Okayama – castles, gardens, bridges and old towns

We spent a very quick two days in Okayama and Japan turned on some magnificent weather.

Saturday 12th October

First stop was the Okayama Castle – the mysterious looking building is usually nick-named U-jo or Crow Castle, because of its black weatherboards.  The dark coloured exterior shone brilliantly in the autumn sun, set off by white window frames and trimmings, and magnificent gilded adornments.

The first castle was completed in 1597.  Like most castles in Japan it was destroyed and rebuilt a number of times.  The last destruction was the result of an air raid in June 1945, and it was rebuilt in 1966.

The castle was the centre of a local celebration and there were dancers and stalls with interesting food.  As we came away in the late afternoon many people were arriving for an evening of entertainment.

The castle is now a museum and one of the most interesting displays was “Playful Frame of the Edo Mind”, suggesting it is not just a waste of time to play but essential for children to grow.  There were mechanical dolls (Edo robots) and funny pictures of fat ladies that became beautiful girls, like we used to see in the Cole’s Funny Picture Book, and Japanese script turned into amazing caricatures.  Of course photos were not permitted of these wonderful displays.

Across the river from this beautiful castle is the famous Korakuen Gardens.  They were completed in 1700 for the Ikeda family daimyo (Japanese feudal lords).  Although the gardens have not changed substantially since then, various daimyo added tea houses and shrines built to serve their needs and fancies, so the garden is scattered with these quaint buildings.

Autumn colours were starting to show and the sunlight was soft through the ginko trees and bamboo forests.  Even though it was Saturday gardeners were out sweeping up leaves and trimming trees.

Sunday 13th October

Our tour plan was to visit the old village of Kurashiki just a 15 minute train ride out of Okayama, however as I was sitting in bed in the morning exploring the area on my iPhone I discovered the Great Seto Bridge was near by and a possible extension to the planned excursion.

So we took the train to Kojima and then across the bridge to Sakaide, and returned on the next train to Kojima.  The 13.1km bridge was built between 1978 and 1988 and ranks as the world’s longest two-tiered bridge system connecting the prefectures of Okayama (Honshu Island) and Kagawa (Shikoku Island).  The bridge crossing takes about 20 minutes from station to station, with the train track running on the bottom tier.  Of course the view across the Seto Inland Sea was fantastic.

Once back at Kojima, our challenge was to find a bus that took us to Kurashiki as per our plan.  We thought we found the right bus and hoped for the best as we drove through some beautiful rural countryside.

Bus fares are displayed on a grid at the front of the bus.  You hop on through the back door and grab a ticket which has the bus stop number on it.  Your fare at the end is the one displayed against the stop number on your ticket – very clever.  You drop coins into a box next to the driver as you alight.  Never, in Japan, would you cheat on the fare.

Kurashiki’s Bikan historical quarter is a picturesque merchant’s area set on a canal.  The old houses have been retained and are now cafes, restaurants and craft shops.

Before heading into the heart of the old town we climbed a couple of hundred steps to visit the Achi Shrine and get a view over the city.  As luck would have it, a wedding was in progress, so once again we got to see the bride and groom dressed in elaborate ceremonial costumes.  The bride’s kimono was a dazzling red.

The historical quarter was busy with Sunday day trippers and the canal boats and rickshaws were kept busy and added to the atmosphere.

After getting back to Okayama we did our usual trawl of the streets looking for somewhere to eat.  Bruce chose an amazing restaurant that grilled meat and vegetables on skewers in front of you, and with the help of a couple next to us translating the menu, we ate one of our most interesting Japanese meals.

It was a good day.