Okayama, Beyond Beautiful Plains and Gardens

Whichever country you go to, there are certain regions and within that country that is known for its unique characteristics. Shibuya, for example, is known for its high-fashion trends, a busy intersection, and shopping choices. Harajuku has similar characteristics. Being a large metropolis, Tokyo has a whole range of options for tourists, making quite the spot for visitors. Little do they know - though it should be made aware of them – that other parts of Japan are just as beautiful and have their own signature charms.

One of these gorgeous, however often overlooked areas is Okayama. Where exactly is it? Well, there are seven regions in Japan; Kanto, Hokkaido, Chugoku, Shikoku, Kyushu-Okinawa, Tohoku, and Chugoku. Okayama is found in Chugoku, southwest of Tokyo.

The Early History Of Okayama

Okayama is the name of both a Prefecture and its capital city. There are other cities in the Prefecture of Okayama, one of them being Kurashiki. As for the Prefecture, it used to be made up of three provinces, up until the Meiji Restoration combined them to form one area in 1871. Those provinces were known as Bizen, Bitchū, and Mimasaka. So far, the Prefecture has 15 cities. What’s special about this prefecture is how it’s so rich in its ancient historical roots, and yet slowly declining in population as generations begin to flock to more developed regions.

As for Okayama (Okayamashi), the capital or designated city of Okayama Prefecture, it came a little later. It was established on the first of June 1889 and started off as a castle town. Before the 16th century, specifically during the Muromachi period, this was simply known as farmland, and home to the Kanemitsu clan’s castle. It’s no surprise that during the chaotic Sengoku period, Okayama was infiltrated by Japanese feudal lord (daimyo) Ukita Naoie. He soon turned Okayama into Bizen Province’s capital city.

Developments During the Edo Period

Once the Edo period rolled around, Naoie’s son, Ukita Hideie, lost his lordship to Kobayakawa Hideaki after his lack of success at winning the Battle of Sekigahara. Hideaki’s reign would be followed by Ikeda Tadatugu, Himeji domain’s daimyo, due to the lack of an heir. Ikeda’s clan and descendants would continue to rule Okayama up until the 1800’s, when the Meiji Restoration occurred, unifying the regions to follow a central governing imperialist body.

As soon as the late 19th century, Okayama developed quickly; mainly because of the railroad system it possessed, as well as the handful of institutions that were built in the district. By the 20th century, base camps to contain members of the Japanese Army were built here. Because of its notoriety as being a vital and accessible city filled with armed forces and even a university, allied forces chose Okayama as a target of many of its bombardments. Sadly, these bombs killed almost two thousand people, leaving very little except ash and cinder.

Okayama’s Post-War Economic Boom

Even though 12,000 households were destroyed by the war, Okayama bounced back. Their transportation system was improved, even more, making it Sanyo Shinkansen’s western terminus. Another route to Shikoku was established by the construction of the Seto-Ohashi Bridge. Only on 1996 was it considered a core city, which means its population consisted more of 300,000 people, and it's measured to be bigger than 100 square kilometers. By the first of April in 2009, its population reached over 500,000 gaining it the title of being a designated city.

Find Yourself in Japan? Here’s A Quick Guide to Okayama

It’s good to know several facts about the city before visiting it, just so that you’re aware of the local’s way of life, culture, and traditions, and why they are what they are. For example, did you know that because Okayama is in a plain, they have a lot of fresh crops and vegetables? Their specialty? Grapes, as well as white peaches. The next time you visit a market, be on the lookout for those.

Okayama has museums you may want to visit, though they aren’t exactly included in Okayama’s points of interest. Just in case you’d like to visit them to brush up on some of their local histories, there are about six of them – more notable ones being the Okayama Prefectural Museum and Hayashibara Museum of Art.

In terms of food, Okayama has quite a few special traditional dishes. One of them is named “Kibi dango”, which is a sweet millet dumpling. Although millet was used in older recipes, some of these pastries may no longer contain them but are still referred to as kibi dango. Another dish is one named “Barazushi”. If you dissect the word, “bara” is defined as scattered – which this dish truly is. It’s made of vegetables literally scattered on top of sushi rice. It isn’t often served in restaurants and is considered more of a home-cooked meal.

Points Of Interest You Must Visit In Okayama, Japan

While you’re in Okayama, make the best of your time by visiting the highest-rated places around the region. Here are a few of them;

Korakuen Garden is one part of the triad that is known to be one of Japan’s most beautiful landscape gardens. Built as early as 1687 next to the Okayama castle, it was once used by the daimyo and his family to hold celebrations and show visitors around. Ever since the daimyo lost power and the imperial government took over, this garden has been open for public enjoyment. If you find yourself in Okayama station, this beautiful garden is only a 30-minute walk away. For a shorter walk, take the Higashiyama Line, and exit at the Shiroshita stop. 

Okayama Castle, also called the “Okayamajo”, is found right by the Asahi river next to the Korakuen Garden. Although the original castle was constructed in 1597, the second world war destroyed it in 1945. A replica of it was created in 1966. The only structures left relatively unscathed by the war were two watch towers. Okayama castle is also nicknamed crow castle, or “Ujō” because of its design and color.

