive at Kurashiki Station. A short walk from the station takes you to the Kurashiki Bikan Historical Quarter. These highly prized rows of buildings, with their white walls and latticed windows, have been designated to be preserved as part of the townscape. These beautiful streets are known throughout the country, and rickshaws that fit in with the atmosphere of the neighborhood are popular among tourists. At night, the area is lit with streetlights, lending the scenery a rather different beauty to that of the day.
The Ohara Museum of Art, established by OHARA Magosaburo, a businessman from Kurashiki, was the first private art museum in Japan to house mostly Western artworks. It exhibits world-famous paintings and sculptures such as “Annunciation” by El Greco and “Waterlilies” by Claude MONET. The museum is also a champion of contemporary art and is active in supporting young artists by inviting them to Kurashiki. The museum is currently participating in the Google Art Project, where people can view works exhibited at art museums all over the world on the Internet.
About a 30 minute drive from the center of Kurashiki is the Seto-Ohashi Bridge, which connects Honshu and Shikoku. In addition to linking islands in the Seto Inland Sea, the Seto-Ohashi Bridge has long been cherished as a symbol of Okayama. From Mount Washu, you can enjoy a panoramic view of the beautiful Seto Inland Sea. In Shimotsui, rows of old houses with tiled roofs and earthen walls give the port town a retro feel.
Hotels and inns located in the suburbs of Kurashiki City that command views of the Seto Inland Sea are especially popular; in summer they’re also great for bathing in the sea. There you can enjoy delicious vegetables, and fresh seafood from the Seto Inland Sea. Okayama and Kurashiki cities also have hot springs, but particularly popular are Yunogo and Yubara; hot spring towns in the northern part of the prefecture. These springs are said to be effective in healing injuries and illnesses.
It takes about one hour and ten minutes to fly from Haneda Airport to Okayama Airport. From the airport, located in the suburbs of Okayama City, there are limousine buses available to take you to Okayama Station. If travelling by the JR rail network, you can take the Tokaido Shinkansen from JR Tokyo Station and get to Okayama Station in roughly three hours and ten minutes. It takes approximately ten hours by highway bus.
Text: OOMORI Saori