It’s always better to have expectations crushed right at the start, to ascend from zero appreciation of a new destination. In the case of Kurashiki, there’s certainly nothing outstanding about the cheesy area facing the station’s south exit. The north exit is only a little more promising, with the painted walls and turrets of Kurashiki Tivoli Park at least getting your attention. Beamed in from another continent and put through a drip-dry Disneyfication, this Danish-inspired, children’s storybook theme park, a scaled down version of the Copenhagen funfair, will please cognoscenti of Japanese kitsch. Those who have seen the real thing will find the street entertainers, artificial lakes, palaces and Ferris wheel tame by comparison.

Returning to the south exit, it’s only a 10-minute walk along Kurashiki Chuo-dori, or through an enclosed shopping mall, before a different world emerges, one almost as fantastic as Tivoli Park but infinitely more authentic, despite belonging to a past that seems as far away from contemporary Japan as the rings of Saturn.

Bikan, as the town’s core historical district is known, is a step back in time from the shabby present to an elegant past. Seventeenth-century merchant houses and granaries that beggar some of the newer town’s residences, speak of that rare thing: affluence combined with good taste. It may even be a little too picturesque. Carp lurk just beneath the surface of the canal, swans drift gracefully above, striking perfect poses for the droves of photographers that descend on the district.

The comfortable, spacious villas families built here, like their storehouses, were made to last. Some of these are open to the public. Ohashi House, which lies down a side lane a little west of busy Kurashiki Chuo-dori, was built in 1796 and has aged well. The interiors are spacious and the style strongly resembles the design of samurai villas. As it was prohibited for common townspeople during the Edo period to imitate their betters, or to engage in ostentatious displays of wealth, the survival of this house suggests that prohibitions were beginning to be relaxed, at least outside of closely monitored areas such as the city of Edo. The green roof tiles and weathered clay walls of Ohara House and the Yurinso, the family’s adjacent guesthouse, is not currently open to the public, but a sense of how well the family lived here can be gleaned from circling the building and peering through its gate.

Architecture aside, culturally minded travelers flock to Kurashiki to visit its top-drawer museums. With a surplus of wealth from their commercial activities, the merchants and business people of Kurashiki sought other channels to invest their profits and, perhaps, to seek personal betterment through acts of artistic philanthropy.

The crown jewel of museums in Kurashiki is surely the Ohara Museum of Art, a neo-classical looking building that, surprisingly, seems to fit snugly enough into the Edo period surroundings. The brain child of textile giant Ohara Magosaburo, the museum acquired artworks by the likes of El Greco, Auguste Rodin, Paul Cezanne and Pablo Picasso, and put them on display for the first time in 1930, when Japan’s political climate still allowed for an open appreciation of things Western. There was nothing random in the selection of these paintings, which were carefully chosen by Ohara’s friend, artist Kojima Torajiro, while in Europe in the 1920s.

For a more authentically Japanese experience, the Craft Art Gallery has a fine collection of ceramic ware, textiles, and some striking woodblock prints by abstract artist Serizawa Keisuke. The building, a converted storehouse with impressive crossbeams, is a quality work of craft art in itself. The Kurashiki Museum of Folk Craft, housed in a former granary, has a similar function, adding traditional basketware and clothing to its exhibits. Because of its identification with quality crafts, the souvenirs sold here are a notch above those at Bikan’s dozens of commercial gift shops. For light relief, the local Japan Rural Toy Museum has some interesting, time-eaten dolls, puppets, spinning tops and other bygone items, the most impressive being a collection of kites. The museum sells modern reproductions of the type of toys on display.

Wandering the lanes between these museums, some of the buildings appear to have back rooms and even upper floors, but does anyone, I wondered, beside the odd innkeeper, actually live in Bikan? I wanted to believe there were residents living here who could trace their ancestry several generations back to the same plots but, despite glimpsing the odd mailbox, it was a question I never found the answer to.

In search of telltale clotheslines and window boxes Ð signs of permanent habitation Ð I had climbed the set of steps up to the top of Tsurugata Mountain. For a view of the town’s rooftops, and the way that they seem to interlock like fish-scales, this higher altitude is unbeatable. At the summit (a rather grand word for what turns out to be an easy five-minute assault), the terraces of Achi Shrine afford fine views in all directions over the town.

Several ancient rock groups indicate that the site was a place of veneration long before the shrine was built. In a world without temples, shrines, or religious reliquaries, nature provided landscape features conducive to worship. In this more animistic world, plants, mountains and streams could be inhabited by kami, the native gods of Japan. Particularly potent forms included imposing stones and rocks. In order to communicate with these invisible forces, to pay tribute and promote fruitful co-existence, sacred spaces were created, in which large boulders called iwa-kura were placed.

These clearings in the forest, along natural pebble beaches and beside waterfalls, may represent Japan’s first Ògarden” plots. In order to worship stones acting as magnetic fields for the gods, a purified clearing was made around the boulders. Worshippers delineated the purified areas by tying shime-nawa (rice fiber ropes) and later gohei  (paper streamers) to old cryptomeria trees that stood around these sites. Large granite boulders here in the grounds of Achi Shrine, are a fine example of the type of stones linking ancient Shinto to the stone garden, an association many garden historians and designers regard as the source of inspiration for the later Japanese dry landscape garden.

While the newer parts of Kurashiki will continue to experiment with the kind of hybrids that characterize the identity crisis common to cities that are neither Western nor Japanese, Bikan is unlikely to alter a great deal in the future. Any changes slated for the historical zone would in most likelihood, have already happened if they were going to.

This old quarter, designed for the circulation of hundreds rather than thousands of people, can get decidedly crowded with tourists, though, especially on the weekends. One guidebook warns darkly that the district is Òmarked by the inevitable cluster of shops and dawdling tourists,” as if its readers are somehow cut from different cloth than the ordinary sightseer. Dawdling, a rarity in Japan, is to be recommended, crowds avoided if possible. To soak up the mood of the old town, early morning and late evening are the best times to wander its back streets, where shadows and the coach-house style, iron lanterns used by some shops and restaurants, deepen the sense of stepping backwards in time.

These are the streets of the Edo period, an age when there were almost no wheeled forms of transport, where even in the cities, night was often pitch black. For a moment in the alleys of Bikan, you can forget that the streets beneath your feet are not earthen, but made of solid asphalt.


Travel Information

Kurashiki Station is on the local Sanyo Line, a 15-minute ride from Okayama. Buses also serve the town from Okayama and Kojima. There are two tourist information offices: one in the station, the other beside the canal in the Bikan district. Both have maps and pamphlets in English.

Traditional seems to fit the bill for accommodation, with the expensive but exquisite Ryokan Kurashiki (tel: 086-422-0730) topping the list. It boasts individual suites and impeccable service. Modern but traditional in style, the Minshuku Kamoi (tel: 086-422-4898) is great value. Located on a slope and with an attractive garden, some rooms have good views over the rooftops of Bikan. Kanaizumi serves homemade noodles but is also a place for cheap mamakari sushi (vinegared sardine on sushi), the local specialty. Mamakari-tei has a more refined and expensive version of the same dish. Last but not least, Kurashiki Mugishukan is a microbrewery located in an old storehouse. Here you can sample a few glasses of Kurashiki beer, an excellent dark brown, nutty brew. If you are hungry at this stage, but your legs reluctant to move, you can crawl over to the restaurant attached to the brewery.

Story & photos by Stephen Mansfield
From J SELECT Magazine, October 2007