A walk in Kurashiki
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. ◊