We got up bright and early on Sunday morning to catch a 9:10 bullet train (Shinkansen), and sped out of Tokyo at approximately 160 mph. It’s about a 4 hour ride from Tokyo to Okayama, so we got a couple bentos at the station and had our lunch on the train. Eating while traveling is a bit easier in Japan than other places because the bentos are so easy to find and devour (little boxes, usually filled with some sort of fish, rice, egg combination, sometimes also battered and fried pork, pickled salads, or other bits and pieces.) We took a bunch of video from the train as Japan went whizzing by:
From Okayama we caught a local train to a little town nearby — Kurashiki — which is famous for its historic district. We checked into our hotel and then headed to a historic merchant’s house (Ohashi house) which does tours. I was very surprised by its size — living in Tokyo has given us a reduced idea of living space, but historically in the country there was actually considerably more space for people with money or status. We learned, however, that merchants were taxed according to the width of their houses on the street, so they frequently built narrow, deep, houses to maximize space while minimizing taxes.
There were a number of gardens around the house, as well as a little inner courtyard, which is notable because apparently it was illegal. (Not sure why, or if this particular merchant got caught for his illicit courtyard activity.)
We were particularly impressed with the sun porch of the house, which has solid sliding doors behind it, so the living space could be opened up to a wall of windows, or closed when it was chillier. There was a comfy looking rocking chair perched out there, overlooking a small fountain and a mossy garden. There was also a really peaceful looking office-space that we both coveted, although kneeling on pillows and tatami (the mats the floor is made of) is not particularly comfortable. Some of the doors were also particularly tiny in the house, so there was a lot of crouching and scooching to get through.
Next, we headed over to the historic district which is built around a pretty little canal. We were pulled into a very random traditional dance performance (see the video above). Then we did some exploring while there was still light — looking at the old buildings, sticking our heads into shops, and walking up to a small shrine that overlooks the town. They were also having a series of more modern dance and music performances on a stage over the canal, including a group of girls doing a hip hop routine that was pretty impressive.
As evening set in candles were lit around the canal, a boat of lanterns was lit up on the canal, decorative umbrellas were backlit, silhouette scenes were played out behind the paper-screen doors and windows, and lots of Japanese people (and Jen) went running around the town with paper lanterns looking for hidden words which could then be rearranged to make a phrase. I was allowed to hold the lantern a few times. Now that’s love.
The willows that line the canal were unfortunately still braced for winter, and there was a chill in the air, but it was a fun boisterous atmosphere, and very pretty.
We took a little break in the middle of this to head to a soba restaurant and get dinner. Although earlier in our wanderings we had spotted a place that sold icecream topped with octopus balls (batter balls full of bits of octopus), we decided that perhaps that did not in fact sound like a delicious dessert.
So we headed back to our hotel, which has its own onsen, and had ourselves a nice little soak. An onsen is a Japanese bath-house, usually divided by gender, which is comprised of a set of showers where you first wash yourself, and then proceed to a deep pool of very hot water where you soak. Traditionally these were hot springs outside, and many of these faux, new-fangled (although very beautifully decorated pool-among-the-stones-esque) onsens also have outdoor sections, so we were able to sit out in the chill air in a pool of steaming hot water, letting it melt the train-ride out of our joints. We ended the night with a little bizarre Japanese-gameshow-television, then conked out.
The next day we climbed further up the hill with the temple to a large park and a series of other temples. We brought breakfast with us, and ate on the steps leading up the mountain. Japanese restaurants don’t seem very big on breakfast, and our hotel charged what we considered a ridiculous amount of money, so instead we got hot tea and onigiri (rice balls with fish inside. sometimes they have other things inside too) which if you can stomach fish first thing in the morning is a great breakfast. On days when I can’t face salmon before I’m fully awake I opt for the hot-cakes that come pre-packaged with margarine and sometimes maple, or other flavoring. Either way, breakfast comes cheap and easy from any convenience store.
The cherry blossoms are still weeks away from blooming, but the plum blossoms are beginning to bloom, and a few trees were adding spots of pink and white color to the temples. After a very mellow morning we grabbed our bags from the hotel and went back to the station to head to our next location: Okayama!
But first, some of our other photos of Kurashiki: