Stepping into Okayama, like stepping into a storybook

Photos by Sarah B. Hodge
Photos by Sarah B. Hodge

Stepping into Okayama, like stepping into a storybook

by Sarah B. Hodge
Stripes Japan

Editor’s note: These are uncertain times, so please plan ahead if and when you decide to travel. Follow safety guidelines set by your base and always remember to practice proper hand-washing and social distancing.

 

Beautiful Okayama Prefecture is like stepping into a storybook: from gorgeous castles and willow-draped canals to classical Japanese landscape gardens and majestic waterfalls, this underappreciated gem is waiting to be discovered. Conveniently located between Kyoto, Osaka and Hiroshima, it’s on the main Tokaido Shinkansen line about 3 hours from Tokyo. Nicknamed “The Land of Sunshine” and “Fruit Kingdom,” the prefecture is famous for its fruit production (especially peaches and grapes).

For Japanese, Okayama is closely associated with the legend of Momotaro, a hero born inside a giant peach (you’ll see “Peach Boy” artwork and souvenirs everywhere in Okayama, including some unexpected places!). There are prominent Momotaro statues inside and outside of Okayama Station, where he is flanked by his traveling companions the pheasant, dog and monkey. Fueled by millet dumplings called kibi dango, Momotaro and his friends vanquished several ogres that had been terrorizing the villagers.

I have several friends from Ibara, Okayama and was greatly looking forward to my first visit to Okayama Prefecture. Ibara High School is home to one of Japan’s top men’s rhythmic gymnastics teams led by Coach Kyota Osada; they were the Inter-High School champions in 2019 and took second place at All Japan Rhythmic Gymnastics Championships last year. My friend and fellow men’s RG supporter Mayo was my tour guide for the day, and we spent the day exploring Okayama City and Maniwa together, first on foot and then by car. (Video link for web version: Ibara High School MRG Team’s incredible 2019 routine. Video courtesy of OUEN MRG: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SmhYe7uK2qM)

Okayama Castle

Nicknamed “Crow Castle” for its jet-black exterior, Okayama Castle was built in 1597. Rumor has it that the color was chosen by daimyo Ukita Naoie to thumb his nose at Himeji Castle, which is gleaming white. Although commissioned in 1573, it was finally completed by his son Hideie in 1597, nearly twenty-four years later. The hilltop castle is located on the scenic Asahi River, which serves as a moat for the castle. Just across the river is Korakuen Garden.

The original castle was destroyed during World War II, with only the Tsukimi Yagura ("moon viewing turret") from 1620 escaping destruction. The reconstructed castle offers several hands-on craft experiences (advance reservation highly recommended), including a hands-on Bizenyaki pottery experience.

Hours: 9:00 to 17:30 (entry until 17:00)
Admission: 320 yen (castle only), 580 yen (castle and Korakuen Garden), children 130 yen (castle only) or 260 yen (castle and Korakuen Garden)
Access: Okayama Castle is about a 25-30 minute walk east of Okayama Station. Trams on the Higashiyama Line can be taken to Shiroshita stop (5 minutes, 100 yen, frequent departures); the castle keep can be reached in a 10-15 minute walk.
Website: https://okayama-kanko.net/ujo/english/

Okayama Korakuen Garden

Considered one of the Three Great Gardens of Japan (along with Kenrokuen in Kanazawa and Kairakuen in Mito), Korakuen dates back to 1687, when daimyo Ikeda Tsunamasa ordered construction of Korakuen. Completed in 1700, the garden has maintained its appearance until the present. In 1884, ownership was transferred to Okayama Prefecture and the garden was opened to the public. The garden suffered severe damage during floods and later World War II bombing in 1945, but has been restored based on period paintings and diagrams. In 1952, Korakuen Garden was designated as a Special Place of Scenic Beauty and has been preserved for future generations to enjoy. Korakuen also has a number of Japanese cranes kept in cages; on several occasions throughout the year, the cranes are released to stroll the gardens.

Hours: March 20 – September 30 7:30 a.m. - 6:00 p.m. (last entry by 5:45p.m.), October 1 – March 19 8:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m. (last entry by 4:45 p.m.)
Admission: Adults 410 yen, children 6 – 14 free
Access: On foot from JR Okayama Station: 25 min
City bus from JR Okayama Station: 12 min. Take the bus bound for Fujiwara Danchi from bus terminal platform 1. The gardens are next to the Korakuen-Mae bus-stop.
Website: http://www.okayama-korakuen.jp/english/

Okabe Tofu

This tiny, popular tofu restaurant is easy to spot: look for the long lines shortly before opening! With only a dozen seats, get there early to secure your spot at the counter, where you can watch the friendly women fry up your meal to order. With only three set meals to choose from (and an English menu / website), it’s hard to go wrong.  Choose from the Okabe set (880 JPY), Nama-yuba Rice Bowl set (970 yen, limited to 15 a day), and the Agedashi Tofu set (950 yen, limited to 15 a day). Note that dishes are semi-vegetarian; fish stock is used.

