Japan City Guides: Okayama & Kurashiki
Okayama & Kurashiki 岡山
- Situated midway between Osaka and Hiroshima
- City associated with the Momotaro legend
- Population: 650,000
- Known for Korakuen Garden
- Easy to navigate on foot or street car
- Within easy reach of Kurashiki
- Prefectural capital of Okayama Prefecture
- Good base to explore the Kibi Plain
- Home to the Saidaiji Eyo Naked Festival
The attractions of Okayama may be muted in comparison to larger or more historic Japanese cities but there are some remarkable things to see and do for visitors with several days to spare.
Okayama city uses the folktale of Momotaro, AKA the "the Peach Boy" as a mascot.
Momotaro had the gumption to lead a pheasant, dog and a monkey on a quest to rid his homeland of a number of marauding demons. The relevance of this children's tale for the average visitor is threefold.
First in Okayama city itself, while moving from one site to another, visitors could amuse themselves by trying to count the various public representations of Momotaro.
For example to get to the two major spots of interest in Okayama city, Korakuen garden and Okayama Castle, one must walk along Momotaro Street. On the way to Korakuen and the castle, conveniently close together, tourists will pass by various Momotaro statues and walk over Momotaro themed manholes.
Modern Okayama city, Okayama Prefecture, Japan
Kurashiki canal illuminated at night, Okayama Prefecture, Japan
Okayama Castle overlooks Korakuen which is on a small island in the Asahi River.
The area containing Okayama Castle and garden is considered a cultural zone and makes for a nice walk and a fun picnic spot.
Korakuen itself has been designated as one of the three great gardens in Japan.
Korakuen certainly offers visitors a number of picturesque vistas with each twist and turn of its paths. In one corner of the park are eight well-cared for Red Crested Cranes whose loud squawks often echo across the garden.
Also on the island is the Okayama Prefectural Museum (Tel: 086 272 1149) and a botanical garden. The museum and greenhouse are worth a visit only for those who are avid fans of local history or tropical plants.
Okayama Castle looks great from the outside with its black donjon and guilded bits. It is one of only a few black castles in Japan, Matsue Castle in Shimane Prefecture and Matsumoto Castle being the others.
There is a museum inside the castle to enjoy the view of the Asahi River and Korakuen from the tower keep. Another way to soak up the atmosphere would be to rent a rowboat and splash around in the river for an hour or two.
Other museums of interest in Okayama are: the Okayama Orient Museum (Tel: 086 232 3636; Closed Mondays; 300 yen) with excellent exhibits from ancient Iran, Syria, Iraq and the Greek and Roman Empires; the Okayama Prefectural Museum of Art (Tel: 086 225 4800; Closed Mondays; 300 yen); the Yumeiji Art Museum (Tel: 086 271 1000; Closed Mondays; 700 yen); the Hayashibara Museum of Art (Tel: 086 223 1733; Closed Mondays; 300 yen).
The second significant point of Momotaro for visitors is the bike path from Okayama city towards Soja city along the Kibi Plain.
Okayama Castle seen from Koraku-en Garden with cherry blossom in full bloom
The beautiful Koraku-en Garden in Okayama
If you have a day and a wish to see the beauty of rural Japan you can rent bicycles at either end, ride along the path, drop the bicycles off at the other and return by train.
The Kibi Plain bicycle route is about twenty kilometers one way and will lead you through rice fields, massive keyhole tombs, temples and five tier pagodas.
Towards the terminus in Soja city tourists can look to the northern hills and see the remains of a massive fortress overlooking the Kibi Plain. This complex named Kinojo has undergone a recent archaeological excavation and partial restoration.
Kinojo was built by a group of Korean invaders who had established an empire over western Japan. As the memory of the invasion faded into obscurity, the Korean overlords were replaced by the demons in the Momotaro legend.
Close to Soja city is the beautiful Iyama Hofukuji Temple, which is associated with the life of the famous artist priest Sesshu (1420-1506).
At Hofuku-ji there are a couple of statues and a painting that illustrate what is probably the most famous story about Sesshu, although how much of the story is actually true will never be known.
According to the legend Sesshu was not a particularly good novice, preferring to spend his time drawing rather than memorizing sutras, and one day as a punishment for some infraction he was tied to a post in one of the temple buildings and left.
His tears fell to the floor and with his toe he drew a rat on the floor with his tears. When the abbot returned he was taken aback by what he thought was a real rat at the boy's feet but which turned out to be a drawing.
Painting of Sesshu and the rat legend, Iyama Hofuku-ji Temple
The third link to Momotaro involves another day trip out of Okayama city to Naoshima. Naoshima is a small island in the Seto inland sea accessible by a 20 minute ferry ride from Uno port.
Naoshima has become deservedly famous for the Benesse Art Site Naoshima. Naoshima has a complex of modern art museums and exhibits. Some of the projects involved restoring abandoned homes or shrines as art pieces. At the end of a day goggling at the human propensity for making art one can enjoy a drink at one of the museum cafes (any of the cafes has a great view but the one in the "Chichu" museum has the best). Of the many islands which may attract some idle notice is one distinctly cone shaped. This is reputed to be where Momotaro and his loyal menagerie went to destroy the demons.
Okayama International Villas in rural Okayama Prefecture are five traditional houses designed to give foreigners (both residents and tourists) the chance to enjoy rural Japan. The villas, which are styled as homes away from home, consist of five houses located throughout the region, each with its own unique design characteristics and atmosphere. As the project is subsidised, nightly rates are a very reasonable 2000 yen - 3000 yen per person. Each house has four or five Western or Japanese rooms and visitors share common living facilities.
Okayama thus makes a great base to explore the many interesting sites in the local area.
Tourist information centers at JR Okayama Station (Tel. 086 222 2912), Okayama International Center (Tel. 086 256 2914) and Kurashiki Station (tel. 086 426 8681). Tourist information available at the Kurashikan (Tel. 086 422 0542) in the Bikan area of Kurashiki by the canal.
Okayama's street car system is the best way to get around town. Fares are a flat 140 yen. It is also possible to rent out bicycles from outlets near Okayama Station.
Okayama's main festival is the Saidaiji Eyo Hadaka Matsuri which takes place annually on the 3rd Saturday of February at Kannon-in Temple. As many as 10,000 loincloth-wearing and usually drunk men battle for sacred wooden sticks (shingi) tossed into the air by the temple priests. The festival can be dangerous with a death of a participant in 2007.
A serene carp pond at Koraku-en Garden in Okayama
Okayama Airport is 20km northwest of town and is linked by buses to the main station. Okayama Airport has domestic flights to Haneda in Tokyo, Sapporo in Hokkaido and Naha in Okinawa. There are international flights to Seoul (Incheon), Shanghai (Pudong), Taipei and Guam. There are regular buses from Okayama Airport to Okayama Station (30 minutes), Kurashiki (35 minutes), JR Kojima Station and Mizushima Station. There are also buses from Okayama Airport to Tsuyama (70 minutes).
Okayama is served by the Sanyo Shinkansen line to Osaka (45 minutes), Tokyo (4 hours), Kyoto (1 hour 10 minutes), Nagoya and Fukuoka/Hakata (2 hours). The JR Hakubi Line connects Okayama and Yonago on the Japan Sea coast in Tottori Prefecture.
There are long distance bus services from outside Okayama Station to Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Nagoya and Nagasaki.