Japan day 17: Kurashiki and Okayama Castle

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May 22nd 2019
Published: June 6th 2019
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Today we had a guide for a full-day tour of the Okayama area, Mutsuko Kasuyama.

After a breakfast that included cocoa pops we met Mutsuko for our tour which began in Kurashiki-Shi. Kurashiki is a city on Japan’s Seto Inland Sea southwest of Okayama city centre. It is known for the centuries-old buildings and shops of the Bikan Historical Quarter.

Kurashiki was originally an island in a shallow sea and was known as Kama (turtle) -jima (island). It was important for ships. However, as time went on debris built up in the rivers preventing the flow to the sea and the land was reclaimed. In 1615 it became a peninsula. In 1967 three cities were annexed. Today the population is 470,000. The largest heavy chemical industry in south west Japan is based there because of the accessibility of shipping. The gross product of the area is higher than Osaka which has a population of 2.7 million. Because of its industry and ports it was bombed a lot during WW2.

After 1600 the lord of Okayama castle had to pay taxes to the shogun in Edo (Tokyo). The taxes were in the form of rice which was sent by boat. In order to get the rice to the port they cut canals through the area. The name Kurashiki means warehouse village, because this was where the rice was stored before shipment.

We began our visit at the Achi Jinja shrine. Achi Shrine is a 1,700 year old shrine which sits atop Mount Tsurugata. This mountain is located in the corner of Kurashiki's historical quarter. A taxi took us to the top of the hill, which is just as well because I counted 88 steps coming down. We learnt some Japanese gamatria - 33 steps for Japanese women is not good luck. This is the age that fertility declines. 61 means good days and 88 in Japanese script is rice and the rice age means longevity.

According to the Nihonshoki (Chronicles of Japan) the shrine was founded way back in the 4th Century AD during the reign of Emperor Ojin. Since that time the shrine has been an important stop for sea travelers and merchants between eastern and western Japan who pray for their safe passage along the Seto Inland sea.

The shrine’s origins lay with the Achi clan who settled in the area and were immigrants from Korea. The main deities worshipped are the Munakata deities, who are the female deities of traffic and trade. The Nihonshoki notes that Empress Jingu herself was caught in a storm on the Seto inland sea on her way to the Korean three kingdoms. She stopped off at the shrine and prayed to the Achi deities for safe passage and then a sword of light appeared and cleared the storm which allowed her to continue her voyage to Korea. During the reign of her son, Emperor Ojin, the Munakata deities were enshrined here and the area named Myoken-gu.

Nowadays a number of sub-shrines are found within the shrine’s grounds. One of them is for Tenjin (ancestral spirit of Sugawara no Michizane), the kami for learning. He was a scholar in the 9th century from a very poor background. He worked his way up the ranks of the aristocracy and was despised because of his creed. There is a sub shrine for calligraphy - you deposit your old brushes at the shrine. There is a shrine to four violent gods to calm natural disasters, a shrine for kitchens and a shrine to protect the rice harvest. This latter is guarded by two foxes (who keep the mice away). There is also a new shrine for all those in Okayama who were killed in WW2.

We went to look at an unusual mikuji (fortune slip) arrangement centred around a mokkoku tree and split into the twelve Chinese zodiac signs. A notice board says the tree is the longest-living in the shrine grounds and associated with making good relationships. You thereby get good luck plus your Chinese zodiac fortune.


From the Achi-jinja shrine we proceded to the Kurashiki Bikan Historical Quarter. We left the shrine by way of the steps and took a taxi to Ivy Square. The brick Ivy Square complex was a 19th-century cotton mill. It now houses the Kojima Torajiro Hall, a museum honoring the painter Kojima Torajiro. It is called Ivy House because the mill was built on western designs and was north-south aligned. This meant that it was hot in the summer and cold in the winter. So the owner covered the bricks with ivy. Today it is a tourist centre of hotels, shops and cafes.

We walked along the canal and saw small boats carrying tourists up and down the canal. We stopped in the museum of folk craft which was a really lovely museum containing examples of furniture, glassware, cotton kimonos and cotton wall hangings. In one glass showcase were a number of children’s drawings and Christmas cards. One of the cards on show had a drawing of a menorah. We were able to explain to Mutsuko about Chanukah and a little bit about Judaism.

We visited the Japan Rural Toy Museum which displays a collection of toys from the 1600s to the 1980s.

