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About two weeks ago I had the privilege to be able to travel to Okayama on a research trip for IJT. Okayama Prefecture is in the south-western part of Honshu, sandwiched between Hiroshima and Hyogo Prefectures and with a coastline facing toward Shikoku. I had never been there before, so was very excited to be taking on this trip!
My first task was visiting Kifu no Sato, a lovely ryokan in Yunogo Onsen – right in the heart of the countryside of Okayama. This ryokan has a fabulous onsen with several different types of baths and is justly famous for its wonderful ikebana flower arrangements, of which there are no less than sixty-five adorning the hotel at any one time. These are arranged using only wild plants and flowers from the surrounding mountains and are changed up to twice a week – which all told is a pretty mammoth undertaking!
A commitment to local crafts and produce is central to the philosophy at Kifu no Sato. They are proud to serve food made with local ingredients in their restaurant (incidentally some of the best food I’ve eaten in Japan), and to furnish their rooms with pieces made by local craftsmen.
With this philosophy in mind, Kifu no Sato also offer a wide range of amazing cultural experiences, through which guests can meet and converse with local artists and craftsmen who are real experts in their fields. Guided by the wonderful Hiromi-san, I was lucky enough to meet some of the people who would be offering these experiences. Guests can have a sushi-making lesson with the chef at the ryokan; an Iaido martial arts lesson with Trevor, a British expat who has studied the art for 30 years; a pottery experience with a Living National Treasure in the historical town of Bizen; pick tea leaves and package their own tea with Mr. Shimoyama at his tea plantation; try out natural dyeing with Takami-san in Ohara town… and the list goes on.
After leaving Kifu no Sato, I made my way to the town of Kurashiki in the south of the Prefecture. The train ride from Okayama station to Kurashiki takes you through some really wonderful countryside and is to be highly recommended, chugging at a lazy pace through hills and mountains, over rivers and past plenty of little towns and villages. Kurashiki itself is a beautiful town with a historical town centre that feels in some places like a little piece of Europe in Japan. Through the centre runs a tree-lined canal, and the surrounding streets are filled with Western-style buildings rubbing shoulders with white-walled, black-roofed Japanese storehouses that used to be used for the storage of rice during the Edo period.
The Ohara Museum, the first museum of Western art in Japan, is the centrepiece of Kurashiki – and deservedly so. Any visitor to the town must visit this wonderful gallery, where world-famous names in Western art mingle with modern and contemporary Japanese works, along with traditional crafts and antiques from ancient Egypt and China. Even without considering the museum’s artistic offerings – it is worth a visit for the buildings alone, which are wonderful and full of character.
Besides the Ohara Museum Kurashiki is a veritable goldmine of museums – from the Archaeological museum and the Museum of Folkcraft to the Toy Museum, the Kurabo Memorial Museum, the Kurashiki Local History Museum, the City Art Museum, the Insect Museum, the Senichi Hoshino Museum, the Yumiko Igarashi manga art museum (where you can even rent costumes and dress up as your favourite over-the-top Igarashi manga character)… there really is something for everyone.
I highly recommend the Toy Museum, packed full of old-fashioned Japanese toys, and the Piggy-bank Museum – which is located at the top of an antiques shop and stuffed to the gills with eccentric and interesting stuff.
My favourite museum, however, was the Momotaro Museum. Momotaro, or “Peach Boy,” is a famous Japanese folk tale in which an old couple discover a boy inside a peach, floating down a river. They adopt the child, named Momotaro, and he grows up to vanquish a host of marauding demons. Several places in Japan claim ownership of the story – one of which being Okayama. At this museum you can find a whole range of optical illusions and visual tricks; some Momotaro comics, artwork, toys and memorabilia; a room showing old-fashioned Japanese cartoons on a projector; and – the piece de resistance – a demon grotto (in the style of the “haunted house” you find at fairgrounds). I won’t describe it in too much detail in case I ruin the surprise, but suffice to say that the group of young schoolchildren who were visiting the museum at the same time as me were quite literally terrified out of their wits. Watching children scream in terror is, of course, all part of the enjoyment.
The chap who works in the museum (pictured above) is also rather a character, and has the amazing ability to make flutes out of chikuwa (a type of fish-paste tube you usually find in Japanese “oden” hotpots). He has been on Japanese TV a few times exhibiting this extraordinary talent, and will be happy to give you a demonstration. Aptly, he also looks kind of like a real-life Momotaro.
Here in Kurashiki I was lucky enough to stay at the Ryokan Kurashiki, which was truly the jewel in the crown of my time in Okayama. Right on the canal in the centre of the old town, this ryokan takes some beating. It is housed in a wonderful old building with amazing character, the rooms are beautifully decorated with antiques, the restaurant and terrace look out over a picturesque Japanese garden, the food is a work of art – and I hardly need mention that Nakamura-san, the proprietress, is a paragon of Japanese warmth and hospitality – or “omotenashi.”
Really, I lack the adjectives to adequately describe my stay at this ryokan (and the pictures don’t do it justice), so you will just have to go and see it for yourself. I’m pretty sure that you’ll agree with me when I say that this is a little piece of paradise.