OKAYAMA / KURASHIKI / ONOMICHI (ATT.JAPAN ISSUE 38)
The Sanyo region is located to the west of Osaka, which is the center of Western Japan, and on the south side of the Chugoku mountain range, which lies east to west over approximately 500 kilometers. The south side of the region faces the Seto Inland Sea and is low in rainfall throughout the year. We feature Okayama, Kurashiki and Onomichi, which are among the most attractive places in the region.
Okayama is a key transportation hub in the Sanyo region. It is an important place as a railway terminal to the Sanin region on the opposite side of the Chugoku mountain range, and to the Shikoku region via the Seto Inland Sea. When you get off at Okayama Station on the Sanyo Shinkansen Line, you will find comical stone statues; “Momotaro” and his retainer animals. “Momotaro” in which the hero Momotaro goes off to quell demons with his followers such as a dog, monkey and pheasant, is one of the most famous folk stories in Japan. It stemmed from a local legend in Okayama. “Kibi-dango,” a dumpling mentioned in the story many times, is a famous confectionary of Okayama even now.
Streetcars are convenient to get around the town. If you get off at Joka Station, which is the third station from Okayama-ekimae Station, it is five-minutes walk to scenic beauty spot Okayama Castle. Although the original castle completed in 1597 was burned down during WWII, the current castle was reconstructed in 1966 with local citizen’s backing. Its black walls are impressive, modeled after the original ones. The castle is called “Crow Castle” due to its color, strikingly different from the usual white-wall castles. Ruins of the lord’s residence where the former lords lived remain in the tower and the living style of lords and commoners in the Edo-era (1603-1867) is also on display.
Crossing the bridge from the castle, you immediately come to Koraku-en Garden, which is one of the Three Major Gardens in Japan. The approximately 40,000-tsubo (132,000 meters square) garden is spacious and covered by green lawns. Though several times restored, it has kept its elegant atmosphere for 300 years since the original construction by Tsunamasa Ikeda, lord of Okayama domain, in the early Edo-era. There is a teahouse in the garden. Viewing landscapes, resting and tasting powdered tea and dumplings is a pleasant experience. As entering the lawns is allowed in some areas, sunbathing is enjoyable on sunny days.
Ushimado is a town facing the Seto Inland Sea and is considered one of the 100 best places in Japan to see a beautiful sunset. The Seto Inland Sea, sandwiched between Honshu (mainland) and Shikoku, is calm and its color changes by gradation in the daytime. You can see a “moon road” on nights with a full moon – a long reflection of the moonlight on the surface of the sea. Dozens of islands from large ones like Shodo-shima Island to small uninhabited ones float on the sea. The climate is similar to that of the Aegean Sea and the number of clear days throughout the year is high. Olive production is extensive.
European-style buildings including resort hotels, houses with Japanese-style lattice windows and white walls, and wealthy merchant houses and establishments such as a sake brewery are seen in the town, which retains some of the atmosphere of an old fishing town. Renting a bicycle and cycling from the coast to the mountains through olive fields is fun. You should try shabu-shabu using fresh octopus just caught in the sea in front of you as well as Western-style dishes using tasty seafood and olive oil.
Bizen – a town famous for simple ceramic ware
Many red brick chimneys from kilns are seen among houses in Bizen, which is town renowned for Bizen ceramic ware. Bizen ware looks rather homely, with no decorations or glazes, created only by a shape of soil and by fire. With an approximately 1,000-year history, Bizen ware has been much-prized as the embodiment of wabi-sabi, the beauty of simplicity.
When you get off at JR Inbe Station, you find Bizen-yaki-dento-sangyo-kaikan (Bizen Ware Traditional Industrial Building) in front of the station, the shape of which reminds visitors of kilns and chimneys. You can experience making ceramics there. Old Bizen ware shops, with window displays of ceramics, line the street near the station. A small flower vase makes a nice souvenir. Bizen ware highlights the beauty of a flower because it does not have pictorial designs on the surface. And as the vessel is porous to air without glaze, the flower keeps well. It is also good for beer and sake, so buying a sake cup is also recommended. As for food, ice cream with soy sauce is a local specialty, which was originated by a soy sauce maker. It is tasty with a little bit of a salty flavor. The Shizutani School is nearby. It was the first school for commoners in Japan and is now designated as a national treasure.
Kurashiki is well known for its storehouses. Most of the area was under the sea until the Middle Ages. After the reclamation in the Edo-era, merchants created the town in an atmosphere of commercial freedom and commerce prospered.
If you have 10 minutes, walk to the south from the station via Kurashiki-chuo dori Street, and you will reach “Kurashiki Bikan Historical Quarter,” where the lively townscape of old is replicated, keeping many old houses. The asphalt road changes into a stone-paved road alongside a quiet river. A whiff of a savory odor hangs in the air in front of shops. Houses and storehouses line both sides of the road. General goods sellers and painters actively solicit passers-by and there are rickshaws on which tourists can ride. Some people enjoy an afternoon break in a relaxed manner on a boat in the river. A cozy mood suffuses the town.