The Kibitsu Shrine, located in Bitchu province, is packed not only with history but a legend too. Re-constructed back in 1697, dedicated to Prince Kibitsuhiko no Mikoto. The story goes that there was once an evil prince who lived around this area. Prince Kibitsuhiko no Mikoto, a neighboring ruler, saw his wrongdoings, attacked his kingdom, and won. The Shrine was built in remembrance of this battle, and the exact location Prince Kibitsuhiko no Mikoto ended the evil prince’s life with an arrow. Admission to this shrine is free. If you’re exiting the Bizen Ichinomiya Station, make a right, and go all the way across the train tracks.

There are other places around the Okayama Prefecture (not the city) to visit, such as Bikan Historical Quarter and other wards like Kita-Ku, but it’s best to focus on a smaller area first before getting into the specifics about the rest.

The Kind of Weather You’ll Find in Okayama, Japan

Technically, this is how it works with Japan; the further north you go, the colder it is. The lower south you travel, the more you feel the heat. This is because the south is nearer the equator. Okayama is quite a bit further down south than Tokyo is, so you can expect much warmer temperatures during the summer. The average high for the month of august would be 32 degrees Celsius, which is their hottest average for the year. Their coldest average high is 9.0 degrees Celsius, which belongs to January.

Prepare your clothes accordingly with the month you plan to visit. Their lows can get cold; 1.1 degrees in January. It also tends to rain a lot during June, July, and September, so if you’re a tourist who wants the probability of good weather, avoid these months.

Make Your Trip to Japan Comfortable: The Best Hotels in Okayama

Two of the best-recommended hotels in Okayama are the Okayama Koraku Hotel and the Ana Crowne Plaza Okayama. Both rated 4.5 out of 5 in TripAdvisor, these hotels go neck and neck in terms of hospitality and amenities.

Reviews of the Okayama Koraku Hotel insist they have amazing service, with staff willing to help and even give tips on what to add to your itinerary. Their touch of adding aromatherapy shows thoughtfulness, and their rooms are relatively spacey, yet cozy. The downsides? First, it’s a little far from the Okayama station but still walkable. Another – the hotel dictates when it offers air conditioning or heat, which gives you few options if you tend to feel hot, even during the supposedly colder months like spring. A night here could cost you around 6,000 yen on a good deal.

Ana Crowne Plaza Okayama is pricier; at least 7,700 yen a night usually, but its location is stellar. Not only is it an easy 2-minute walk from the station, you can also walk to tourist spots, such as the Korakuen Garden and Okayama castle. Their service is also exceptional, and their beds are reported to be extra comfortable. The way their hotel is decorated is also appealing, and their rooms come with the extra frills; a bathtub, kettle mini bar, and glasses.

Send Mail – Here’s the Postal Code in Okayama, Japan

In case you’re looking to send or receive any packages, you may need the postal or zip code of the place you’re going to be. Okayama has many different postal codes, most of them begin with 700-09XX. The postal codes of the city of Okayama in the Prefecture of Okayama are mostly 700-0921, for example, but it’s best that you visit a postal code site and encode your address to get the accurate postal code to properly send and receive your mail.

Plan Your Location Itinerary in Japan - Study the Map of Okayama

Now that you know the basics about Okayama, your next step is to download (or buy) a map of the exact area you’re going to be in, and plan how to travel there, and perhaps go to other destinations around the same area. One of the most important kinds of a map you should have is the railway map, so you can jot down which trains to take, and which stations to exit to maximize both your trip experience and your time.

One of the Most Thrilling Roller Coaster Rides in Japan is in Okayama

In case anyone thinks that Okayama doesn’t have anything exciting to offer compared to its more technologically advanced neighboring prefectures, they’re dead wrong. Although it theoretically isn’t the same as most roller coasters, it probably does a better job of scaring you than others. Introducing the SkyCycle; one of the most horrifying rides in the Brazilian Washuzan Highland Park in the Okayama Prefecture.

The SkyCycle is unlike any other roller coaster because you must power your cart by cycling around the rails – many, many feet up in the air. The view, of course, is breathtaking, but physical stability is close to zero, as the only thing that’s stopping you from falling several stories to the ground is a seatbelt.

Other Things to Do While In Okayama, Japan

Aside from visiting the many art museums, such as Yumeji Art Museum, The Okayama Orient Museum, there are a few other things you can do that aren’t on the tourist’s popular to-do list. One of them, for example, is to have your photo taken with the statue of Momotaro, a.k.a. “Clam Peach Boy”. His story is native to that of Okayama and is part of Japanese mythology. You can also go shopping and try the local food, an example being the previously mentioned Kibi dango - which is incredibly similar to mochi.

Celebrate A Festival In Okayama When You Visit Japan

Taking part in a festival can be extremely fun. In Okayama, they have one festival called the “Naked Man Festival”. Called a “Hakada Matsuri” in Japanese, it’s a festival where men go to a temple wearing nothing but a loincloth and are in competition to hold one of the bamboo sticks tossed to them. This usually happens in the Saidaiji Temple, either during a freezing winter night (usually in February), or a summer night. Thousands of men come together to join the event (even foreigners are welcome to join) in hopes of getting a hold of that bamboo, bringing them much luck, fertility, and prosperity.

There’s so much more to a place than what it is at eye-level. The more information you know about where you’re going, the deeper your experience becomes when you travel, and the easier it is to guide others who may not know so much. Wherever you go in the world, it’s best to be aware and prepared.