Island Hopping in Japan’s Setouchi Region: Part Two

OKAYAMA PREFECTURE

Located in western Japan’s Chugoku region, Okayama Prefecture is known as the land of the sunshine for its pleasant climate. It is just an hour from Kyoto and thirty minutes from Hiroshima by bullet train.

Okayama has a rich history of art, culture, and nature, with many attractions that are unique to the region. More recently Okayama has found fame as a producer of high-quality denim; especially in the town of  Kojima, known as Japan’s ‘denim capital’.

In the postwar years, a school uniform manufacturer named Maruo took contract work to re-cut discarded old American jeans to fit Japanese bodies. This progressed into Maruo making their own jeans, less expensive than American imports and the region thrived.

Historic places of interest include the Kurashiki Bikan Historical Quarter, a picturesque old village encompassed by a willow-lined canal with traditional wooden boats – often called the “Venice of Japan.” In Okayama City, the Okayama Korakuen Garden, completed in 1700, has been awarded three stars in the Michelin Green Guide Japan.

Notable Experiences

The Okayama area was one of my favorite destinations in my educational tour through the Setouchi Region. What resonated with me was the merging of the “East meets West” dynamic.

The Kurashiki Bikan Historical Quarter harmoniously blends Western and Japanese cultures where streets are lined with white-walled, black-tiled rice storehouses and visitors can explore the city in traditional punt-style boats, perhaps in a kimono or yukata (kimono-like garment with a half-width collar usually worn by men.)

The rickshaw is the transport of choice and very knowledgeable guides educate and entertain travelers. I found the best shopping of local handicrafts for textiles and lacquerware in Kurashiki.

Two notable museums to visit in Kurashiki are the Ohara Museum of Art, Japan’s first for Western art, and the Bizen Osafune Japanese Sword Museum.

Okayama Castle symbolizes local history in the prefecture’s capital Okayama City. Nicknamed ‘the Crow Castle’ due to its black exterior, the 16th-century building was reconstructed in 1966 after its destruction in World War II. Visitors can dress up as feudal lords and princesses by renting authentic period costumes.

With its iconic reddish tone, Bizen pottery is one of Japan’s oldest crafts, and Okayama is home to many traditional kilns. Imbe village in Bizen City is the place to discover more about the art form–over 250 masterpieces are shown in its Bizen Pottery Museum, while at Gallery Shozan, visitors can try making bizen-yaki themselves.

For the style-conscious, a visit to Kojima, Japan’s ‘denim capital’ is a must. I visited a boutique ryokan that had its own denim gift shop where you can have customized garments made to order during your stay. Until I visited, I did not recognize Japan’s obsession with denim and was amazed at the many boutiques that only specialized in denim products that lined its famous ‘Jeans Street.’

Culinary Specialties

Okayama has earned the nickname ‘the fruit kingdom’ not only for its grapes, but for its peaches, strawberries, and fruit parfaits. You can enjoy these at the Kurashiki Momoko, in Kurashiki’s Bikan Historical Quarter, where the jellies, puddings, and jams also make delectable gifts.

Kakushi sushi may be Japan’s most delicious culinary joke. At first glance, it is a very plain dish of chopped egg over white rice. But when the plate is flipped, a cornucopia of treats is revealed, such as mackerel, dried tofu, shrimp, lotus root, and pickled vegetables.

The name means hidden sushi, and the dish legendarily originated to defy a decree by the Edo-period lord that only one topping should be served with rice at a meal.

Where to Stay

Okayama boasts high-quality accommodations, and I strongly recommend a traditional Japanese ryokan stay here.

I stayed at Ryokan Kurashiki, in historic Kurashiki town, and was transformed back in time with window views of thatched-roofed houses and kimono clothed visitors strolling along the canal. My suite, 260 years ago was used for rice storage, and today is a lovely spacious Japanese tatami mat room with private bath.

HYOGO PREFECTURE

Hyogo Prefecture sits at the heart of Japan’s main island, Honshu, and given its large size, the climate and topography vary greatly in different areas. Its northern coast on the Sea of Japan experiences strong winds, rainfall, and heavy snow, while to the south where Hyogo meets the tranquil Seto inland sea, the climate is much more temperate.

With Kobe as its capital, Hyogo connects eastern and western Japan through a modern rail and road network. The prefecture has more than one thousand castles of which the imposing Himeji Castle is a UNESCO-listed treasure.

Notable Experiences

Hyogo has no shortage of exciting destinations and activities for city, nature, and culture fans. Its capital Kobe is famed for its exquisite beef, but there’s plenty to do before dinner! The city is home to a bustling Chinatown and an entertainment district that makes for vibrant evening exploration.

Kobe is considered the hub of the prefecture’s art scene. Designed by world-renowned Japanese architect Tadao Ando and opened in 2002, Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art is worth visiting for the elegant building along. Being a novice of modern art, I was impressed with the multitude of sculptures, prints, and paintings that I thoroughly appreciated.

Hyogo is rich in castles and temples and is home to Japan’s iconic, UNESCO-listed, 400-year-old Himeji Castle, or the White Heron as the locals call it due to its white appearance. This castle is widely revered as the most spectacular castle in Japan for its imposing size, beauty, and well-preserved grounds.

Not far away is Shoshazan Engyoji Temple, known as one of the three great dojos, or places of meditation. Those who hike Mount Shosha to reach it can regain their strength here as visitors can stay for up to two nights and live like a monk.

Connected to the mainland by the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge – the longest suspension bridge in the world – Awaji Island is also a rewarding destination for visitors.

Culinary Specialties

Gourmet beef eaters all over the world consider Kobe beef a culinary delight; being prized for its buttery and smooth flavor. Only 3,000 Hyogo-raised Tajima beef cattle per year meet strict certification standards such as having to be aged between 28 and 60 months and having to possess the highest marbling score.  My guide and I went to a Kobe steakhouse and were presented with a platter of this prized and flavorful beef which we thoroughly enjoyed.

The legend surrounding Kobe beef has long been a source of fascination. Folklore tells of cows enjoying classical music, daily massages with sake and diets based on beer.

Sake is another classic Japanese dining tradition and Hyogo is known for its innovative producers, many of which can be visited on tasting tours in the Nadagogo area of Nishinomiya. This is the largest sake producing region in Japan with breweries in the area accounting for just over one-quarter of the sake production in the entire country.

Places to Stay

Hyogo’s capital Kobe offers a wide range of choices. Hotel La Suite Kobe Harborland offers luxurious, individually decorated rooms in the city center with fantastic views across the port.

However, I would recommend visiting Kobe as a day trip from Kyoto or Osaka; the bullet train will get you there in 50 minutes from Kyoto or 15 minutes from Osaka.

Stay tuned for part three…

Some photos courtesy of the Setouchi Tourism Board and Ryokan Kurashiki.

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