Continuing on my journey from Osaka to Hiroshima, there are a few interesting places to stop by after visiting the Himeji Castle. Notably, Okayama is situated between the two cities, a gateway connecting Honshu with Shikoku. The city of Okayama is also the capital city of Okayama Prefecture, and it’s considered the Chugoku region of Japan. This is the region that receives the least rainfall in Japan – earning it the nickname of “Land of Sunshine”. In other words, it is also an ideal area for tourists to go outside and enjoy outdoor activities like cherry blossom viewing.
Now, let’s check out some of the wonderful viewing spots, and some other travel highlights that you should not miss!
Okayama is not quite under most travelers’ radar, and for those who have a better understanding of famous travel highlights in Japan, the name Koraku-en would probably pop up in their heads. True, Koraku-en is the most famous attraction in the city, but don’t forget to climb up the Okayama Castle right next to the garden. Visit the Okayama Prefectural Museum of Art and Bizen Osafune Sword Museum. Okayama is also closely connected to other important heritages: Kinojo Castle Ruins and Bitchu Matsuyama Castle; and islands in the Seto Inland Sea like Naoshima and Teshima. This is also the area that has the best peaches and grapes – visitors are welcome to go peach or grape picking in a local fruit farm.
This is the most famous attraction in Okayama for being one of the most celebrated three Japanese Gardens in Japan – together with Kanazawa’s Kenrokuen, and Mito’s Kairakuen and they are awarded 3 stars in the Michelin Green Guide Japan.
Korakuen means “later pleasures” in Japanese – rooting from a Japanese Yojijkugo (four-character words in Chinese character that has an idiotic meaning), senyu koraku, “worry now, pleasure later”. Obviously, the quintessential and artistic design of the garden is for pleasure, and to me, the name seems to be a reminder to the leaders that they should always worry about the people before having their own pleasure.
The design of the garden is a circuit-style garden (like many other Japanese gardens, meaning no matter which entrance you used to enter the garden, you will see the entire garden by completing the loop), with artificial mounds here and there is an open lawn among ponds, Enyo tea house (a living quarter), plum groves and rockeries. Unlike the other two gardens, Koraku-en has a rather open area. The best viewpoint of the garden is located at the top of Yuishinzan hill, the highest point of the garden.
The garden was built in 1700 by Okayama’s domain lord, covering an area of 13 hectares. Every step you take is an interesting picture, especially during the cherry blossom season, as you will probably find a nice angle to shoot the flowers with a garden feature in the background.
Take a seat at the tea house as you can enjoy a cup of matcha. If you have more time, Shikisai is a restaurant that serves Japanese meals (Washoku) and dishes are made from seasonal ingredients locally grown. Having said that, there are actually other places in Japan that are considered even better examples of Japanese-style garden design, for example, the Ritsurin Garden in Takamatsu prefecture.
The original castle in Okayama was completed in 1597; the castle was badly destroyed after the war, and the castle that we see today was rebuilt in 1966. The castle is also known as “U-jo”, the Crow Castle, because of its black exterior – an interesting contrast to its neighboring Himeji Castle. Visitors can climb up the tower of the castle and enjoy the view of its surrounding garden. To have the immersive experience, dress up as a feudal lord or princess and take a photo while riding a daimyo’s palanquin for a taste of life as a feudal warlord. Or have a day wearing the kimono, or join a class in the workshop of Bizen pottery.
Kurashiki is in the outskirts of Okayama and the Kurashiki Bikan historical quarter is nicknamed the “mini-Kyoto”. While the cherry blossoms in Kyoto are very impressive, I had a sweet moment walking through the quarter, and it’s beautiful during the cherry blossom season. Kurashiki sits on the Takahashi River, on the coast of the Seto Inland Sea. To get there, it’s a 30-minute JR train ride away from Okayama. Therefore, it’s an easy day trip from Okayama, or if you would want to make it your next stop from Okayama and westward to Hiroshima.
Kurashiki Bikan historical quarter
Spring is one of the best times to visit Kurashiki due to its cherry blossoms. I was amazed as I was walking in the city because pink and white flowers can be viewed basically anywhere in the quarter. To be honest, the Japanese manage to find the niche in each city and make it special. For Kurashiki, the historic Japanese buildings and waterways that run in the quarter made the viewing experience unique to visitors.
The weather was still crisp and cool in early spring, as I walked out of the train station, I grabbed my favorite Oden in the convenience store and started my day strolling in the old quarter. There are a number of checkpoints but it was easy to navigate in the historical quarter, just follow the signs and you will easily find your way from JR station in 5 to 10 minutes.
Our first sight of the canal area was stunning, the scenery is like a movie set of a nostalgic Japanese movie. I could only imagine the canals would look so different in summer when the willow on both sides has grown and turned green. The canal area dates back to the Edo Period (1603-1867) when Kurashiki served as an important rice distribution center. In fact, the name “Kurashiki” can be roughly translated as “town of storehouses”, which refers to the storehouses in which the rice was kept.
While it doesn’t look much from the outside, the Ohara Museum is actually the first in Japan to feature a permanent collection of Western art. The building has a historic, round-shaped Greek-style exterior and it has an impressive collection of western European art paintings. The museum opened in 1930 and its collection showcases French paintings and sculpture-like Claude Monet’s Water Lilies, Auguste Rodin, Henri Matisse, Paul Gauguin, Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s work. Now, it has more to French art, from Pablo Picasso, Jasper Johns, Amedeo Clemente Modigliani to Jackson Pollock.
