Trains, Okayama and Momotaro (part 2)

The  Okayama-jo (crow castle) was built in 1597 and destroyed by American bombs during WWII. Unlike most of the castles destroyed by American bombs during the war, (Kyoto was spared from bombing), the Okayama-jo was rebuilt in 1966 using the original plans. It looks spectacular at night and is just a short walk, traversing the pedestrian bridge that crosses the river, to the Koraku-en, considered to be one of the three finest gardens in Japan. Even in January the Koraku-en is pretty amazing. Constructed between 1687 and 1700, in a congested big city, it’s the perfect spot for a leisurely stroll. Characterized by a flat expansive lawn, there are very attractive koi ponds, a hill in the centre, bamboo groves and a number of smaller Shinto shrines. Although cranes had been kept at the Koraku-en since the Edo period, they disappeared shortly after World War II. Reintroduced in 1956, they continue to be bred at the Koraku-en. Next to the Crane Aviary there is an inscription from a poem that reads, “Koraku-en lost its castle in the war and seemed so lonely that at the least I wanted the cranes to return to the garden and be its good companions.” And so it remains today.

Also worth a visit is The Okayama Prefectural Museum. Featuring displays of local history, it is located just across from the main entrance to the Koraku-en.

Kurashiki is the last train stop before arriving in Okayama from Niimi and,  inasmuch as I enjoyed my stay in Okayama; nothing there prepared me for Kurashiki. All I knew of it was that, only an hours train ride from Niimi, people thought it was a good place to go shopping. The Bikan Historical District of Kurashiki is amazingly beautiful (Google the name and click on “Images” to get an idea). Originally a central holding area for rice (and later textiles), they built many distinctive brick warehouses for storage and extensive canals for the distribution of goods. The area has been beautifully preserved as a tourist destination. In the heart of the Bikan District, The Ohara Museum of Art, established in 1930,  has in its collection (get this), works by: Picasso, Chagall, Giacometti, Rodin, Renoir, Monet, Rothko, Pollack, Johns, Rousseau, Gauguin, Lautrec, Matisse, Modigliani, Kadinski, and De Kooning, to name but a few. There is even an El Greco, and they don’t exactly grow on trees! They also have a great collection of Asian art in a separate building on the same beautiful grounds (you could also Google the Ohara). I couldn’t believe the place! With regard to art, it hits far “above its weight” for the average city of half a million.

It was edging on evening when I left the Ohara. I took a stroll through the restaurants and bars of the small lanes and alleyways of the Bikan. It was getting dark and I was pretty much at the limit of my comfort zone with regard to retracing my route  back to the hotel  when I stumbled upon a “Jazz Bar”.  Even though it was only about 6.00pm, (bars in Japan seldom open before 7.00), the proprietress served me a couple of Kirin and told me there would be a “special” Jazz show at 8.00 o’clock.

I returned at eight and was greeted by an American tenor sax player from New York (he’d been told I was coming), named Dos Allen. He was playing that night with an ad hoc sextet featuring an expat American (a Chet Baker influenced trumpet player who’s name I regret I’ve forgotten), and four local Japanese musicians. The piano player (Miki Yamanaka) was brilliant and I’d suggest any jazz fan might  try to find her Great CD “Songs Without Lyrics” featuring a great tenor player named Tivon Pennicott. All in all  it was a magical evening. Who would have guessed! Serendipity!

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Random Observations:

The 13 km long Great Seto Bridge, built between 1978 – 1988, is a series of two-tiered bridges linking five islands and the prefectures of Okayama and Kawaga on the Great Seto Inland Sea. The upper deck has 4 lanes accommodating car traffic and the lower deck 2 railway lanes, one of which is for the Shinkansen (bullet train). It is the world’s largest two-tiered bridge. Quite a feat of engineering!

“Road trips” are not really a part of Japanese culture. For a journey of any significant distance the Japanese will almost invariably travel by train. Even if people were inclined to drive, road tolls are prohibitively expensive. Amazingly, and I know this will be hard to believe in Canada, the  Japanese have the wherewithal to operate a train system efficiently without having disastrous accidents every second week or so.

You can almost set your watch by a trains arrival time. I was recently told that passengers debarking a train that was no more than ten minutes late were met at the platform and issued letters they could present to their employers, explaining the reason for their tardiness.