While you walk around the black-and-white storehouses, you will find a building with the door open and inside you can see cute and colorful dolls and toys. This is “Nihon Kyodo-gangu-kan,” a toy museum built in 1967, using an old rice store of the Edo era. It houses 40,000 folk toys including some from overseas as well as those from all over Japan and displays approximately 5,000 items among them. A cute bird-shaped flute, which is a popular souvenir of some shrine, a red round-shaped doll called “daruma,” sugoroku, which is a Japanese traditional board game, kites and other toys are on display and you will marvel at the variety and ingenuity of them. The admission fee is 500 yen for an adult, but you can freely enter a limited free-entry area. There is also a gallery cafe.
When you resume your walk, a Greek temple-style building suddenly appears. It is the Ohara Museum of Art. It was built in 1930 by Magozaburo Ohara, who was a successful businessman based in Kurashiki, in commemoration of the painter Torajiro Kojima, who was his best friend and who died in 1929. It was the first private museum in Japan to be dedicated to Western art. The Hon-kan (main hall) and Bun-kan (annex) house masterpieces of Western art including the famous “Annunciation” of El Greco. Ceramics and modern woodblock prints of Japanese artists displayed in the Kogei-kan (craft hall) and Toyo-kan (Eastern hall) are also a must-see.
It takes three minutes on foot from the area along the river in the Bikan Historical Quarter to Kurashiki Ivy Square, a fancy redbrick hotel covered with ivy. It was previously an old spinning factory built in the Meiji-era (1868-1912). A lobby and corridors with floors in red and black checker-board design and Western-style windows and lamps give the hotel a sophisticated look. Its inner courtyard is spacious and good for a rest.
When you go through Kurashiki Station to the opposite side, the illuminated Kurashiki Tivoli Park comes in sight. The park is just a minute walk from the north side of the station. The park, built in affiliation with Tivoli Park in Copenhagen, Denmark, is crowded with families in the daytime who enjoy the fantasy world of Andersen’s fairy tales. At night, attractions and roads in the park are all lit up and the whole place looks like a big jewelry box. Nighttime strolling in the fantastical park is very enjoyable.
Facing the Seto Inland Sea, Onomichi has long flourished thanks to a brisk maritime trade. It was connected to Imabari in Shikoku via the Shimanami-kaido Highway in 1999 and its position as a transportation hub became even more important. As it has been used as a film location many times, touring film-related spots will be enjoyable for those who love Japanese movies.
Senkoji Park, commanding a sweeping view of the town, straddles the hillside area at the back of the station. Seasonal landscapes such as cherry blossoms in spring, wisteria in summer and chrysanthemums in autumn are beautiful and charm visitors. While occasionally chatting with local people, passing through narrow alleyways, going up stone steps and strolling in the town is fun. You can choose walking courses depending on your schedule and physical condition, using a cable car at the entrance of the park up to the top of the hill if need be. Onomichi is also a temple town and touring the town’s seven temples including Senko-ji Temple is also enjoyable. Red stamps on a “shuin-cho” (a red seal notebook) you collect at each temple will be a good memento of your trip.
If you are charmed by the picturesque view of Seto Inland Sea from the hill, an hour-long cruise touring Tomonoura, a town retaining an old Edo-era atmosphere, and Kurashiki is recommended. It runs on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays, excluding wintertime. The scenery viewed from the boat evokes a nostalgic mood.
If you come to Onomichi, why not try the famous “Onomichi ramen” noodles? Chopped green onions atop the bowl of noodles and oil from pork fat stimulate the appetite. The broth based on soy sauce with small fish from the Seto Inland Sea as a “hidden flavor” is exquisite.
Shimanami kaido – going far away by bicycle
Shimanami-kaido Highway was completed as an expressway over the sea from Onomichi to Imabari in Ehime Prefecture via islands in the Seto Inland Sea in 1999. As there are paths for pedestrians and bicycles in addition to the motorway, it is popular as a cycling road over the sea. (There is an island-crossing toll of 100 yen for bicycles but pedestrians are free.) There is a bicycle rental near Onomichi Port (from 500 yen a day).
Surrounded by fresh air with a salty scent, you will find the ocean views from the O-hashi Bridge breathtaking, There are no large structures except for the bridges connecting islands. As local people have continued their usual way of life even after the Shimanami-kaido was built, you can catch glimpses of the real life of this area. Please keep in mind that there are few restaurants and rest rooms.
Construction of Kosan-ji Temple in Ikuchi-jima island was completed over the course of some 30 years, straddling the World War II years. Within the complex, there are large numbers of temple-style buildings, which resemble old and famous temples in Japan with “modern improvements,” and many of them are designated as tangible cultural properties of the nation. A 5,000-meters-square marble garden, “Mirai-kokorono-oka (Spiritual Hill of the Future), designed by sculptor Kazuto Kuetani, a native of Hiroshima Prefecture, spreads forth at the back of the temple. Visitors hopefully will appreciate the combination of the traditional buildings and creative monuments, which might be thought to be disharmonious, but in fact blend exquisitely well together. In addition, there is a museum nearby dedicated to homegrown painter Ikuo Hirayama, who suffered in the 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima but actively continued working after the war.
Blessed with beautiful landscapes, history and tasty food, Sanyo is well worth visiting.