Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Sunny Land of Okayama - Day 1

A statue of Momotarou outside Okayama Station.
Warning! Long post.

"Congested." This was my first impression when the bus finally got off the expressway and into the streets of Okayama.

It was before 9 in the morning on a Saturday when we arrived in Okayama, so I was not expecting a lot of traffic. It was still early, after all. But when our bus entered the main road, we got stuck there, barely moving for a little less than 30 minutes, and the rather incomprehensible traffic system did nothing to help. Normally I wouldn't mind this but I had a schedule and my schedule says I have to be at Okayama Station by 9 am. I got anxious.

Finally, the bus was able to escape from the jumble of vehicles and we were able to arrive in Okayama Station shortly after. And from there, my trip to the sunny land of Okayama began.

However, let me say this beforehand. Like most of my other trips, food was my main objective for going to Okayama. I wanted to eat a Peach Parfait at a particular cafe in Kurashiki and I just built my itinerary around that objective.

#1 Kibitsu Shrine

Since I had planned lunch at Miyake Shouten (三宅商店), the cafe that sells the peach parfait, I made cycling the Kibi plain as the first item on my itinerary. I originally planned to cycle the whole 15 kilometers, but it was a very hot day, and I was alone - what if I got lost?- so I decided to rent a bicycle for 2 hours and go to Kibitsu Shrine (吉備津神社), which was actually the only place on the cycling trail that I really wanted to visit.

Kibitsu Shrine is the first point on the trail, which starts at Bizen-Ichinomiya station. It is the chief Shinto shrine of the Bitchuu province of Okayama and is dedicated to Prince Kibitsuhiko, the model for the legend of The Peach Boy Momotarou.
The roof is designed to look like a bird spreading its wings.
Sure all that history and literary reference to Momotarou was interesting, but what really caught my attention was the corridor that connects the main building and the Hongu building. From the top of the corridor, you can see that it curves upward beautifully. It is said that it was built following the natural inclination of the ground and the overall length is more than 400 meters.
The beautifully inclined corridor at Kibitsu Shrine.
I took my time walking up (and then later down) the corridor and around the shrine, and enjoying the peaceful atmosphere. After taking several pictures, I headed back to Bizen-Ichinomiya station.

Admittedly, it was disappointing that I was not able to cover the whole length of the cycling trail. The sun was scorching in sunny Okayama and I know just how much my body can handle so I decided it was better safe than sorry.

The bicycle ride towards Kibitsu Shrine was a new experience. The peaceful countryside was a stark contrast to the hustle and bustle that I experienced upon first arrival. Despite the awful heat, the lush greenery, the wide plains, and the tranquil atmosphere were very soothing.
A wide pathway lined with beautiful trees.
Cycling through these green plains was very soothing.
#2 Kurashiki

Whenever I looked up Okayama on the Internet, Kurashiki always came up as one of the "to-go" places. It is described as a small town that preserves the traditional architecture and look of old Japan. I loved Onomichi, an old-style town in Hiroshima, so I knew I was going to enjoy this place. From Bizen-Ichinomiya, I got on the train towards Kurashiki and I devoted the rest of the day to touring the place.

The area with all the history and old architecture, the place that's often found in pictures of "Kurashiki" is in the Bikanchiku. The street leading to Bikanchiku is right in front of Kurashiki Station. I followed this road and bought murasuzume from Kikkodo (橘香堂), located along the way. I also passed by some interesting buildings along the way but they were quite modern. In fact, I could not imagine how a place that preserves the old look of Japan could continue to exist in such a modern setting. However, as soon as I turned left at the Bikanchiku intersection, with no premises whatsoever, the scenery changed abruptly from the modern to the old, traditional, samurai-days look of Japan.
Bikanchiku intersection
"Charming" is how I would describe the place. From the dark-colored wooden buildings lining the streets, to the wide canals draped with vibrant green trees and shrubs, and the peaceful atmosphere - it's very easy to forget that you are in the middle of a developed city. Even the name itself, "Kurashiki", has a nice old ring to it, don't you agree?
Tourists riding a gondola and "cruising" the canals of Kurashiki.
Wooden buildings with the old world charm.
 I walked around for a bit, taking pictures of the canals and the buildings, then proceeded to Miyake Shouten, where I had my lunch - which was just the Peach parfait that was my original objective.

Main building of Ohara Museum.
After enjoying my parfait to the last spoonful, I visited Ohara Museum, an elegant, European-style building that houses artworks from many famous artists, including Monet, Picasso, etc.  I took my sweet time inside, looking, admiring artistic creations from different times and different civilizations. Unfortunately, taking pictures is not allowed inside so I all my pictures were taken from outside the building and around the complex, but I can tell you this. Ohara Museum is a MUST when you visit Kurashiki. For some reason, you get absorbed and lost in the scenes that the different pieces are trying to portray. Some of the works were from artists I have never heard of but all of them had some history and story behind. Most of the explanations are in Japanese, but you can rent a pre-recorded English translation and listen from headphones as you view the pieces.

#3 Okayama Castle

Okayama Castle was originally not part of my itinerary. After Kurashiki, I went back to Okayama Station, arriving some time past 5pm. Since I did not have a hotel reservation, I recklessly decided to just spend the night at an Internet Cafe. But, the overnight promo at the Internet Cafe I chose does not start until 6pm so I looked for a way to spend the time. Looking at area maps I found out that Okayama Castle was located near the area (by "near" I meant a 30-minute walk from the east exit of Okayama Station) and that was how I decided to visit the site.

It was almost 6pm when I arrived at the castle site so I did not go inside anymore. I wasn't that interested in what's inside, anyway. The real charm of Okayama Castle can be seen from the outside: its unique black exterior.
Okayama's Black Crow Castle
Unlike most Japanese castles, which are white in color, Okayama Castle is painted black, giving it a very strong and ominous feel.

The castle is located beside a river, although there really isn't much to see from there. After snapping some pictures of the so-called "Black Crow Castle", I headed back towards the station to look for the Internet Cafe I was going to spend the night in.

I will be writing about my Internet Cafe experience in a separate post.

P.S. I failed to mention that I traveled to Okayama on July 20-21, 2013.

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