The Okayama Experience
Updated: Aug 17, 2020
Okayama prefecture was always a place to visit on our list. That is why we decided to spend three days in Okayama city and use it as a base to move around the area. Because of the coronavirus, we tried to avoid long-distance travel, and our choice was ideal since it was just 2h30 by bus from Kobe. Rather inexpensive (less than 4,000¥ for a round ticket), the ride was comfortable, and we could enjoy the gorgeous view of Japan's countryside.
When we arrived in Okayama city, we headed right away for a restaurant and our hotel to start our little adventure. After we visited the tourism center, we walked to the castle and took some time to be amazed by the city. Okayama, the prefecture capital, is gigantic for a European standard, but the feeling you get is far from overcrowded or overwhelming. Indeed, urbanism is well organized and leaves lots of space for people to walk around large buildings and malls. Tramlines, decorated with paintings of the local folktale "Momotaro," are similar to those we find in Hiroshima and give a sense of clean organization. To be honest, our first impression of the city was: "We could live here."
Our first stop: Okayama Castle.
Destroyed during WWII bombings, the one currently standing is a reconstruction. Although new, the castle felt like a memory of the past guarding the city. The black and white structure made the presence of golden figures on its roof even more striking. With the sun shining, the blue sky and the green trees, this mix of bright colors created an atmosphere of serenity. On the lawns in front of the castle, paper umbrellas were displayed for a reason we would learn soon after. The museum inside is engaging and gives you a chance to escape from the beating sun outside (and trust me, it was hot). English translations are also available throughout the exposition so you can actually understand the history of the place. There is even a pottery shop if you are looking for hands-on experience and try yourself in the famous Bizen pottery. Thanks to the surroundings and how things were restored and preserved, the experience was worth it. Before the next destination, we decided to rest in a small coffee shop across the river, offering a stunning view of the castle as if time had stopped for us to appreciate its elegance.
Next stop: Korakuen garden.
The park is located across the river, just in front of the castle. Indeed, both places are within 20min by walk from the station. Considered one of the three best zen gardens in Japan, Korakuen park was ordered by the Lord at the time to entertain his guests. Also bombed during WWII, the gardens were always restored to recreate its striking beauty. And we understood why. As soon as we entered the park, we realized this was not any small garden. Stretching far and wide, Korakuen garden offers a view on ponds and streams of water where koi fish and turtles live. Here and there, a bamboo grove, a plum orchard, and lotus flowers contrast with the wooden house and isolated shrine. At the center, a small hill offers a panoramic view of the park and its green lawns and rice field. Behind us, Okayama Castle stands still, overlooking the garden and forming a perfect landscape one could enjoy for hours. As the sun started to set, and we walked out of the gardens, we noticed a group of staff, here and there, placing lanterns on the grass. That is when we realized that an event was taking place during summer nights. So we set off deciding to come back the next day to enjoy the illuminations.
Next destination: the island of Naoshima.
In the first week of August, the weather was more than perfect for us to visit an island. So we picked Naoshima, less than an hour away from Okayama city. For that, we had to take a train and a ferry boat to reach it. The island is known locally for its pumpkin-shaped sculptures and museums of art. Tourists can enjoy a ride on a bicycle on the roads without worrying too much about cars. So we did. For an insanely low price (1,000¥ a day), we rented an electric bike to roam the island. I do want to emphasize the electric bike; you're going to need it. I'm sure one can venture on the roads without the extra assistance, but we decided not to, because of the heat, and a little bit of laziness too. To our disappointment, we found out that all the museums were closed for some reason, so we were left with no activity except wandering around on our bike. Going up and down the hills on the electric bike was truly fun. It had been a long since we enjoyed a bike ride, and doing so with a perfect sky and a stunning view of the sea will be a lifelong memory.
At some point, we reached a small beach and decided to jump in the water even though we didn't bring any change. The water was clear and cooled us down from this harsh sun. Soon we realized this place was a campsite and people could come and enjoy a yurt experience. After a moment spent swimming, we waited for our clothes to dry and hit the road again. Little did we know that our adventure at the beach would turn into a painful mistake. As we ventured a little bit more on the island, dark clouds suddenly formed, forcing us to go back to the port. We managed to get inside the ferry terminal just before the storm unleashed bombs of water. It was so sudden, and the sun was so intense that the rain evaporated as soon as it touched the burning hot concrete creating this mesmerizing haze surrounding the sculpture next to the terminal. Soon, the storm ended, and we could take the ferry and train to Okayama. It was on our way back that the mistake of our careless afternoon under the sun made itself apparent. Pretty painfully. But soon our next experience in the evening will soothe any sunburn.
