Okayama....where we got lucky.

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May 23rd 2019
Published: May 23rd 2019
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SC writes: We had a relaxed and comfortable trip up from Kagoshima to Okayama: 3 hours plus on the Shinkansen yesterday, and having checked in we immediately set off on a pre-planned trip out to the Kurashiki Bikan historical quarter, where we were able to stroll through streets boasting traditional architecture from the Edo period. Simply delightful with a waterside setting and lots of very attractive retail opportunities. The weather was again really good, so I‘m going to let the the photos speak for themselves. A really good side trip out via local trains......What had been a very good day ended on a downbeat. We went to an Ozzie Bar, recommended in Lonely Planet, but it was dreadful. A real wasted opportunity!

(Cj writes) Another day, another fabulous garden - the second of the three best gardens in Japan that we plan to visit on this trip. We got there good and early - just after 9am (yes, it was open from 7:30am; no, I can’t function without a cup of tea and breakfast) and the place was virtually empty. Bliss! And our luck was in: on only 6 days a year, an important tea house in the garden is open to a maximum of 15 visitors - and we were numbers 13 and 14. The action all took place within the main room of the tea house, kneeling on tatami mats, and the guide gave his talk in Japanese (we had an English pamphlet to help us). At a certain point - after a big build-up, I assume - two assistants knelt to draw back two rice-paper sliding doors ... to reveal the most magnificent vista and the whole raison d’etre of the tea house. With virtually no other people around we enjoyed the full impact of the meandering stream which flowed in front of the tea house, garnished by clipped azaleas and crossed by a stepping stone bridge, the splendid sweep of lawns leading the eye to the man-made hill clothed in azaleas in the middle distance, and the ‘borrowed landscape’ of the mountain in the far distance. Cloud-pruned trees and free-growing acers and plum trees abounded. Later, we watched whole shoals of orange, black and gold koi carp in the pools, crossing the stream over and over again on angled massive stone slab bridges (this being a safety feature: dragons can move only in straight lines, so bridges are built with kinks or discontinuous slabs of stone to fool ‘em). A wonderful morning, and although we’ve been to this garden before, it was our first experience of the very special view from the tea house. After that, just as last time, we went on to tour Okayama castle - and, again like last time, decided we weren’t sufficiently inspired to go inside. Why? It’s a wooden castle built on a very impressive stone rampart - as they all are - and, like every wooden building it is constantly being renovated/reconstructed. The guide notices were quite upfront: the castle had been destroyed in a WW11 air raid, and it was rebuilt in reinforced concrete in 1966. Lovely to look at on the outside, but lacked something essential, we thought. We got the train, and went on to Bizen instead.

SC continues: Yes, off we went on another side trip, to a small town called Imbe, famous for its Bizen pottery galleries and kilns, hoping for a more engaging experience than we had in Arita. Well we got lucky again: just a five minute walk from the station we were in the middle of the village and it was clear that there was more going on. Then we saw smoke: a kiln actually in operation. We followed the smoke, around some back streets until we found ourselves outside a workshop where the kiln was clearly fired up. It was so hot you could feel it outside the building where we were soon noticed by the staff ..who promptly invited us in for a good look. Wow, it was hot! and while we were there they were stoking the fire. A delightful young woman, clearly in charge, explained what was happening: for 11 months of the year they make the pottery, about 4,000 items. Then, once a year they fire up the kiln and fire the 4,000 pottery items. This process takes 13 days at 1,300 degrees C. In the photos you will see the “climbing kiln”, and the pots are moved up it progressively over the 13 days. We just happened to be there on the last day of firing...how lucky was that? A fascinating and probably unique experience. After that we had a look around the showroom, of course, and then explored the rest of the village and many other establishments. Inevitably we did shop. I hope I have captured the flavour of the places and the style of the Bizen pottery in a few photos..

A very good and very lucky day all round. As Cathy said in the last blog it’s all about the “unexpected delights” and today we had two of them......Dinner was good too...a very good wood fired pizza.

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