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A walk in Kurashiki

kurashiki_1

We were not meant to visit Kurashiki at all. Though I’d heard of the place and looked up pictures several weeks before our trip to Japan, it never became a priority. But that changed with a chance encounter inside a sushi bar at Okayama station, four stops down the Sanyo Main Line.

It was a friendly, sake-swilling Tokyo businessman who suggested the idea during an impromptu conversation about food, regional identity, and divorce, which he perceived as a postwar American import. “You have to go to Kurashiki!” He said this with the utmost conviction, adamant that we could not leave without paying a visit to that neighboring city and its old merchant quarter. “It’s called Bikan – you can walk there in 20 minutes from the railway station.”

Bama and I heeded his advice the following afternoon, and once we disembarked from the local train it seemed as if we’d entered just another modern Japanese metropolis. But the businessman was right: turning a corner some 15-20 minutes later felt like being propelled back in time. Suddenly the streetscape was defined not by concrete boxes but 17th-century warehouses, each one made of wood, whitewashed, and sporting neat patterns of black tiles. Further on, weeping willows flanked a green-tinged canal where boatmen in orange robes and conical bamboo hats took groups of visitors on slow laps up and down the rippling waters. At the roadside shops, hungry patrons lined up for traditional snacks and cones of soft serve ice cream, the latter flavored with white peaches grown in the nearby hill country.

We passed the neoclassical-style portico of the Ohara Museum of Art – which became the first Western art museum in Japan when it opened in 1930. Though Bama and I didn’t have enough time to admire its permanent collection, this is something we will come back for. Masterpieces by Renoir, Matisse, and Gauguin adorn the galleries, not to mention two artworks from Monet, one of which was procured directly from the Impressionist master himself. The museum also has an entire room devoted to one precious painting by El Greco, the Cretan artist and architect who left his distinctive mark on the Spanish Renaissance. I learned all of this from my Japanese-speaking aunt, who visited several years ago on a mother-daughter trip with my cousin.

There’s a popular myth that says the presence of the Ohara’s priceless collection saved Kurashiki from destruction in World War II. While it is true that Allied forces never made a bombing raid on the city and its handful of large factories, declassified documents show that Kurashiki was marked as a target just seven days before the war’s end. Had Japan surrendered two weeks later, researchers say it is almost certain that the historic city would have suffered the same fate as so many others in Asia and Europe.

Where the canal bends in the old merchant quarter

Where the canal bends in the old merchant quarter

Outside Kurashiki's Museum of Folkcraft

Outside Kurashiki’s Museum of Folkcraft

Pleasure boats at the ready

Pleasure boats at the ready

Cruising along

Cruising along

A throwback to 17th- and 18th-century Japan

A throwback to 17th- and 18th-century Japan

The heart of Kurashiki's Bikan Historical Quarter

The heart of Kurashiki’s Bikan Historical Quarter

Cascading roof tiles that culminate in a fan

Cascading roof tiles that culminate in a fan

The view from a bridge marking the lower end of Bikan

The view from a bridge marking the lower end of Bikan

An idyllic afternoon

An idyllic afternoon

Looking towards the neighborhood of Honmachi

Looking towards the neighborhood of Honmachi

Small restaurants, cafes, and stores line a main road in Honmachi

Small restaurants, cafes, and stores line a main road in Honmachi

The ivy-draped walls of the former Ohara Spinning Mill

The ivy-draped walls of the former Ohara Spinning Mill

Japan's first modern cotton mill now hosts a cluster of restaurants, shops, museums, and a hotel

Japan’s first modern cotton mill now hosts a cluster of restaurants, shops, museums, and a hotel

Bridging the canal

Bridging the canal

37 Comments Post a comment
  1. This looks absolutely beautiful.

    December 11, 2016
    • It was stunning – and we had such perfect weather too.

      December 12, 2016
  2. Bet you’re glad you took the businessman’s advice. This is somewhere where I could spend an entire holiday. Beautiful!

    December 12, 2016
    • Absolutely, Mallee. I can just imagine how serene it must be first thing in the morning or after dark when the lights come on and all the day-trippers have left. Next time I’ll have to book a night or two in one of the local hotels!

      December 12, 2016
  3. Avalanche #

    While I was reading this post I was imagining how everything must have looked based on what you wrote. Then I saw your pictures! They looked exactly the way I imagined. I’m definitely adding this to Japan to-do list.

    December 12, 2016
    • Thanks so much – your comment virtually made my day! Sometimes it’s hard to paint the right picture just by using words. Fingers crossed you’ll get there soon enough. 🙂

      December 12, 2016
      • Avalanche #

        Yeah, I have the same problem turning the world into words sometimes. I know I’ll get to japan at some point, but I’ve got a trans-continental bicycle trip starting in February, going from Southern California through Mexico and Central America down to South America. So…”soon enough” might not be that soon. 😂 Glad my comment gave you a boost!

        December 12, 2016
      • That sounds epic! Make sure you take pictures along the way and blog about it, I’d love to follow your trans-continental adventure! 😀

        December 12, 2016
      • Avalanche #

        Oh, I’m planning on it!

        December 12, 2016
  4. Looks beautiful. Never knew about it, and now thanks to the businessman you met, and your photos, it goes on a priority list of places to visit on my next trip to Japan.

