okayama castle

Top 3 Must-Visit Locations in Japan: Okayama

Japan is a notoriously beautiful country, with vistas varying from the snowy mountains of Hokkaido, to the tropical islands of Okinawa. There’s plenty to see and do, and I’m sure you already have cities like Tokyo, Kyoto, and Hiroshima on your list! I wholeheartedly recommend visiting these places, but I thought I would also share a few of my favourite places that often go under the radar for many of us overseas tourists. I found this blog post growing quite long so I thought I would break up my ‘Top 3’ into separate posts and dedicate a blog post to each trip. The three must-visit locations are all situated in the South of Honshū (the largest Japanese island) and each can be done in a day, though I always recommend doing some further research into what else is nearby. Today, I’m going to start with the prefecture, Okayama.

Okayama Prefecture – 岡山県

Must-visit Kurashiki Bikan Historical quarter canal, river boat
Kurashiki Bikan Historical Quarter: Taking a ride on the riverboats

On the visit to Okayama prefecture, we visited two main general locations, the first of which was the Kurashiki Bikan Historical Quarter. The beautiful neighbourhood retains its original storefronts – characterised by high white walls on the canal front – remainders of the town’s location along a former rice trading route.

倉敷 美観 地区 (くらしき, kurashiki) (びかん, bikan), (ちく, chiku) = Kurashiki Bikan Historical Quarter

The beautiful canals are lined with weeping willows and beautiful red foliage in the Autumn. If you would like to experience the traditional riverboats for yourself, you can reserve your boat ride from the tourist centre – book as soon as you can as the boats are popular and reservations fill up fast! In addition to souvenir stores, you can also visit the ‘Kurashiki Owl Forest’, to see live owls up close, as well as visit the ‘Hedgehog Forest and ‘Bengal Cats Forest’.The other shops provide authentic traditional food, and there’s even a toy museum and a momotaro (more on this later!) museum to have a potter around.

川船 (かわふね) kawafune = River boat

Must-visit Okayama castle dress as Japanese princess
Dress up as a Japanese princess at Okayama Castle

Next, we headed over to Okayama castle and the neighbouring Korakuen gardens. The castle was built in the late 16th century over 24 years, recognisable by its black walls and fish-shaped-gargoyles which adorn the rooftops. Its black exterior earned it the name u-jō or Crow Castle. It was originally built by a local feudal lord, though it was soon captured by the Tokugawa clan, passed onto Kobayakawa Hideaki – another Japanese noble man – and eventually belonged to the Ikeda clan for a long period of time, before eventually becoming government property in the Meiji era (the late 19th century). In 1945, allied bombers destroyed the main castle tower. The castle has since been restored and the rooftop shachihoko gilded, as the former roof tiles had been, which had earnt it the name Golden Crow Castle. Today, you can also dress up as a princess, feudal lord or a samurai at the castle. Okayama castle also has elevators for accessibility.

鯱鉾 (しゃちほこ) shachihoko / 鯱 (しゃち) shachi = roof ornaments with the head of a tiger and body of a fish

城 (しろ) shiro = castle (This is the kun reading, whereas the same character is in the next example is the on readingjyō. If you want to learn more about this, let me know by leaving a comment and I might make a blog post about it!)

烏城 (うじょう), u-jyō = Crow Castle; (literally) castle of the black bird

金烏城 (きんうじょう), kin u-jyō = Golden Crow Castle.

姫 (ひめ), hime = princess

大名 (だいみょう), daimyō = feudal lord

侍 (さむらい) = samurai

Must-visit koreakuen gardens

Korakuen gardens were added alongside the site of the castle by the daimyō, Ikeda Tsunamasa in the early 1700s. Though it has been tweaked by various daimyōs, and damaged by flooding and the Second World War, it has generally maintained its design and landscaping. Initially, the garden was named kō-en (meaning ‘later’ ‘garden’), as it was developed after the castle. However, it was created based on the expression: ‘worry earlier than others, enjoy later than others’ or sen-yu-koraku, which inspired its name change. The garden is considered to be one of the Three Great Gardens of Japan.

後楽園 (こうらくえん) kōrakuen = Korakuen gardens

園 (えん) kōen = park, garden

先憂後楽 (せんゆうこうらく) sen-yuu-koraku =  A concept of seeking pleasure only after dealing with difficulties or only once the happiness of the people is assured. This expression is based on a Confucian principle regarding leadership.

日本三名園, (にほんさんめいえん) Nihon Sanmeien = Three Great Gardens of Japan

The gardens are very peaceful and extremely beautiful – during the trip, a couple used the traditional gardens for their wedding photoshoot and many photographers took advantage of the Autumn sun for their kouyou photos. Okayama is also the setting to the Japanese legend of momotarō. The folktale describes the story of a boy born from a peach found floating down a river by a childless woman and her husband. When they cut open the peach, they found the boy in place of the peach pit, who told them he had been bestowed to them by the Gods to be their son. When Tarō grew up, he left his parents to fight the demons of the surrounding land. In Okayama, peach/white peach is a popular flavour in connection to the story, and many sweet treats and souvenirs can be purchased from touristic locations around the prefecture.

紅葉 (こうよう) kouyou = Autumn colours; leaves turning red and yellow

桃 (もも) momo = peach

太郎 (たろう) tarō = a popular boy’s name. The meaning of the second character relates to ‘son’ and suggests youth and infancy in some compound words

For more information on visiting Okayama Prefecture and getting around, check out the guides at Japan Guide, Explore Okayama, and Momotaro Journey.

Must-visit Okayama castle

I hope this blog post has been useful for planning your Japanese travels, or just to learn a little more about the country and its history. You can read the next blog in the mini-series (all about Tottori) here!We’d love to hear about some of your daytrip recommendations around Japan! If you’re interested to learn more about Japanese culture, traditions and cuisine, be sure to check out some of our other blog posts. Why not try your hand at origami, furoshiki wrapping, and calligraphy this Spring, or simply browse our bespoke Japanese art and our collection of vintage kimonos at The Japanese Shop.

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