Monday, May 15, 2017

Okayama, City of the Crow-Castle

This year I received a work invitation to Okayama in Japan. I did not know anything about Okayama before going there. It was a wonderful surprise to discover this bustling city with its beautiful riverside castle, gardens and museums. The image below is from the wonderful Korakuen gardens of Okayama.


This post is about my explorations of Okayama. All the places mentioned in this post are at a walkable distance from the railway station.

Okayama and the fable of Momotaro

Okayama is one of the bigger cities in the south-west part of Japan. It is the city of the fable of Momotaro, the Peach-boy.

According to the fable, an old woman found a peach fruit. When she opened the peach, inside she found a baby boy, who told her that God had sent him to be their son. He was given the name of Momotaro (Momo = peach +Taro = elder son). When Momotaro grew up, together with his animal friends, a dog, a monkey and a pheasant, he went to fight Oni-demons. He killed the demons and came home with their treasures and lived happily ever after with his old parents.


The statue of Momotaro greets persons arriving at Okayama railway station. The main road in front of the railway station is called Momotaro Dori road which takes you to Okayama castle.

Ekimae Market

Right across from the east exit of Okayama station is the Ekimae covered market. Full of shops and restaurents, along with an occasional hotel, I had great fun walking up and down this market. Most Japanese shops have boards and food-menu only in Japanese, so I loved trying to understand what different shops were selling.


Nishigawa canal and street

I think that the area around the Nishigawa canal was part of old Okayama before the city was destroyed during the second World War. Rest of Okayama is a newly built city.


With the calm canal waters, gardens, trees, fountains and sculptures on both sides of this quaint canal, I loved this part of Okayama. The image below has a sculpture built along the Nishigawa canal.


Okayama Symphony Hall

This round-shaped modern building was built in 1991. It is close to Shiroshita round-about on Momotaro Dori road. Designed by the well-known Japanese architect Yoshinobu Ashihara, the Okayama symphony hall is famous for its acoustics.


While you admire the symphony hall, I suggest that you should also go down the underground crossing at Shiroshita round-about. A colourful tower-like construction jutts out of this round-about.

It has a lovely sculpture of a woman and a crane. The crane is a common motif in Okayama city. Its statues are there in the city and live cranes can be seen at the aviary in Korakuen park.


Parks around Asahi river

Crossing the Shiroshita round-about will bring you to the core cultural zone of Okayama. This area is marked by a number of parks along the two sides of Asahi river, along with a number of sculptures.


Along the river, a large number of persons walk, cycle and jog or do exercises. On one side, you can see the Okayama castle while a bridge will take you to the famous Korakuen gardens.


Crow-castle of Okayama

The black-coloured castle was built in the sixteenth century. It was also called U-Jo or the Crow castle. The old castle had the roof gilded in gold and was thus called the Gold-crow castle.


During the Meijo reformation period (1868-1912), the medieval castles were seen as problematic and thus even the Okayama castle was partly abandoned, its moat was filled and its walls disappeared. The remaining castle building was razed to ground during the second World War.

The present castle was built in 1966 as a concrete building. A few parts of the castle were gilded in 1996 when its 400th anniversary was celebrated. Outside, some remains of the old castle have been identified including the old walls and a pond. Parts of the old moat have also been recreated.


Korakauen Gardens

The three hundred years old Korakuen Gardens are counted among the most beautiful Japanese gardens. The aesthetic principles defining the beauty of the zen gardens in Japan include - Kanso (simplicity), Fukinsei (asymmetry), Shizen (naturalness), Yugen (subtletly), Datsuzoku (unusual), Seijaku (stillness) and Shibui (austerity). Trees with branches tending towards the ground are especially appreciated. These ideals are expressed in the Korakuen gardens in different ways.


These gardens were created for Ikeda Mitsumasa in the early 17th century as a place for private relaxation. Cherry, maple and pine trees were planted. The artificial hill called Yuishinzan (in the image above) was constructed by his son Ikeda Tsugumasa. At the same time, the water canal was also built.  The name Korakuen garden was given in 1871 and in 1884, these were opened to public.


The garden has a central pond called Sawa no Ike with different miniature islands such as Nakanoshima and Minoshima. I personally liked a smaller pond near the main gate called Kayo no Ike with a bamboo groove, some shrines and the Eisho bridge. This part also includes the archaeological remains of some stairs from the old dock used by Daimyo. While I visited Korakuen, it was full of young school children who were adding colours to its beauty.


Museums of Okayama

Okayama Prefactural Museum is located near the main gate of Korakuen Gardens. A short walk from here will take you to a museum dedicated to an Okayama artist called Takehisa Yumeji. If you do not have the time to visit the Yumeji museum, you can admire some of his paintings which adorn the bridge leading to his house (in the image below).


Two more museums, Okayama Prefactural Museum of Art and the Oriental Museum are located on the main street near the Shiroshita round-about.


Conclusions

Even if my stay in Okayama was short, I really liked this city. I stayed at Toyoko-inn near the Ekimae market and it was a perfect place to visit the city.

Among the different restaurents of Okayayama where I ate, I want to nominate Hajime at the Shiroshita round-about, where the people were really nice, the food and the ambiance (bookshelves full of Manga comics) were great.

I want to conclude this post with another sculpture from Okayama - this one is placed near the Western exit of JR Station. I want to apologise for not mentioning the artists of the different sculptures presented in this post. Their names were written exclusively in Japanese and I was unable to read them. However, if you can tell me the names of these artists in the comments below, I will be honoured to add them to this post.


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