What’s with the cats and hampu in Kurashiki?
Cats are Kurashiki’s symbol, so don’t be surprised to see a lot of souvenir stores in the quarter that sell gifts with cats, including Maneki-Neko (the beckoning cat!).
About the beckoning cat, the hand waves mean the beckoning of good luck and fortune. These are cats beckoning with either left or right arms. The common belief is that the cars with their left paw raised would bring in customers for business, and the cats with their tight paw would bring luck and wealth to the families.
Another wonderful and signature gift in Kurashiki is their hampu – A strong and thick canva that is perfect for products like wallets, hand bags, backpacks and any fabric home items. Back in the old times, Kurashiki prospered as a center of commerce and industry, it is also a land best for the cultivation of high-quality cotton. That’s why Kurashiki has developed an advanced production technology that makes the canvas durable. On top of that, the design and coloring skills of the canvas is top-notched.
At the innermost part of the Bikan quarter, check out Ivy square – a former site of a cotton mill factory. It’s now restored as a great Instagram spot, while the color of the flowers and the factory building is perfect to give contrast. Go a little further, the path leads up to the Kubota Shrine, ends at the Mukoyama Park.
For those who want to go shopping before heading back to Okayama, Mitsui Outlet Park is an outlet right next to the Kurashiki JR Station.
Hiroshima has a unique past for being the two only cities that were attacked by atomic bombs in human history. To learn more about the stories about the war and the aftermath, Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park is an ensemble of memorials, monuments, museums, and sites, including Atomic Bomb Dome, Peace Clock Tower, Cenotaph, and Hiroshima Peace Memorial Hall. It was heartbreaking for me to see the pictures and remains collected after what happened, especially a shadow left on a stone staircase as the body was instantly combusted during the explosion.
Hiroshima peace memorial park
The most featured and photographed building in Hiroshima is probably the Atomic Bomb Dome, a former Prefectural Commercial Exhibition Hall in the 1940s. The walking tour of the park usually starts at the Aioi Bridge, an unusual T-shaped bridge that was the original target of the drop of the “little boy”, as the tram station is located before the bridge at the Atomic Bomb Dome.
The park is located between two rivers and it has lawns and cherry trees on both sides by the river, making it a popular cherry blossom viewing spot in the city among the locals. To me, the setting was both beautiful and emotional – because Sakura, together with the Chrysanthemum, is the national flower of the country; the flower pays respect to the victims of the bombing. While Japan has the tree strategically planted all over the country, its short but enchanting blossoming period has a king of tragic beauty that deeply ties with the Japanese culture and aesthetics.
As you know, in Japanese, we call cherry blossom viewing “Hanami” (literally: see the flower), and it’s a celebration of spring and festivals can be seen all over the country.
Since not all cherry blossoms fully bloom at the same time due to differences in temperature and weather, chasing the blooming can be fun. Different stage and different genre of Sakura has their unique kind of color and beauty. The spirit of “Hanami” is to celebrate spring while we all gather around, lay down a mat, and have a picnic under the blooming trees, socializing and admiring the season in all its glory. More, enjoying the view and beauty of the Sakura with popular tourist attractions such as castles, temples, and national heritages would make your visiting experience more special. Even visitors may have come to Japan for the cherry blossom season before; they always find something new at different sites – admiring the blossoms from a boat on a stream, at a world heritage site, together with the Mount Fuji, or even while they ski. Taking things a little bit different from what we had done, how about changing the scene from day to night, from a blue canvas in the background to a black one?
Shukkeien is a beautiful Japanese Garden in the city center of Hiroshima, designed based on China’s West Lake in Hangzhou. Stop at Shukkeien station by Tram #9 or take a 15-20 minute walk from the Hiroshima JR station, just turn and follow the signs after reaching the Hiroshima Art Museum
The word “Shukei” means a miniature of the views and scenery of the famous West Lake in China with ponds, pavilions, bridges, and tree arrangements. The garden was built in 1620 and was originally a retreat of a landlord in Hiroshima, and later became a national attraction in 1940. The garden we see now is a rebuilt after the atomic bomb in the Second World War – and during the cherry blossom period, the garden would open at night offering visitors a night Sakura viewing experience. The garden opens until 8:30 pm.
It was the first time that I saw Sakura at night, and it was different to see the blossoms under lights under a dark canopy of sky. The serenity and tranquility of the garden even calmed me more. Back home, as I flip through the photos, the Sakura has illuminated from the complete darkness as if a postcard with special printing effects on the flower.
I have introduced Osaka-style Okonomiyaki when I was having my food-tasting journey in Kansai, and do you know that Hiroshima is also famous for its different kind of Okonomiyaki?
The major differences between of the two are the dough and the filings. Osaka-style Okonomiyaki has a thicker dough, giving a pancake-like texture. While the other is thinner, giving an omelette-like texture.
Hiroshima-style Okonomiyaki has different fillings too – and of the key ingredient you would find is the use of noodles (Yakisoba). The typical Hiroshima-style Okonomiyaki comes in a bigger pile, and it’s a fulfilling comfort food that you simply have to try them when you visit Hiroshima!
There are many local joints in the city with a sign that serves this delicacy. You can try to make them yourself, but the cook would be happy to make and serve it to you.