The most fascinating museum was Ohara House. The Ohashi family (as they were originally named) was foremost amongst the merchant class and this residence they built for themselves in 1796. The house is typical of the town houses of Kurashiki's wealthy merchants. There are tatami floored rooms with elegant sliding doors and hanging scrolls for entertaining guests as well as private quarters, storage rooms and a kitchen. We were so lucky in that a member of staff gave us a history of the family which Mutsuko translated for us. The current owner’s grandfather converted to Christianity in 1899 and was the first Christian in Kurashiki, and he changed his name from Ohashi to Ohara. The house is 2,200 square meters and when his wife became ill, Mr Ohara built a house for her next door. The current owner lived in the house until 2018.

As well as being a successful businessman, Mr Ohara was also a philanthropist. He cared for his workers and established a hospital which was to take care of their maternity needs. And to ensure that his staff were happy he instituted the Ohara Institute of Social Research. He also sponsored agricultural research. Originally 50 workers lived in the house, including a resident hairdresser. But eventually the workers lived away and commuted. He was a banker, ran the spinning company, and set up a high school, amongst other activities.

We were shown the room depicting 300 years of the family’s history. Mr Ohara was the third son but his elder brothers passed away before they could inherit. Many westerners knew of his work and philanthropy and so no bombs were dropped on this city area. The grandson is interested in music and received a medal from France. We also saw the kitchen which was very large.

For lunch we had .... yes sushi!

Then it was on to Okayama castle. The main street leading to the castle used to be a moat. The castle was constructed by Ukita Hideie (the adopted son of Toyotomi Hideyoshi) and was completed in 1597 after eight years. The castle is sometimes known as Ujo - crow castle - as the castle tower was faced with black weather boards.

In 1869 the castle became national property but the government couldn’t afford its full upkeep and so it demolished many of the buildings. The remaining buildings were burnt down on 29 June 1945 in an air raid. The current castle building was rebuilt in 1966. The only significant structure which was untouched by the air raid is Tsukimi Yagura, the 'turret for moon viewing' built in 1620.

There are remains of the ginormous stones which were first used in building the castle; eventually the subsequent architects used smaller stones. We entered the grounds by way of the “tiger’s mouth” and then the iron gate. The grounds have been marked out showing the positions of the former administration offices. The original water pipes were made from Byzantine pottery.

There is a story about Hideie having lost a battle. It is said that the battle was about his wife Gohime. The shogun exiled him together with his sons. His wife refused to marry the victor but was able to correspond and send gifts (rice, sake, clothing) to her husband and sons from there. She never remarried and died twenty years before her husband. The legend is that you can hear her wails of despair from the well.

After the castle it was onto Koraku-en Garden. This park is considered one of three most beautiful parks in Japan. By this stage I was exhausted so I sat in the shade by the ice cream stand whilst Don and Mutsuko took a walk around.

The second feudal lord of Okayama, Ikeda Tsunamasa, invested 14 years in the garden's construction, completing its original layout in 1701. He created it as a peaceful park and through the centuries of subsequent lords the garden has only been modified slightly. Its current name Korakuen was assigned in 1871, shortly before the Ikeda clan gave it to Okayama prefecture who now maintain it.

Koraku-en Garden spans 14 hectares. Water from the Asahi River was diverted to form ponds, streams and a waterfall before returning back into the river. There is a large teahouse, which surprisingly has not become a concession stand. To overcome the general flatness of the property, a 6-meter high manmade hill was added.

One interesting spot in the garden is a long rest house with a canal running through it. There are upright stones within the canal, but they don't impede the water flow. Mutsuko explained to Don that the lord would entertain guests in this house with poetry. Classic Japanese poem forms are haiku 5-7-5 and an extended 5-7-5+7-7 version. Basic haiku consists of three lines with 5 syllables, 7 syllables, and 5 syllables respectively; the extended form has two more lines of 7 syllables each. The lord would sit at one end of the canal and begin a poem with the first 5-7-5 haiku part. Then he would set a glass of sake on a tray and float it down the canal toward the guest at the far end, who was challenged to complete the 7-7 ending of the poem in time to catch and drink the sake.

When they came back from seeing a fair portion of the garden, we had peach flavoured ice cream which was delicious. We said goodbye to Mutsuko at the hotel and found a toasted cheese sandwich for supper.

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