My favorite footwear (Converse canvas tennis shoes), are very reasonably priced in Japan. On impulse I ordered a pair from Amazon Japan in Tokyo on Thursday evening at about ten pm. With free shipping, they were delivered to my door at about eleven am this morning (Saturday). Not bad!

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Trains, Okayama and Momotaro. (Part 1)

Although I’d intended to visit Kyoto over the holidays, I decided instead to go to Okayama for a few days. Not only is Kyoto prohibitively expensive during holiday season but it’s quite cold now and I’d sooner see it in the spring when the cherry trees are in blossom (sakura). As I hadn’t left Niimi since arriving in late August though, I was looking forward to getting away for a while; particularly so because I love travelling by train. I find it almost hypnotically soothing to watch the landscape unfold before me while listening to the rhythmic clacking of the rails. From Niimi, Okayama is little more than an hour’s trip. The train pretty much follows the course of the river through the mountains, passing through and stopping at a number of small villages and towns en route. It’s a short but very pretty trip.

Having spent the previous  four months  living in a relatively small town, arriving  was a bit of a jolt. Okayama’s Train station is an important transit hub. In addition to being a major Shinkansen  (bullet train) stop, all trains connecting Honshu and Shikoku via the Great Seto Bridge originate and terminate here. Okayama itself has a population of almost two million. During a holiday, particularly one as important as New Year,  the station is a seething mass of humanity! In the bustling confusion after debarking the train, it took me a few minutes to realize that, to exit the building you need to activate the turnstile with your train ticket. Who knew? Not thinking I’d need it after debarking the train, I really had to scramble to find the ticket.

Stepping out of the station I was greeted with a cold blast of winter air. Directly in front of me was the expansive boulevard I knew from my map to be Momotaro Odori St. Not really an auspicious first impression of a city, it was large, seemingly generic and grey: I knew that within a couple of hundred yards of where I stood there were two McDonalds! But then again, I reminded myself, there is always the legend of Momotaro…

“According to the Japanese fairy tale, an old, childless couple found a peach floating down the river, and inside they found a baby boy. They duly adopted him and named him Momotaro, or (quite literally) “Peach Boy”. As he grew, he began to feel greatly indebted to the couple that raised him, and when he was finally grown, he announced that he would be going on a journey to Onigashima (Demon Island) to fight the demons that had been causing trouble in the nearby villages. The old woman prepared kibi-dango (Okayama’s famous dumplings)  for him to take on his journey and bid him farewell.

On his way to the island, he befriended a dog, a monkey, and a pheasant by giving them each a piece of the kibi-dango. With their help, he defeated the demons; Momotaro took the demons’ treasures back home and gave them to the old couple to thank them for all the things they’d done for him throughout the years. The couple rejoiced that he was back safely, and they all lived happily ever after.”

Momotaro is legendary in Japan and Okayama claims him as “theirs”. When I attended the Daimo (samurai) Parade last October in Niimi, Peach Boy (or someone in a Momotaro costume), was there. My erudite fellow ALT Alex, told me of the legend. I’m glad he did because, as I was walking from the station I noticed the first of the Momotaro statues.  All along the wide boulevard there were statuary of Momotaro and his pals. Look down and there they are on the street manhole covers. I liked it: Along with the trams it humanized what otherwise initially seemed to be a cold and impersonal city.

My hotel, The Koraku, was less than a fifteen minute walk from the station: Pretty much about half-way between the train station and Okayama-Jo (The Crow Castle) and the  Korakuen Garden (said to be one of the three finest gardens in Japan). The staff were attentive and spoke passable English. As I entered my room, tossed my bag on the bed and noticed how perfectly appointed the room was, the thought occurred to me, “This is getting better by the moment”. I was looking forward to doing some sight-seeing, dining on local cuisine, enjoying the night-life and possibly meeting a few people. I’ll write a bit more about that in part two within the next couple of days.

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Incidentally:

Sakura (cherry blossom), is a big thing in Japan. Former JET and ALT, Will Ferguson is a Canadian author who, in a moment of drunken bravado, said he’d hitchhike (not really done in Japan), from the southernmost point  of the country  to the northern tip  of Hokkaido following the progress of the sakura. Having made the commitment, he sets out to do just that. The resulting travel account, “Hitching Rides With Buddha”, is insightful, funny, and at times poignant. I’d unhesitatingly recommend it to anyone with an interest in Japanese culture.