Kurashiki is a small city not too far from Okayama. Located just 15 minutes or so from Okayama Station itself, it is a popular place for both tourists and locals alike. Kurashiki was brought to my attention by one of my students when I said that I would be visiting Okayama. She told me that I had to visit Kurashiki as it is very beautiful. She told me that it was an old area that has remained relatively unchanged since the Edo era. From what she said, I did a cursory look into Kurashiki and decided that if I had the time, I would visit Kurashiki. After the Setouchi Triennale, I had a night in Okayama so I decided to make the day trip to Kurashiki and see what all the fuss was about. I was really happy to have made the side trip to see it as I was able to relax amongst the throngs of tourists as well as enjoy the local area.
I arrived in Kurashiki a little early and had a look around the station. For locals, the north side of the station must be pretty popular. There is a large outlet mall serving the people of Okayama and I’m sure they head to Kurashiki to enjoy a little shopping from time to time. Between the station and the outlet mall is a very curious square. The square is surrounded by a pedestrian overpass which provides good views of the square itself. The square is dedicated to Hans Christian Anderson, the famous Danish writer who is most famous for his fairy tales. The two most famous fairy tales from Anderson, for me, are “The Little Mermaid” and “Thumbelina”. The square was a very strange place as at first I couldn’t figure out the connection between Hans Christian Anderson and Kurashiki, Okayama, or even Japan. The square was very European with a large clock tower in the middle of a small fountain and 4 Norse Vikings on pillars surrounding the clock. You then have Hans Christian Anderson himself gazing at the clock with the little mermaid below in the fountain. I was completely dumbstruck by the strange square until I discovered why it was built. It was originally part of a theme park called Tivoli, a Danish theme park built on the north side of Kurashiki Station. It was akin to the huge Huis Ten Bosch theme park built in Nagasaki that replicated the Netherlands. It went out of business in 2008 and the only remaining thing left is the Hans Christian Anderson Square. Now the entire theme park has been replaced with an outlet mall which is sure to make money.
Most of the tourist activities lie to the south of the station. The best way to the historical Bikan district is to take a walk along the Ebisu shopping arcade. With a lot of Ebisu themed pictures and statues, it is hard to ignore the fact that it is an Ebisu shopping arcade. To be honest, it wasn’t very interesting but it is better than the main road. At the end of the Ebisu shopping arcade is the main attraction for Kurashiki, the old Bikan district with its famous warehouses. Kura, of Kurashiki, means warehouse, which is where the area gets its name. As you enter the Bikan district, you will notice a very distinct look to the buildings. They all look very old and majestic. The entire area is a little difficult to navigate with different streets wandering left and right and finding the main attraction can be difficult if you don’t know where you are going. I had a lot of fun getting lost in the small streets but you do have to be careful as there are still lots of cars travelling up and down the small streets. The tourists all seemed oblivious to the traffic as they all seemed to enjoy looking at the small shops. I also enjoyed looking at the small shops but didn’t get much of a chance to really check all of them out. I did check out a few of them and it was a lot of fun to see some of the small town trinkets. Unfortunately, I have been to so many small Japanese towns that all of the trinkets are starting to blur together.
The main point of interest in the historical district has to be the canal in the Bikan district. The canal is lined with large warehouses where rice used to be stored during the Edo era. Today most of the warehouses have been converted into museums for everything. There are typical art galleries but they also have a few obscure museums such as the Rural Toy Museum and the Senichi Hoshino Museum, a museum dedicated to an old Japanese baseball player who is currently the manager of the Rakuten Golden Eagles. Senichi Hoshino was born in Kurashiki and they decided to honour him with a small museum dedicated to his ongoing career. I never visited his museum but I did visit the gift shop of his museum and it was full of Hanshin Tigers and Rakuten Golden Eagles items. I didn’t get a chance to visit any other museum either as I was a little pressed for time to return to Tokyo but if I ever get a chance to revisit Kurashiki, I will definitely try to visit one or two of the museums. They all seemed to have a unique character and it seemed like it would be fun to see some of the museums. The only down side I could find is that the price of the museums were a little expensive for what they appeared to be.
The canal itself is a very beautiful place. I had the misfortune to visit Kurashiki before the trees had time to sprout leaves so the canal was not in the best shape. I’m sure it would have looked better if the trees were full of leaves rather than the barren trees that I did see. There are regular cruises in the canal in an old boat, similar to a canoe, where old men take a dozen tourists up and down the short canal. They give a little history lesson to the people and you can enjoy the district from a different vantage point. Unfortunately the tour guides are older gentlemen so don’t expect them to be able to speak English, and if they do it is probably limited. Also expect the cruises to be a little busy with many older people. I didn’t feel like taking the cruise as I could walk faster than the old men could paddle but it was nice to see them and all of the tourists enjoying themselves on a warm morning. The canal is also lined with many shops and I did do a little shopping. I have been on a ji-beer (craft beer) binge lately enjoying all of the local beers in Japan. In Kurashiki, rather Okayama, you can get Doppo beer. It is a craft beer that specializes in German style beer. You can find the beer all over at various gift shops so be sure to check it out if you can. I did enjoy the beer but I wouldn’t call it the best in Japan, but I wouldn’t say no if someone bought me some as a gift.
The last place to visit in Kurashiki is the Ivy Square. I stumbled upon this place by accident. I was mainly interested in finding a washroom, and I found it inside the Ivy Square. I didn’t care too much to visit it at first because it looked pretentious and to be very honest, it was. Ivy Square is a very nice place with its red brick buildings that are covered in ivy. Unfortunately I was too early to see the ivy and the red brick buildings just looked ugly with the brown vines all over the sides. I’m sure it is more beautiful in the summer but I was disappointed. The main square is also nice but considering it had a very European feel to it, I wasn’t too impressed. Japan has a strange obsession with red brick buildings and calling them romantic. While it isn’t bad, I wouldn’t call it terribly romantic, but they do play the romantic card and it extends to the types of shops that are in the Ivy Square area. The shops inside the Ivy Square area were designed to have a pretentious feel and the prices of the craft items such as dishes were a bit high. While the employees were friendly and the items were very beautiful, the prices were all suitable for high end items which meant none of them were within my own price range. If you are curious about the Ivy Square, there is no harm to spend a few minutes wandering around the area but I found it hard to highly recommend it to anyone
Kurashiki beat all of my expectations as a place to visit. I would love to visit Kurashiki again but I would have to take my time when I visit the area. I was a little rushed as I had an early afternoon train to catch to return to Tokyo. The historical area was lovely and the locals were friendly. It was a far cry from the way I felt in Okayama city itself. I could be a little skewed due to the sour taste Okayama left in me but I still think Kurashiki is a nice place. I doubt I would need to go back more than once, and if you aren’t rushing, I’d say a single visit is all you need. If you are just passing through Okayama so you can spend a couple hours to see Korakuen, there is no real need to visit Kurashiki. If you do have a little extra time, make the effort to take a look as you might be pleasantly surprised as I was.