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!
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!