Okayama is a medium sized city in western Japan on the Sanyo shinkansen line, located roughly halfway between Osaka and Hiroshima. Okayama is best known for its Korakuen Garden and its association with the Momotaro legend.
Korakuen Garden is Okayama's most famous attraction, and alone makes Okayama City worth visiting. Along with Kenraku-en Garden in Kanazawa, and Kairaku-en Garden in Mito, Koraku-en is one of Japan's Three Great Gardens.
Korakuen is centrally located, only about 1.5 km away from Okayama Station, and is on an island hugging the east bank of the Asahi River. It was created in the year 1700, and its 13.3 hectares (33 acres) include 1.8 hectares (4.5 acres) of lawn, as well as picturesque features such as ponds, hills, and tea houses. Korakuen offers visitors picturesque views at every turn of its paths. In one corner of Korakuen are some well-cared for red-crested cranes whose loud squawks echo across the garden.
Okayama Castle dates from the 16th century, and is just across the river from Korakuen Garden, making for one of the Garden's most dramatic views. Although it is a concrete reconstruction rebuilt in 1966 (the original having been almost completely destroyed in World War Two), the castle is still a charming sight, easily accessed, and set in beautiful surrounds. Okayama Castle is one of only a few black castles in Japan, the others being Matsue Castle in Shimane Prefecture and Matsumoto Castle. There is a museum inside the castle,and you can enjoy a view of the Asahi River and Korakuen from the tower keep.
Another way to soak up the atmosphere, weather permitting, is to rent a rowboat and glide around on the river for an hour or two.
Momotaro "Peach Boy"
Okayama city uses the Momotaro, the "the Peach Boy" of Japanese fable, as its mascot. In the legend, Momotaro had the gumption to lead a pheasant, dog and monkey on a quest to Kinojo Castle (which still stands today) in the town of Soja in nearby Kibi Province, and was the stronghold of marauding demons that would plunder his hometown.
Spotting the many and varied public representations of Momotaro throughout Okayama City makes for a sightseeing pastime in itself.
Momotaro Street, for example, provides access to the two major spots of interest in Okayama city, Korakuen garden and Okayama Castle. And the way to Korakuen and Okayama Castle, conveniently close together, is lined with various Momotaro statues and has Momotaro-themed manholes in the sidewalks.
Museums in Okayama
Okayama city has a number of museums. Okayama Prefectural Museum (Tel: 086 272 1149) is on the same island as Korakuen Garden, as well as a botanical garden. The museum and greenhouse are worth a visit only if you are an avid fan of local history or tropical plants.
The Okayama Orient Museum (Tel: 086 232 3636; 9am-5pm, last entry 4:30pm. Closed Mondays) has excellent exhibits from ancient Iran, Syria, Iraq and the Greek and Roman Empires;
Okayama Prefectural Museum of Art features mainly Japanese artists (Tel: 086 225 4800; 9:00am-5:00pm, last entry 4:30pm. Closed Mondays.
Yumeji Art Museum exhibits the works of Yumeji Takehisa (1884-1934), born in what is now Setouchi, a small city about 20 km east of Okayama City, and who is famous as a "people's painter" in Japan for having eschewed formal art schooling (Tel: 086 271 1000; 9am-5pm, last entry 4:30pm. Closed Mondays);
Hayashibara Museum of Art, very near Okayama Castle, features the visual arts and crafts of Japan and East Asia. (Tel: 086 223 1733; 10am-5pm, last entry 4:30pm. Closed Mondays).
Okayama City Museum at the West Exit of Okayama Station has permanent exhibits on the history of Okayama, its natural environment and the old symbol of the city, the restored Kanetsuki-do (Bell Tower). There are also sections on Okayama Castle, local industries such as Bizen pottery, and festivals in the area. The museum has lots of large aerial photos of the town. (Tel: 086 898 3000; 10am-6pm; Closed Mondays (Tuesday if Monday is a public holiday), and December 28 - January 4)
The Kibi Plain and Kinojo Castle
Momotaro, the legendary mascot figure of Okayama, led his band against the ogres of Kinojo Castle in Soja, across the Kibi Plain. Visitors can follow by bicycle the route they took, as there is a cycling path across the Kibi Plain, linking Okayama City and Soja City.
