Okayama and the garden of delights
Arriving at Okayama station just before lunchtime, Bama and I are struck by the sheer volume of people passing through. Most lug a small suitcase for the long weekend; gaggles of students in uniform – the navy blue and white outfits we’ve seen in all those anime cartoons – throng the tiled corridor leading down to an outdoor plaza; suited-up businessmen and families with strollers crisscross our path. The unexpected aroma of Belgian waffles, freshly made on the griddle, wafts into our nostrils from a brightly lit stall. Turning right through a pair of sliding glass doors, we see gift boxes immaculately arranged by colour on the shelves of a department store, people lining up for lunch at a sushi bar, and a chain restaurant specialising in tonkatsu, the breaded and deep-fried pork cutlet perfected to an art by the Japanese.
Okayama is a city of 700,000 people, but on this first encounter, it feels much, much bigger. We find the area beyond the station a portrait of efficiency, with a vast underground concourse lined with boutiques and restaurants spreading its tendrils below the nearby avenues; a second-floor walkway to a four-star hotel; and convenience stores offering all manner of bottled drinks, seasonally themed desserts, and restaurant-grade microwave meals.
Of course, we have not come to Okayama to see all the trappings of modern life. Bama and I leave our bags at the hotel, before hopping aboard a tram to the riverside “Crow Castle”, a faithful reconstruction from 1966. The wooden original, along with much of Okayama itself, succumbed to a bombing raid in the final months of World War II. But the nearby pleasure garden of Korakuen was luckier. Protected by the width of the Asahi River, and its position on the city’s then-outskirts, the late 17th-century creation escaped the war with far less damage. The brainchild of feudal lord Ikeda Tsunamasa, who oversaw its construction over a span of 14 years, Korakuen is widely considered one of Japan’s three greatest traditional gardens. In a country where even the tiniest moss-covered yard is a thing of beauty, that’s quite the accolade.
From the castle grounds, a steel footbridge spans the placid waters of the Asahi, disappearing on the opposite bank into the trees surrounding Korakuen. To enter the garden, it seems, is to enter another realm. A tall thicket of bamboo droops and sways languidly in the gentle breeze, and before us a network of pathways fans out across the perfectly manicured lawns. The tranquil scene is dotted with pavilions and teahouses roofed in thatch; on the far side of a central pond, which sports three miniature islands, a small temple is nearly lost below a canopy dyed with the first tinges of autumn.
We follow a series of stepping stones over a stream, past a cluster of trimmed azalea bushes that suggest billowing summer clouds, and climb a small man-made hill to take in panoramic views of the garden. Off in the distance, a few wayward high-rises peek out above the trees. But the rest of what we see is decidedly bucolic, down to the neat pattern of paddy fields and a small tea plantation. I almost wish we came in spring, because that is when Korakuen’s cherry and plum groves burst into a cascade of vivid whites and pinks, followed by the azalea blooms of vibrant crimson and magenta elsewhere in the garden.
But the absence of flowers does not detract from its sublime beauty. After all, Korakuen has been designed to surprise visitors with a new view at every turn, in accordance with a style known as kaiyu, or “scenic promenade”. There’s even a pavilion with a stream flowing right through the middle, flanked by wooden sitting areas where visitors might contemplate the tableau of framed views, but we somehow miss it on our midday amble; what’s more, both of us are getting hungry.
Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Okayama has some of the tastiest food of our trip. Known as Japan’s “Sunny Country”, the prefecture is blessed with a mild climate and warm conditions throughout the year. Rice, eggplant, and Chinese chives are specialties of the Okayama plain, while grapes and white peaches are cultivated in the nearby mountains. Momotaro, the mythical boy hero who descended to earth inside a giant peach, is associated with this specific region of Japan.
Bama and I settle on a late lunch at a small, cozy restaurant outside the southern gateway to Korakuen. Here, we sit cross-legged on tatami mats, slurping up hand-pulled tenobe udon served with onsen egg – precisely boiled so the yolk remains runny – not to mention chopped spring onion and a cloud of fried tempura batter. Equally delicious is the organic rice and chicken in a savory-sweet peach and grape curry.
In Okayama, we relish waking up to the prospect of a hearty Japanese buffet breakfast. Down in the hotel’s brightly lit restaurant, a smiling staff member takes our meal vouchers and greets us with a bow. “Ohayo gozaimasu!” she chimes. My eyes widen when I see the buffet counters stocked with all manner of edible delights. There are delicate square bowls holding the softest tofu, to which we add a splash of soy sauce, then toppings of spring onion and bonito flakes; a counter laden with yoghurt, chopped fruit, and salad; a pile of the Okayama specialty ebimeshi, shrimp rice fried in a spiced and smoky caramel-like sauce; perfectly scrambled egg that melts in the mouth; and best of all, a Japanese curry infused with the unexpected sweetness of locally grown tomatoes. I don’t typically like tomato juice, but the one at our Okayama hotel was exceptional.
At the train station’s sushi bar, Bama and I sample some freshly caught fish from the nearby Inland Sea. We order a plate of mamakari-zushi – pickled sardinella sushi – along with bara-zushi, an eye-catching platter of assorted sashimi, cooked seafood, and lotus root laid atop a mound of shredded egg and rice. But our clear favourite is sawara-don, a sushi rice bowl topped with delicate slices of Spanish mackerel, not to mention a colorful garnish of pine nuts, alfalfa, spring onion, and pickled ginger. Okayama is said to be the only place in Japan where sawara can be reliably found in the local waters; fish markets elsewhere in the country often rely on stocks imported from Korea.
Fortuitously, our visit coincides with grape harvest season, and we end up bringing a box from the supermarket back to our hotel room. It contains two bunches of local grapes: a green Muscat of Alexandria – prized throughout Japan – and the other an aromatic variety known as Aurora Black. Both are large and juicy, yielding bursts of flavour with each bite. I’m struck by the perfumed fragrance of the Muscat grape, which recalls the Japanese gummy candies I loved as a child. Bama is equally taken with this new discovery, and I laugh as he picks off two or three at a time, rinsing them in the bathroom sink before plopping them in his mouth. “These are the best grapes I’ve ever had!”
Okayama, it turns out, has never forgotten its rural roots. ◊