By Hiroshi Nishida / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior WriterKURASHIKI, Okayama — Lined with buildings, the Kurashiki Chuo-dori street looks like a typical regional city street. Upon turning left at a corner however, a totally different scene appeared before me. I could see traditional townhouses with white walls and lattice windows. I had walked into a scenic area that retains the atmosphere of the Edo period (1603-1867). It felt as if I had walked into a different dimension.
Kurashiki was once a sea dotted with islands large and small, but land was reclaimed by drainage. In the Edo period, Kurashiki was placed under the direct jurisdiction of the Edo shogunate and prospered as a commercial district. The scenic area’s current form originates from around that time.
The former residence of the Ohara family, which contributed to the development of the area by establishing the Kurashiki Spinning Works and the Ohara Museum of Art, was built at the end of the 18th century and has been designated as a national important cultural property. The residence retains its original appearance, with a sturdily built main house and a warehouse with namako walls covered with square tiles joined with white plaster.
Among the townhouses, Western buildings constructed in the Taisho era (1912-1926) dot the area, such as Kurashiki-kan, built as a town hall, and the former Kurashiki branch of the Daiichi Godo Bank. That retro look goes well with the traditional Japanese townscape and gives it a unique flavor.
Kurashiki Ivy Square, a complex located on the former site of the Kurashiki Spinning Works plant, is also one of the town’s Western buildings. The ivy-covered brick building served as a plant and warehouse, illustrating the history of Japan’s modernization in the Meiji era (1868-1912).
Immediately after the end of World War II, Kurashiki was quick to preserve the townscape by actions such as using old buildings for new facilities. In 1979, the area was designated as a national important preservation district of historic buildings. In 2006, a group for protecting and developing the Kurashiki historical building district was established, with participation by all the district’s households.
“The district’s attractiveness is that it has genuine buildings constructed during or not long after the Edo period, not ones added one after another in later times,” said Kimiko Oga, 82, the head of the group. “Because of factors such as family generation change and entry of businesses from other cities, it is now important to build a consensus on how to hand down the townscape to future generations.”
Ohara Museum of Art
The Ohara Museum of Art is Kurashiki’s sightseeing highlight. It was established in 1930 to display paintings purchased by artist Torajiro Kojima in Paris and other cities where he studied thanks to financial assistance by the Ohara family. The museum’s main building, in the style of a Greek temple, is the city’s landmark.
Among collections owned by the museum, El Greco’s “The Annunciation” is famous, and it has many modern art masterpieces including some by Claude Monet, Paul Gauguin and Jackson Pollock. The museum gives a broad view of Western-style painting trends from the 19th century onward.
Yae Takahashi, 40, head of the museum public relations unit, said: “Since its establishment, the museum has basically collected artworks from that period. Recently, to support artists, we have young artists staying in Kurashiki for about three months and producing works that we exhibit.”
I stayed at Tsurugata, a ryokan inn in a townhouse unique to Kurashiki. The inn opened in 1970 after the proprietor purchased the townhouse from an oil dealer that had been in business since the Edo period.
“The building is old, but surprisingly sturdy,” manager Hiroto Murakami, 50, said, guiding me to a large hall on the second floor of the building. A beam assembled with huge black pine trees caught my eye. “It is said to have been built by a ship carpenter. It is assembled like a ship bottom,” Murakami said.
As the night went on, I looked out from the small window of a Japanese-style room in a warehouse on the second floor and watched the illuminated white walls of the townhouses and the row of willow trees along the Kurashikigawa river, which filled me with wonder.
I was told by several people in the city of an urban legend that the U.S. military did not conduct air attacks on Kurashiki so that the masterpieces owned by the Ohara Museum of Art would not be burned. Whether that claim is true or not, the Edo period townscape survived because the city was spared air attacks.
Preservation activities that began just after the end of WWII also played a big role in that survival, as that prevented the town from being affected by the high economic growth period, which significantly changed landscapes in various parts of Japan. Luck was apparently on the side of the city in terms of preserving its townscape.
Since Kurashiki faces the Seto Inland Sea, there are many restaurants and izakaya Japanese bars offering locally produced seafood. Operating in an old rice storehouse in the city’s scenic area, Hamayoshi Mamakari-tei is one such restaurant.
Raw Spanish mackerel with sweet and tasty fat is an Okayama Prefecture specialty. Mamakari is a small fish of the herring family. The fish’s name can be divided into two parts: mama, which means rice, and kari, which means borrowing. The name mamakari means that since one can eat a lot of rice with the fish, one needs to borrow rice from neighbors. Hand-shaped sushi with vinegared mamakari offers a refreshing taste.
One can also enjoy the tasty flavor of deep-fried Otojima squilla with a shell like that of a soft-shell crab, and octopus eggs boiled and eaten with ponzu sauce. The latter dish is called tako-mochi, or octopus rice cake, and as its name indicates, has a sticky texture. All those dishes went well with sake and had fresh flavors unique to the region.
Grapes, peaches and pears — Okayama Prefecture is called the “Kingdom of Fruits.” In Kurashiki, there are many cafes offering juices, parfaits and ice cream using these fruits, and I saw many tourists stroll the city while enjoying them. Sweets with fruits are also often bought as gifts.
Well-known muscat grapes, white peach and other fruits are used in various kinds of sweets such as jellies, compotes (fruits simmered in sugar), kibidango dumplings with jam, and baked sweets.
It takes about 3 hours and 20 minutes by Shinkansen train from JR Tokyo Station to Okayama Station, and about 17 minutes by local train from Okayama Station to Kurashiki Station. The scenic area is about 800 meters from Kurashiki Station. Visitors can reach the major sightseeing spots on foot.