By Matt and Jen
There are a number of interesting and inexpensive trips convenient for Hiroshima-ken residents, but one of the best is a visit to Okayama-ken. Okayama offers many choices for the day tripper, from shopping to sightseeing. For those who would like to stay a little longer, there are five international villas to choose from and an assortment of unusual festivals to attend.
The first stop on any day-long itinerary to Okayama-shi would have to be the foreboding Okayama Castle (300 yen; daily 9AM to 5PM). Nicknamed Crow Castle, it is one of only two black castles in Japan. Inside, there are many displays of castle life throughout the ages, but a limited number are in English. Worth the price of admission is the view of Koraku-en Garden, considered one of the three best gardens in Japan.
The next stop would be a visit to Koraku-en itself (350 yen, daily 8AM to 5PM). Built in 1700, the garden, while traditionally Japanese, would not seem out of place on an English estate. Expansive lawns dominate Koraku-en, as does the view of Okayama-jo, looming in the background.
Just outside the walls of Koraku-en, there is a statue commemorating Momotaro, or the Peach Boy, a folk hero of Japan, famous for fighting an army of demons with his entourage of talking animals. Okayama is his birthplace and he is treated with reverence here: his image appears throughout the city and the main boulevard is named after him. To top it off, he has his own festival in August, the Momotaro Matsuri.
The Castle and Koraku-en are both part of an area designated as the Okayama Culture Zone. Inside the Zone, there are also three museums of note: The Orient Museum, The Okayama Prefectural Museum and the Museum of Art. A wide variety of shops and restaurants are scattered throughout the Zone as well, including one of the best bookstores in the area, Maruzen, which has a great selection of English language titles.
Another town to visit in Okayama-ken is Kurashiki, which has retained its centuries-old traditional Japanese buildings in the town centre. Apart from the lovely canal, complete with lazily drifting swans, you can sample some beautifully-presented Japanese cuisine in the many traditional restaurants lining the banks as well as visiting one or several of Kurashiki’s well-known museums. An excellent place for stocking up on local crafts, Kurashiki has some gorgeous buys on offer, including pottery, hand-dyed cloth and jewellery. There’s also a great candle shop where you can have a go at making your own for 1000 yen.
There are also five international villas in Okayama. Established in 1988, the villas are a cheap and beautiful option for those who would like to spend some time either in the Okayama country-side or near the sea. A stay at each villa costs on average 3000 yen a night and there is a 500 yen discount with membership. The villas can be booked by room (with the common areas shared with other visitors) or the entire villa can be rented with an exclusive booking. The most convenient of these villas is located on Shiraishi-shima, which is only 20 minutes by train and a short ferry ride from Fukuyama. A stay at the villa in Hattoji will take you back to a different era. Hattoji is so traditional it was used as a backdrop for the film Black Rain, whose producers wanted to find an area that could evoke pre-war Japan. You can enjoy the traditional aspects of the villa, like the irori (traditional Japanese fireplace), without sacrificing modern conveniences.
One of the most unique festivals in Japan has to be the Hadaka Matsuri, held on the third Saturday of every February at Saidaiji Eyo. 9,000 fundoshi-clad men compete in the freezing cold for possession of the shingi, or bundle of sticks. This is no normal bundle of sticks though, as the first to get it out of the temple grounds wins thousands of dollars. Consequently, the crowd can get quite dangerous and those who participate have been known to get injured, and on rare occasions die! So if you decide to take part, be careful!
Okayama is culturally rich and offers many rewards for the casual traveler; above all, it’s representative of what makes Japan such a great place to live and visit!