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 20 km (12 1/2 miles) one way and will lead you through rice fields, massive keyhole tombs, temples and five tier pagodas.
Towards the terminus in Soja city, look to the northern hills for a view of the remains of a massive fortress overlooking the Kibi Plain, at an elevation of about 400 meters (1,300 feet). This is Kinojo Castle, the "ogre's stronghold," and has undergone a recent archaeological excavation and partial restoration.
Kinojo was built by a group of Korean invaders in the distant past who 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.
Iyama Hofukuji Temple
At Hofuku-ji there are a couple of statues and a painting that illustrate what is probably the most famous story about Sesshu.
According to the legend, Sesshu was not a particularly good novice priest, 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 in his tears. When the abbot returned he was taken aback by what he first took to be a live rat at the boy's feet, such was Sesshu's skill at drawing.
Naoshima is a small island in the Seto inland sea accessible from Okayama City by a 20 minute ferry ride from Uno port.
Naoshima is deservedly famous for the Benesse Art Site Naoshima, which is a complex of modern art museums and exhibits. Some of the projects have involved restoring abandoned homes or shrines as art pieces. A half-day or so of art-viewing can be finished with 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 visible from Naoshima is one that is distinctly cone-shaped. This is reputed to be where Momotaro and his loyal menagerie also went to destroy demons.
Okayama International Villas
The Okayama International Villas were five traditional houses in rural Okayama prefecture designed to give foreigners (both residents and tourists) the chance to enjoy rural Japan. The villas, which were styled as homes away from home, consisted of five houses located throughout the region, each with its own unique design characteristics and atmosphere. As the project was subsidized, nightly rates were a very reasonable 2,000 - 3,000 yen per person. Each house had four or five Western or Japanese rooms and visitors shared common living facilities. Unfortunately these have now closed.
Kurashiki is Okayama prefecture's next biggest city after Okayama City, and is less than 20 minutes away by train. Kurashiki is recommended for its beautiful, historical Bikan district, which impeccably preserves the look of the city from two or three centuries ago. This elegant, car-free zone alongside a canal is a delightful place to explore and has some excellent accommodation, renowned museums, and outstanding dining and souvenir shopping opportunities.
Okayama thus makes a great base to explore the many interesting sites in the local area.
There are tourist information centers at JR Okayama Station (Tel. 086 222 2912) and the Okayama International Center (Tel. 086 256 2914). The Okayama International Center is about 5 minutes walk west of Okayama Station. Take the Central Exit on the 2F of the station, and go through the ANA Hotel Okayama (where you can ask for further directions).
The Okayama Electric Tramway is Okayama's streetcar system and is the best way to get around town. Fares cost no more than 140 yen, or 400 yen for a day-pass (ichi-nichi-joh-sha-ken). It is also possible to rent bicycles from outlets near Okayama Station.
Festivals in Okayama
Okayama's main festival is the Saidaiji Eyo Hadaka Matsuri which takes place annually on the 3rd Saturday in February at Kannon-in Temple. "hadaka" means "naked" (or, in this case, close-to-naked), and 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 the death of a participant in 2007.
Access - Getting to Okayama
Okayama Airport is 20 km (12 1/2 miles) northwest of the city and is linked by buses to Okayama Station. Okayama Airport has domestic flights to Haneda Airport in Tokyo, New Chitose Airport in Sapporo, Hokkaido, and Naha Airport 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 Station 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.
Okayama Station is a highway bus terminus for buses to various destinations in the Chugoku region. and beyond. There are long-distance buses to Tokyo (Tokyo Station, Shinjuku Bus Station, Hamamatsucho), Kansai International Airport (KIX), Fukuoka, Hiroshima, Kobe, Kochi, Kyoto Station, Osaka, Nagoya Station, Nagasaki (with a change in Fukuoka), Matsue, Matsuyama, Izumo, Tokushima and Yonago.
Local buses also radiate out from Okayama Station.
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