Kurashiki is a city in southern Okayama Prefecture, only a 20-minute local train ride from the Okayama shinkansen station. Kurashiki played an important role in the economy of the eastern Chugoku region of Japan in the Edo period (1603-1867) because of its location midway between Hiroshima and Osaka.
Kurashiki doesn’t present itself as the best of Okayama. Instead, consider it one of the jewels in the crown of Okayama’s many attractions. In particular, the historical quarter, Kurashiki Bikan Chiku, has preserved the old merchant houses and warehouses. But, unfortunately, it’s a destination not on many tourists’ radars. Especially if you’re a lover of Japanese culture and tradition, visiting Kurashiki is like visiting a theme park recreating Edo Japan.
Although there are lots to see and do, these are my picks for five fun and inspiring things to do in Kurashiki.
The Edo experience
After leaving JR Kurashiki station, you embark on a leisurely ten–minute stroll through a Showa Era-covered shopping mall. Once you’ve exited the mall, you have entered the historical quarter and will immediately see the Edo Period architecture. You can even rent a kimono or a yukata (traditional summer clothes) to wear as you stroll through the streets. Whatever you wear, you should be dazzled by the preserved white walls and lattice windows of the merchant houses and warehouses.
If you are a bit winded or just want to be pampered, you can hire a rickshaw to chauffeur you and a companion around the quarter so you can concentrate on the sights. Then, when you see the old–fashioned fire tower, you are close to the canal where you can take a traditional boat tour to take in the sights. Think of it as Japan’s Venetian gondola experience.
Jeans and textiles
During the Edo period, owing to the land’s natural characteristics and water availability, Kurashiki was used to grow, spin and dye cotton. So naturally, a thriving textile industry arose. The present Kurashiki Museum of Folkcraft, located in red-bricked Ivy Square in the historical quarter, commemorates the site of the most renowned textile factory. The importance of this post-industrial revolution industry served to reinforce the Kurashiki merchant identity.
Kurashiki’s historical quarter still celebrates the many different types of textiles it produced, even if they are not still in production today. The most traditional textile product is Japanese-style paper on sale or display. The most rugged example might be the sail cloth on display that once was commonplace and necessary for the maritime trade vital to the city’s existence. However, most important for contemporary Kurashiki commerce is the denim produced there.
The Kojima area of Kurashiki is fittingly called the “birthplace of Japanese jeans.” Fortunately, if just acknowledging or celebrating the textile industry doesn’t seem that exciting to you, visit the quarter’s Denim Street. You can buy standard jeans, one-of-kind, creative jeans or bib overalls. If wearing denim isn’t for you, you can opt for the denim knick-knacks or denim accessories.
The Ohara Art Museum
The third thing I suggest is a long visit to the Ohara Art Museum. Located in a splendid early Showa–styled columned mansion is an art collection started in 1930. This museum is Japan’s first private collection of Western art.
The story is that Magosaburo Ohara was a collector of Japanese art who sent a Japanese artist friend to Europe to buy all the masterpieces he could. This friend Torajiro Kojima bought works by such Western masters as El Greco, Gauguin, and Matisse. When Torajiro died in 1929, Ohara decided to display the collection.
It has expanded and now includes both Eastern and Western art masterpieces of many different styles and genres. It is an impressive, up-to-date, innovative, and forward-looking collection in its newest acquisitions.
The Japanese Toy Museum
If you love toys or want a unique Japanese souvenir, visit Nihon Kyodo Gangukan, the Kurashiki Folk Toy Museum. Here, you can see what children in Japan used to play with from the 1600s to toys from the now retro 1980s—long before videogames and Youtube. So, don’t expect to find anything electronic or noisy.
However, if you are looking for a kendama (cup-and-ball game) that looks a hundred years old, this is the place to buy it. However, even if you’re not into old toys, Nihon Kyodo Gangukan is worth visiting. Its beautiful architecture blends in perfectly with the Edo aesthetic and the nearby canal. There is also a terrace cafe—perfect for a recharge from all the walking.
After all the hustle and bustle (and spending), you may feel the need to meditate on the fact that you have been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to be in Japan and enjoy Kurashiki. What better place to thank the local kami (deities) of Kurashiki than the ancient and picturesque Achi Shrine?
On the walk back to the station, just to the right before re-entering the covered shopping mall, you’ll find Achi Shrine—dedicated to the daughters of Susanoo, an important deity in Japanese mythology. The Nihon Shoki, the seventh century Chronicles of Japan, records that it was founded in the fourth century.
While you sit under the five-hundred-year-old wisteria trellis, viewing the rocks representing seats of the Japanese kami, in the approaching twilight, you will be greeted with a mountaintop view of the city, reputed to be the best in the city. In an hour, you can be in a restaurant or hotel in your next destination, be it Hiroshima or Kobe.
Have you visited Kurashiki before? What was your favorite part? What other hidden gems are in Okayama? Let us know in the comments!