Okayama is an area that I have always wanted to visit because it is “famous”. It is well known in Japan, but I really had no clear idea what is special about Okayama. During the Setouchi Triennale, I had a chance to visit Okayama by the way of visiting Inujima and Uno, but I still didn’t visit the main city of Okayama itself. After visiting all of the islands, I spent a day in Okayama city itself to see if it was special or not. I learned that a lot of things are not very convenient or required more work than I was intending to do. The city itself turned out to be a big letdown and I felt I had wasted a bit of my time visiting the city. While I don’t regret visiting Okayama city itself, I find it hard to recommend it to people for a prolonged period of time. Unfortunately, either my love of the Triennale areas made Okayama a tough city to follow up on or it really isn’t that special.
Okayama city is a medium sized city that is well known as a transportation hub. It is where people transfer from the Shinkansen to head to Shikoku amongst other areas of the Chugoku region. All Shinkansen stop in Okayama and many regular trains depart from Okayama for far away areas. It is a transportation gateway to many other regions in Chugoku and Shikoku but other than that, it isn’t very special. The station itself is pretty large with a lot going on in it, but outside of the station it isn’t very busy. There are a few shopping streets around the station but none of them are particularly spectacular. The only sights to see would be the NHK building, also unimpressive, and the statue of Momotaro. The story of Momotaro talks about a boy being sent from heaven inside a peach. The peach was picked up by a couple who opened it and named him Momotaro, or Peach-Taro. Unless you grow up with the story, I don’t think it would be very interesting for most people. The origin of Momotaro, at least for the story, comes from the Okayama region, and possibly in the Shikoku region as well. The tale tells of how he went to an ogre island to kill the ogres and met a dog, pheasant, and monkey along the way who became his friends. You can see this imagery all over Okayama as they really play up this tale.
There are only 2 sights to see when you visit Okayama. The first, lesser known, sight is Okayama Castle. It is a tall black castle that is reminiscent of any other rebuilt castle you can find in Japan. After visiting several castles in Japan, I found Okayama to be uninspiring. It was nice to see and walk around the castle grounds, but I wasn’t interested in visiting the inside of the museum as I prefer to visit the insides of castles that are all original, or recreated to be the same as the original castle. The main jewel of Okayama has to be Korakuen Garden. It is one of the top 3 most beautiful gardens in Japan and one of the places I have been meaning to visit for a long time. Korakuen is a beautiful place located a nice 10 minute walk south of Okayama Station. It is not very easy to get to at first, but there are a few entrances for Korakuen. I found the garden to be a nice little garden but it could have been a lot better. My timing to visit the garden couldn’t have been worse. If I was a week earlier, I would have been able to see the gardens at the peak of the plum blossom season. If I was a week later, the cherry blossoms would have been in full bloom. I was very unlucky in this respect and the gardens themselves were pretty bare and boring. Timing is extremely important when visiting any garden and I was just unlucky. The highlight of my visit to Korakuen was a short stop at the tea shop. There is a nice lovely tea shop located in the corner of the garden, next to the tea fields. You can see a lot of the garden and just enjoy a lovely cup of tea along with the most famous treat from Okayama, kibi dango. It is simply a mochi dessert with nice roasted soy powder (kinako) on top. Korakuen’s specialty is kibi dango with the kinako on top and you cannot buy it outside of Korakuen. It is a nice treat, especially on a beautiful day and it was the highlight of my entire visit to Okayama.
Okayama city is not a place that I plan to visit again. I do want to visit the area one last time to go on a cycling adventure, but other than that I have no plans. I don’t really recommend visiting Okayama itself as you can see more things, and better things, in the surrounding areas. If you want to see a beautiful garden, you can always visit Ritsurin Koen in Takamatsu or any other garden. While I understand it is beautiful at Korakuen, I couldn’t justify a visit in the future. If you have a JR Pass, or capable of stopping off in Okayama, there is no harm in checking it out, but when I compare Okayama to my great trip to Takamatsu and the Seto Inland Sea, my trip felt like having grape juice after drinking the best wine in the world. As a friend said to me recently, “you have raised the bar and spoiled my idea of what sushi is back home” after I took him out to eat good sushi in Japan. I feel the same of Okayama. I have been to so many places in Japan that Okayama had a lot to live up to, and I must unfortunately say that it can’t live up to my expectations of interesting places in Japan.