Japan City Guides: Kurashiki
- Situated 17km east from Okayama
- Known for its quarter of preserved Edo-era buildings
- Population: 450,000
- Translates as "warehouse village"
- Easy to navigate on foot or rental bicycle
- Town has excellent museums
- Numer one attraction is the Ohara Museum
- Easy day trip from Kobe or Osaka
Kurashiki is one of the touristic highlights of Okayama prefecture due to the compact, but well-preserved, Edo-era merchants' quarter called Bikan-chiku (the Bikan district).
Kurashiki is the second largest city in the prefecture. A huge agglomeration of heavy industry built on landfill in the Seto sea is the grubby, modern Japan tourists never see and the Bikan stands in for what once was. The enormous industrial plants to the east and the quiet, willow-lined canal are related, however.
Kurashiki canal illuminated at night, Okayama Prefecture, Japan
A visit to Kurashiki could be done as a comfortable day trip. There is a bus service to Kurashiki from Okayama airport. Those who plan to use the bullet train should be warned there is no shinkansen stop at Kurashiki.
Shinkansen riders either transfer at Okayama or Shin-Kurashiki station which are the two shinkansen stations in Okayama. One of the many local trains leaving from Okayama city takes around 20 minutes. From Shin-Kurashiki station one must also transfer to a local train for the 10 minute ride.
Do not think that Kurashiki is a short walk from Shin-Kurashiki station. This correspondent used to live near Shin Kurashiki and would regularly meet brave, guidebook-wielding travelers setting forth on foot to the Bikan. Sometimes convincing them of their error was difficult and one conversation degenerated into a Monty-Pythonesque arguement: "You'll get lost." "No, I won't." "Yes, you will." "No, I will not." "Look, I live here and I can tell you that you are in the wrong place!"
The Ohara Museum of Art is the oldest museum of western art in Japan
Once travelers arrive in Kurashiki station they should walk out the south exit of the station. The north exit leads to a bankrupt theme park called "Tivoli Gardens". There are many signs leading to the Bikan area. The quickest route is to walk down the left hand side of the main road leading away from the station. The entrance to the Bikan is a leisurely 10 minute walk.
The entrance to the Bikan leads off to the left. The Bikan lends itself to relaxed strolling. For one thing there are no cars to avoid or any overhead wires that seem to oppress the Japanese cityscape. It is also easy to navigate as one essentially walks along the right side of a small canal for 300 metres and then returns along the other side.
The canal is lined with willows. There are the requisite Japanese carp (koi) finning about in the river and several swans. Often there are artists sitting by the canal making and selling trinkets.
From the entrance down to where the canal makes a job to the right there are some souvenir shops that could be safely passed over. Shortly after is a stone columned Grecian styled building. This is the famous Ohara Art Museum (Tel: 086 422 0005; 9am-5pm; Closed Mondays).
The Ohara Art Museum houses a large collection of European art including works by Cezanne, Degas, El Greco, Gauguin, Monet, Munch, Picasso and other artists, founded by the fantastically wealthy textile tycoon Keisaburo Ohara (1880-1943). The museum also houses collections of local folk art and Chinese paintings.
The next landmark is a long, low building with a blackboard outside of it. This is actually a small, successful securities company and the board has economic prognostications.
Next is a two story light grey wooden building which is the Tourist Centre (Tel: 086 422 0542). It has information and public toilets. Further on is an expensive, traditional inn and then there is a stretch of distinctly Japanese buildings with their grey tiled foundations, white walls and dark wooden windows.
These are from the Edo era and were originally merchant warehouses. Now they have been converted to tourist shops, cafes, and galleries. The Japanese Rural Toy Museum has a large selection of traditional Japanese toys for sale in the attached shop. The toys make great souvenirs.
Other museums of interest in Kurashiki are the Kurashiki Museum of Folkcraft which has exhibits of baskets, clothes and pottery, the Museum of Natural History (Tel: 086 425 6037), the Torajiro Kojima Museum and the Kurashiki City Art Museum (Tel: 086 425 6034)
Strollers continue down to the end of the canal, cross over and head back. On the other side of the canal is a beautifully preserved building now housing a liquor shop specializing in local sakes and beer.
Near the liquor shop leading away from the canal is a narrow lane. Going down the lane and After crossing a road one can gain entrance to the Meiji-era Ivy Square.
Ivy Square was originally the first spinning mill in the area and the layout was based on the mills in Manchester, England. Now Ivy Square sometimes has live concerts or beer gardens in its ivyed square and has the usual collection of souvenir shops and handicraft making facilities.
Leaving Ivy Square the same way, one should now walk along the road rather than going back to the canal. There are more shops as well as restaurants and galleries. Exploring might lead one to a small store selling gorgeous envelopes used for wedding invitations. These are decorated with intricately folded paper, gold, red, and green threads and would make fantastic souvenirs (flat, light, easy to pack, very Japanese). There is also a carpet gallery - Muni Carpets (Tel 086 426 6226). The Japanese owners of the gallery want to preserve the carpet making traditions of an ethnic minority in China. There are branches in Tokyo, Hiroshima and Beijing.
The carpets are made from wool in traditional patterns with natural dyes in China. They are beautiful. Continuing further leads one to a small branch of a local bank. Turning left at the corner of the bank one comes to a beautifully preserved private residence and then there is the canal again with the Ohara museum.
To draw the threads together, Mr. Ohara, the founder of the museum, made his millions from the mill which has become Ivy Square. The securities company with the blackboard manages his trust. The bank was the one he founded and is also involved in managing the Ohara fortune. The beautiful house was his. Ohara worked to preserve the Bikan. Ohara also put up many of the plants in the industrial zone. The bankrupt theme park is on land owned by the Ohara estate. In this way Kurashiki perfectly sums up the swirl of Japan: old and new, industrial and rural, foreign and native.
Painters exhibited at the Ohara Museum of Art include Cezanne, Chagall, Degas, El Greco, Gauguin, Klee, Matisse, Miro, Monet and Picasso
Okayama Airport is the nearest airport to Kurashiki. There is a connecting bus service to the center of town.
Kurashiki is 17km from Okayama. Travelling west on the Sanyo Shinkansen line from Osaka (45 minutes), Tokyo (4 hours), Kyoto (1 hour 10 minutes), Nagoya get off at Okayama and take a frequent local train to Kurashiki.
There are long distance bus services from outside Okayama Station to Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Nagoya and Nagasaki.
There are ferry and services to Shikoku and islands in the Inland Sea including Shodoshima from Shin-Okayama Port, 10km south of downtown Okayama with buses from Tenmaya Bus Center.