Address: 1-10-1 Omotecho Kita-ku, Okayama-shi, Okayama-ken, 700-0822
Hours: Lunch: 11:30 – 14:00
Website: http://shiraishishoten.co.jp/work/work_detail/index/20.html

Kurashiki

Kurashiki is only a short 20-minute train ride from Okayama Station. Upon reaching the Historic District (about a 15-minute walk from the station), you’ll instantly be transported to the Edo Period as you stroll willow-lined canals flanked by elegant tiled clay storehouses (kura) that have been transformed into cafes, restaurants and shops. You can choose to explore Kurashiki on foot, by rickshaw, or by punts (flat-bottomed boats traditionally used for transporting goods). Be sure to stay for sunset as Kurashiki is at its most romantic.

It is possible to visit some of the traditional homes of Kurashiki’s wealthy merchant families, now preserved as museums. The Ohashi House (http://www.ohashi-ke.com/english.html), built in 1796, is typical of a wealthy merchant home. Unlike most other merchant homes, however, the Ohashi family home incorporates stylistic elements normally reserved only for the samurai class, which demonstrated the Ohashi’s family importance. The entire structure is original.

For fans of art, be sure to visit the Ohara Museum of Art, the oldest private Western art collection in Japan, and its Japanese-style garden Shinkei-en. The Ohara family was the largest landowner in Kurashiki, and the Ohara Museum of Art was founded by Ohara Magosaburo in 1930 to commemorate his friendship with painter Kojima Torajiro. With financial support from Magosaburo, Torajiro studied art in Europe, where he collected European artwork by Monet, Gauguin, El Greco, and Matisse that is now displayed in the museum.

Ohara Art Museum

1-1-15 Chuo, Kurashiki, Okayama, 710-8575
Admission: General: 1500 yen, Students: 500 yen
Access: 15-minute walk from Sanyo Line Kurashiki Station
Website (English): http://www.ohara.or.jp/en/

Shinkeien is a traditional Japanese-style vacation home built in 1893 to commemorate the sixtieth birthday of Koshiro Ohara, the first president of Kurashiki Spinning Works. Koshiro's son Magosaburo donated the house to the city in 1922. Upon donating it, he renamed it Shinkeien, which was Koshiro’s pen name. It is open to the public for tea ceremonies, weddings, and other events.

Located next to the museum is Café El Greco, opened by Magosaburo's oldest son Soichiro in 1959. The atsmopheric ivy-draped café was designed by Yakushiji Kazue, who also designed the museum's main building. Like most kissaten, it offers a limited menu of basic hot or iced drip coffees and simple desserts like castella and rare cheesecake with blueberry sauce.

Kurashiki is also famous for denim; the city had been cultivating cotton and producing fabric since the 1500s, but it wasn’t until the early 1960s that denim caught on in Kojima with the opening of Betty Smith Jeans. Jean-themed artwork adorns the streets and shops, and at the Betty Smith jeans-making experience, you can customize a pair of jeans while you wait. You’ll also find numerous food products cashing in on the denim craze, including denim-hued burgers, nikuman, soft serve and even beer.

Reservation for jeans experience: https://betty.co.jp/village/make/

And fans of Japanese ceramics will want to pick up some Bizenware. With roots dating back centuries, Bizenware’s characteristic reddish-brown color comes from the local iron-rich clay. It is more rustic in appearance than most Japanese pottery, being unglazed, rough, and with scorch marks from the pinewood kilns. As mentioned above, you can sign up to try making your own Bizenyaki at Okayama Castle for an unforgettable souvenir of your trip to Okayama!

Kamba Falls, Maniwa: Garden of the Gods

If you are able to rent a car, it’s well worth getting out of the city and heading north to Maniwa.

About a 1.5-hour drive from Okayama city, gorgeous Kamba Falls in Maniwa is truly an off-the-beaten path gem. With its dramatic 110-meter drop and at 20 meters wide, it’s the largest waterfall in West Japan and you might be lucky enough to see wild monkeys around the area as well. And it’s definitely worth a trip to catch the dramatic fall colors! Walking along the promenade from the parking area to the waterfall takes about 5 minutes and the path is wheelchair- and stroller-accessible.

It is also possible to go by public transportation but buses are infrequent, so your best bet would be by train from Okayama Station. Take Tsuyama Line, then transfer at Tsuyama to JR Kishin Line to Chūgoku-Katsuyama Station (about 2 hours 40 minutes total), from where it is about 10 minutes by taxi.

Hours: 8:30 am to 5:15 pm
Admission: Adults 300 yen, Elementary and junior high school students 150 yen
Address: Kanba, Maniwa, Okayama 717-0004             
Website (Japanese): https://www.city.maniwa.lg.jp/site/waterfall-kanba/   

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