Exploring Okayama’s Treasures

For a respite from the crowds of Kansai’s more popular destinations, hop aboard a bullet train to this oft-overlooked Japanese city. 

Just 45 minutes by Shinkansen to the west of Osaka, the laid-back city of Okayama and its immediate surroundings harbor an alluring mix of cultural attractions, some of Japan’s best agricultural produce, and lip-smacking local cuisine.

Standing Ground An ideal starting point for any visit to Okayama is the sublime garden of Korakuen. What originally took shape in 1687 as a retreat for the local daimyo (feudal lord) has been embellished over the ensuing centuries, surviving the ravages of World War II. A prime example of the “scenic promenade” style, which offers new vistas at every turn, Korakuen is now considered one of Japan’s three most beautiful landscaped gardens.

A stroll through Korakuen yields views of Okayama Castle, a former seat of feudal lords that was reconstructed after being firebombed in World War II.

A stroll through Korakuen yields views of Okayama Castle, a former seat of feudal lords that was reconstructed after being firebombed in World War II.

A Different Spin The Kibi Plain, an idyllic rural area studded with religious monuments just outside the city, is best explored via a 17-kilometer-long cycling trail that connects the main sights. Don’t miss Kibitsu Shrine—with its 600-year-old main hall—and Bitchu Kokubunji temple, whose five-story pagoda is reputed to be the last one built in the country.

Bearing Fruit The sunny, mild climate of Okayama and its rural hinterland is well suited to agriculture. Chief among the soil’s bounty are white peaches and candy-sweet muscat grapes, which are both prized throughout Japan. Several farms allow visitors to pick peaches from July to mid-August or join the grape harvest in September and October.

Seafood Supreme Fish from the neighboring Seto Inland Sea are a staple of the local cuisine, with a perennial favorite being Spanish mackerel. Its sashimi is lightly grilled on the edges and laid onto sushi rice to make sawara-don, while other must-try specialties include slices of pickled sardinella (mamakari) and bara-zushi—a platter of assorted sashimi, cooked seafood, and sliced lotus root served atop a mound of shredded egg and rice.

A plate of bara-zushi at the railway station.

A plate of bara-zushi at the railway station.

Picture This Opened in 1930, the Ohara Museum of Art in nearby Kurashiki lays claim to the oldest permanent collection of Western art in Japan. Highlights here include El Greco’s 16th-century Annunciation, artworks by Impressionist masters Monet and Pissarro, not to mention Delightful Land (Te Nave Nave Fenua)—a Gauguin oil painting. Visitors come as much for the collection as the museum’s picturesque, canal-side setting in the heart of an old mercantile quarter known as Bikan.

This article originally appeared in the June/July 2017 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Okayama Express”).

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