The city of Okayama is located in the Chūgoku region, Western Japan.
During the Edo period, Okayama was a flourishing castle town, also thanks to its strategic position as merchant town and seaport. Also today this city revests an important role, as demarcation point between Kansai and Chūgoku regions.
What’s special about Okayama?
Okayama city has two main symbols.
the first one is the famous tale of Momotarō (Momotarō Monogatari).
For this reason in Okayama we can find many scripts and shrines dedicated to him.
In addiction, the “kibi dango”, a Japanese traditional sweet (wagashi) is one of the main snacks of Okayama.
The second symbol of the city is the Kōraku-en garden, showing the essence of a Japanese traditional and “zen” garden. Along with the Kenrokuen of Kanazawa, and the Kairakuen of Mito, the Korakuen garden has been chosen among the Three Great Gardens of Japan.
Talking a little about its history, during the 17th century, Ikeda Tsunamasa, the lord of the Okayama clan, created this garden. At the beginning, Kōraku-en was characterized by its rice fields, called “seiden”, which are preserved still today. The garden is very wide and here and there you can see plum and cherry trees, blooming during the end of winter and the beginning of spring. Therefore, this garden is also a great spot to enjoy the Japanese spring bloomings.
Near the Kōraku-en garden, we can find Okayama castle, built during the Azuchi-Momoyama period.
The castle’s black walls are quite particular, so that the castle is also called “u-jō” in Japanese, meaning “the craw castle“, a feature shared also with Matsumoto and Kumamoto castles.
Actually, Okayama castle was almost destroyed by the bombings of the 2nd World War, so what we can see nowadays is a reconstruction dating to 1966: the inside of the castle is now a museum (although, still looking more “traditional” than Ōsaka castle inside). Lastly, the Tsukimi-yagura, a turret located on a side of the castle precinct, used to watch the moon reflecting in the moat, is the only original part of the castle that survived the bombings.
By the way, in the area around the castle and the Kōrakuen garden, there are many art museums, for which Okayama is quite famous. Here we briefly introduce some of them:
・Okayama Prefectural Museum
The main exhibition is called “Okayama Prefecture Yukari hall”, and here you can learn about the history of the area; besides this permanent exhibition, there are some special shows as well.
・Hayashibara Art Museum
Perhaps the most famous museum of Okayama, is located inside the Kōraku-en garden, and focused on traditional Japanese art, such as screen portraits, kimonos and objects related with Okayama castle.
・Yumeji Art Museum
This is a museum showing the works of Yumeji Takehisa, an artist born in Okayama active during the last century. In particular, he is well known to be the first artist in Japan to take part in the Art Nouveau current, originated in France between the 19th and the 20th centuries. It is quite interesting to see a typical western portraying technique applied to Japanese themes and landscapes.
How to get to Okayama
To see how to get to Okayama and move inside the town, click here!
We visited Okayama twice, both in summer.
Kōrakuen garden was really wide, and, although it was very hot, being August, the greening made us feel a little refreshed. Many kind of Azaleas and other flower were also in bloom.
Inside the garden, there is a big pond, called “sawa no ike”, surrounded by some paths you can use to roam around the park. Around the pond there are some traditional buildings, some of which are tea house, and their reflection on the water created a very typical and rural Japanese landscape.
Next to the pond, there is a low hill called Yuishin-zan. Getting to the top of it, we could watch me around, and get an idea of the size of the garden. From here you can also gaze at the castle.
We walked around the garden, and I found, on the western side, also a little area where Japanese cranes are bred.
Among the yearly events of the garden, there seems to be also a day when these birds are made free.
Following my visit at the park, we crossed a bridge and reached finally Okayama Castle.
Between the garden and the castle, river Asahi flows, and by crossing the Tsukimi-bashi (meaning literally “the bridge from where the moon is visible), you can get to the castle entrance.
The castle is very imponent and big, and I was impressed at the time, as it was one of the first Japanese castle we visited. Inside the precincts there are many signs, also many of them in English, telling the history and the characteristics of the castle.
You have to pay to enter the castle once (also a Korakuen garden + castle set ticket is available), but we were excited in trying the daimyo (feudal lord) attires inside the castle. Ladies can of course wear a kimono (although here you cannot expect to have the full course kimono wearing experience like in Kyōto’s Gion), and you can take pictures in a typical japanese room. It was a very nice experience, and made more interesting the visit at the castle.
Okayama boasts many interesting and various places, just in the city center.
In addiction, being an important logistic center of western Japan, there is plenty of hotels, even some ryōkan, the transportation is quick and convenient (see the section above).
For example, from Okayama you can reach quickly the nearby town of Kurashiki, Hiroshima in about 45 minutes, Tottori Sand Dunes within 2 hours, or going directly to Shikoku island by just 1 hour by train. So, Okayama could be a strategic base to explore the western Japan.