Located between Hiroshima and Osaka, the Okayama Prefecture is a peaceful, mountainous region in Japan that I hadn’t really paid attention to in the past, but wound up surprising me in the best way.
Don’t be worried about the fact these aren’t typical Japanese cities: not only does the JNTO provide a bunch of online information, the tourist information centres at each attraction are very foreigner-friendly, complete with illustrated maps in English full of recommendations – not to mention, the locals are incredibly hospitable, especially if you make a sincere attempt to speak Japanese (no matter how elementary!)
Kurashiki Bikan Historical Quarter
10 minutes from Kurashiki Station South Entrance is the Kurashiki Bikan Historical Quarter, which truly is like something that appeared straight out of a storybook on ‘historical’ Japan, preserving architecture from 17th – 20th Century Japan with a distinctively retro vibe, all wrapping around a canal with white swans floating in the centre, framed by willow trees along the bank.
Famous for three distinctive types of brick in its architecture and its kominka traditional houses, Kurashiki is beautifully photogenic and striking and relatively untouched by overwhelming tourist crowds – it’s a true hidden gem.
I’m a firm believer that if you’re going to commit to visiting such a place, you should go all out and rent a kimono at least once in your life. Komachi Denim Kimono gives a starting rental rate of 3500yen from 9AM – 6PM and 6900yen for couples. I definitely recommend renting at the start of the day and then spending the day exploring – it was a bit warm but the kimono forces you to walk slowly and really take in your surroundings.
There’s more than enough in the Kurashiki Bikan Historical Quarter to keep you occupied and they’re all within walking distance within the quarter: the Ohara Museum of Art, Kurashiki Owl’s Forest owl cafe, Japanese Toy and Doll Museum, parks and temples. The area is also bustling with interesting boutique stores, food vendors and the occasional man pulling a rickshaw – I had a great time just wandering through the alleys and checking out the souvenir shops.
At the entrance of the Bikan Historical Area is also a souvenir and sweets store called Kikkodo Bikanchikuten, run by the world’s friendliest shop owner who was so incredibly warm and enthusiastic to share information about the area with us. I was able to experience making one of the store’s famous desserts: the mura suzume which is essentially a type of folded pancake with sweet red bean paste and means ‘flocking sparrows’. Apparently, the way to make the pancake is apparently just picking it up off the hot stove with your bare hands (!!) and folding it over.
Kurashiki Bikan Historical Quarter
1 Chuo, Kurashiki City, Okayama
Phone: 086-426-3411 (Sightseeing Department, Culture and Sightseeing Division, Cultural and Industrial Affairs Bureau, Kurashiki City Office)
Kojima Betty Smith Jeans Museum and Kojima Jeans Street
Japan was the last place I associated with good old denim jeans, but Kurashiki and the city of Kojima, located in the south of the city is actually Japan’s ‘denim capital’ and also a textiles powerhouse city. True to that reputation, the Kojima Betty Smith Jeans Museum area boasts three different themed museums run by Japan’s famous ‘Betty Smith’ jeans brand that takes you through Japan’s denim-producing history and gives you the chance to shop for high quality denim goods at its various outlet stores.
In true Japan style, there is absolute commitment to themed interior design – the entire Jeans Museum I resembles something out of an American Western film, taking you through Japan’s denim-producing history, complete with models and old sewing machines. I found myself marvelling at how soft the denim was while exploring Betty Smith’s outlet store, where the sale rack ran as low as 3000 yen for a pair, dyed with every colour.
Betty Smith Jeans Museum
5-2-70 Shimono Town, Kojima, Kurashiki City, Okayama Prefecture
Opening hours: 9AM – 6PM
Web: Visit Okayama
Kojima Jeans Street is located a short distance away and – you guessed it – is a street full of jeans and commercial denim boutique stores. You can really sense the city’s pride in its denim history – even traffic cones and vending machines are denim-themed! Make sure you get a photo of the denim archway marking the name of the street and try some ‘denim ice-cream’ (think: Aqua S but with with a more subtle sea salt flavour).
Kojima Jeans Street
Kojimaajino, Kurashiki City, Okayama Prefecture
Web: Explore Okayama
Takahashi City and Bitchu Matsuyama Castle
Located in the small city of Takahashi (高梁), Bitchu Matsuyama Castle is the oldest surviving castle in Japan and is its highest mountaintop castle. When the weather is cooler, morning fog will sometimes cover the rest of the mountain, making it appear like a ‘castle in the clouds’. Unfortunately, as we arrived in the middle of a hot spring day, we didn’t get to see this. It will take you about 20 minutes to hike up to the top of the mountain from the castle’s ‘upper parking lot’ (you can get a local car or taxi) but you’re rewarded with stunning views of the city below and a beautiful serene location to explore.
Bitchu Matsuyama Castle
1, Uchisange, Takahashi City, Okayama Prefecture
Admission: 300 yen (General) | 150 yen (Elementary and Junior High Students)
Web: Explore Okayama
Before you go up though, be sure to stop by the restaurant in Takahashi International Hotel for a really beautiful chirashizushi lunch set, featuring sashimi slices laid beautifully over mildly warm sushi rice, with salad, octopus and chawanmushi (steamed egg custard) side dishes. Like a sushi train, but much, much prettier.
Takahashi International Hotel
2033 Masamune-cho, Takahashi-city, Okayama 716-0037, Japan
Web: Takahashi International Hotel
I Ate My Way Through travelled as guests of the Japan National Tourism Organization.