    December 12, 2016
    • Kurashiki is a hit with the domestic visitors, but I don’t think many people from other countries are even aware of its existence. I hope you allocate at least a day to explore the historic quarter – an afternoon was really not enough.

      December 12, 2016
      • Thanks. It looks so charming that I would not mind staying overnight.

        December 12, 2016
  5. Your photos transport me back to Japan, James. So refreshing and uplifting, especially when it’s raining almost every day here. Bikan was really nice, but my favorite neighborhood was Honmachi for its atmospheric streets and pretty shops. I also liked what they did to that small pond near the cotton mill — the way they did the grass was so Japanese!

    December 12, 2016
    • Agreed. When we do go back I wouldn’t mind staying at the small hotel inside the old cotton mill. I think we should have spent more money to take the Shinkansen instead of the slow train from Himeji to Okayama earlier that day… our time in Kurashiki was just too short and I’d have loved to visit the Ohara Museum of Art!

      December 12, 2016
  6. Great post, James.

    December 12, 2016
    • Thanks for reading, Shikha!

      December 12, 2016
  7. I’m so glad you ended up going James! What a beautiful place and particularly because you got to go after a random mention in a conversation and because it was fortunately spared years ago. My dear friend has just come back from Japan and misses it dearly, I feel you both have wonderful ways of travelling and of appreciating exploring new locations, as well as fondness for flavourful local food, so I recommend you have a look at each other’s blogs! 🙂 https://wanderscoping.wordpress.com/

    December 12, 2016
    • Sophie! It’s so good to see you around again! I’ve been largely MIA in the blogging world myself – sadly I haven’t made much of an effort to read and comment on everyone else’s posts. Thanks so much for the kind words and the recommendation. 🙂 Your friend takes fabulous photos of food, architecture, landscapes… the whole lot! I am trying to find the “subscribe” button on her blog but it seems to be missing…

      December 12, 2016
      • Glad to be a little more active on the blogosphere myself 🙂
        My friend said the same, it seems it’s rather under unfriendly… Are you on Instagram? 🙂

        December 12, 2016
      • Well, I’ve been rather resistant to joining Instagram (because keeping up with Twitter is hard enough), but I am getting quite a bit of pressure these days from my friends and coworkers! 😛

        December 12, 2016
      • Hopefully you will :p both of us are active there and it’s great to share others’ work easily too. In the meantime I hope the subscribe options work out 🙂

        December 12, 2016
  8. So beautiful James.
    But… list must visit jadi tambah banyak… 😀 😀

    December 12, 2016
    • Betul Riyanti… untungnya Jepang nggak terlalu jauh seperti Eropa atau Amerika Selatan! 😀

      December 12, 2016
  9. This looks lovely James. I will add it to the list for when we eventually get to Japan.
    Alison

    December 13, 2016
    • I’m sure you and Don would love exploring the town on foot… getting “lost” and discovering some hidden spots along the way. 🙂
      James

      December 13, 2016
  10. Charming! That’s the perfect kind of travel surprise. Have you been to Seoul? This place reminds me a bit of Bukchon Hanok Village, a traditional neighborhood I visited there this past summer.

    December 14, 2016
    • I’d read a bit about Kurashiki before going on the trip, but could never have guessed just how beautiful it was! Actually I have never been to Seoul – South Korea is a blank spot on my Asia travel map, which is strange since I used to live just a couple of hours away in Hong Kong! I’m going to check out your post now, it may have been the same place my brother went to in August.

      December 17, 2016
  11. Great photos

    December 14, 2016
  12. I would love to enjoy an afternoon in Kurashiki by taking a boat, sitting on riverbank for hours, or wandering around its quiet little streets.

    December 15, 2016
    • Definitely try to budget a whole day there – Bama and I only stayed a few hours so we didn’t have time for any of its museums, which was a real shame.

      December 17, 2016
  13. I’m travelling to Japan next year and, after reading your post, Kurashiki is now on my list of places to visit. Thanks for the recommendation 🙂

    December 15, 2016
    • You’re welcome. 🙂 It’s easy to get there via the railway network, just make sure you have enough time (preferably a day) to wander around and take in all the sights.

      December 17, 2016
  14. I have to say, I’m not really up on sites or places in Japan, though I have been there. But I’ve never heard of this place. I was struck by the fact that you had researched it a bit before you left (a rarity for me!!). Love the tile roofs, and the fact that the Asians were taking baths and building roofs like that long before Westerners. Some Westerners still don’t take baths. And as much as I like this post, and such lovely sites in such great photos…I’m left a little unsatisfied because there are no food shots, dude!
    happy new year, buddy

    January 1, 2017
    • In hindsight I think I could have done a little more research on this place! Had I known about all those paintings in the museum we’d probably have gone there a few hours earlier. Kurashiki isn’t known for its onsen but then again the Japanese do know a thing or two about cleanliness! Ha, well now that you mention it, we didn’t actually eat anything in Kurashiki – although I was tempted by the peach-flavoured soft serve ice cream…

      Happy New Year to you too, Badfish!

      January 1, 2017
      • Well, you could have done more research, but as you said, you hadn’t planned on going there, right. But I can’t imagine you didn’t eat anything there! Or at least take a photo of some sushi or soft ice cream! I do love the architecture shots.

        January 2, 2017

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