Next experience: illuminations.
So after our adventures in Naoshima, and a lot of aloe cream, we made our way to Korakuen Gardens. Approaching the zen park at dusk, we found a place to sit and something to eat from the food stands and stayed there gazing at the illuminated castle beyond the trees. When we decided it was time for others to enjoy the view, we left our unique spot and strolled around the park. Korakuen is jewel during the day, and it shines a different light once the moon rises. It felt like peace could be found somewhere sitting next to a tree or following a stream of water. The music and the projections on the house gave sense to the word magical - a genuine blessing to witness this. But it was nothing compared to what we have experienced at the castle. Once we enjoyed enough the gardens, we headed for what is for me the masterpiece of this event.
All around the castle on the outer walls, projected lights formed shapes and patterns that seemed to be the Kamon of Okayama. But it was once we reached inside that the atmosphere changed totally. What we had seen the day before, paper umbrellas placed in the middle of the lawns were now illuminated sculptures unveiling their motifs through the light. The view was mesmerizing, and the music invited us to sit and relax. So we did. And we stayed there, as if in a trance, for a long time. Kids playing hide-and-seek, people taking pictures, others walking among the umbrellas, the scene was magical. And suddenly, like all of this wasn't enough, something produced mist coming out of the trees and enveloping the umbrellas. It was one of these moments in life that pictures and videos cannot convey, only through living it can one truly experience it. Moved by the view, leaving the place felt heavy as we knew we could not come back the next day. We went back to the hotel with a confusion of feelings: peace but sadness. We know for sure, we will come back next year.
Last thing on our list: Kurashiki.
For our last day in Okayama, we decided to do something we knew would not take long and would still be a pleasant experience. Well, what we thought would be a good one. Not that the place isn't worth seeing; on the contrary, it's fantastic, but because of our careless adventure in Naoshima, we ended up running from the sun the whole day. But that's another matter. So Kurashiki is remarkably close to Okayama city, and we can reach it by taking the train in less than 20min. The historic neighborhood is known to display temples and shrines, and it is always a pleasure to visit and pay some respect. Whether you believe or not, praying or meditating in a temple is part of the culture, and I encourage you to try. In this famous neighborhood, the most popular areas to visit are the typical streets organized along a small river where you can have a gondola-like experience - definitely a must-do. In these streets, you can enjoy shops and restaurants. Indeed, we found a lovely ryokan for our lunch, offering a view on a Zen garden. After our lunch, we decided to treat ourselves and set off to taste one of the best ice creams ever. We found this place where they sell honey, and their best seller is this ice cream with real honeycomb in it. The first time that I tried the real one, and it was delicious. Among their products like lotus flower or Sakura honey, we chose mikan, which is a sort of tangerine. We continued our tour in the maze of streets, trying our best not to stay under the sun and finally reach a craft man's shop. They displayed lots of hand-carved utensils for every budget. This shop was the perfect place for us to get something typical and come back home with a souvenir. Kurashiki surely offers a Kyoto-like experience with its temples, shrines, and traditional shops. The river that goes through the neighborhood is one of the best attraction for me; it gives a little Venice-like atmosphere and is unquestionably a reason to come back.
The time for us to go home soon arrived, and we took a moment to look back at our stay in Okayama. Far more different than cities like Osaka or Tokyo, Okayama still has a lot to offer. Well organized and clean, it is a real pleasure to wander in the city and enjoy its malls, parks, and riverside. One significant advantage of the area is being close to nature while staying in a big city. Indeed, we could appreciate a fancy hotel for a low price (two nights for 12,000¥ for two people) and take the train or ferry to venture into a small island or explore a historical neighborhood in less than an hour. As I am writing this on the bus, we find ourselves feeling a little melancholic, yet filled with happy memories, and grateful for the beauty found in Japan.