The charmed surrounds of Kurashiki thrived
with art, opulence and mercantile endeavor during the Edo period. But,
as Mary King discovers, time has not wearied it.
With its willow trees that reflect serenely in the canal that runs through
the heart of the city, its old black-tiled kura (warehouses), little bridges
and labyrinthine alleyways, Kurashiki oozes romance and old-world charm.
During the Tokugawa period Kurashiki was a major distribution center for
Bizen Mai—the local rice renowned for its superior quality—but today it's
more a haven for arts, crafts and the tourist dollar. While the famed,
and high-priced, Bizen-yaki pottery remains Kurashiki's specialty craft
item, Hariko papier-mache toys, Bitchu paper, glassware, carpets, woven
blinds and wood carvings are available in equal proportion among the sprinkling
of curio shops that fill the city's back streets.
An initial exploration of Kurashiki should start with a wander in the
direction of Tsurugatayama Park. On the way, you will encounter the venerable
Aichi Shrine, whose garden, lying to the west, is the oldest shrine garden
in Japan and is characterized by three stones: Tsuru-ishi (crane stone),
Hourai-san (Hermit Mountain), and Kame-ishi (Tortoise stone). Temple buffs
will discover three other interesting examples in the park area, namely
the Honei-ji, Kanryu-ji and the Seigan-ji temples.
For those who travel on their stomachs and cannot resist sampling the
local delicacies, Kurashiki will not disappoint. You should definitely
take lunch in one of the city's traditional restaurants where you can
enjoy the mammakare teishoku (set meal), a local fish specialty, or the
matsurizushi, a chirashi-zushi (assorted sashimi over vinegared rice)
of such extravagance that the dish once caused outcry from a government
official visiting during the Edo Period.
Kurashiki, which means "warehouse village," has changed markedly
since its rise to prosperity in the Edo period, a time when the Kurashiki
River was bustling with the activity of boats carrying rice from the surrounding
countryside to the warehouses of the city. But many locals will tell you
that change has been subtle and slow, that in many ways time has stood
still in their picture-postcard town. Hiroyuki Sanada, one of the city's
volunteer guides, described the meandering of time in Kurashiki since
the 1930s. "When I was a young boy I actually saw barges bringing
rice down the canal to the warehouses here, but by 1935 the barges had
disappeared and then came the floating boats with geisha serving oysters
to their guests. Later, around 1955, when the city became a protected
area, the film crews flocked here to use the city as a backdrop for their
samurai dramas," he reminisced.
Boasting 20-odd museums and galleries, Kurashiki is a mini-museum Mecca.
Ohara Museum, modeled after a Greek temple, was the first gallery of Western
art to open in Japan and contains 140 paintings by European masters including
Monet, Matisse, Renoir and Picasso. Elsewhere, the Japan Rural Toy Museum,
with its overwhelming collection of toys from Japan and around the world,
and the Kurashiki Museum of Folkcraft, housing an impressive collection
of furniture and antiques from a number of countries, are well worth a
look. The Ohara Museum is a must-see, however, being both the oldest museum
in the city (opened in 1920) and the home of local textile magnate Keisaburo
Ohara's (1880-1943) impressive European art collection.
Ohara owned the city's Kurabo Textile Company during the Meiji Era, when
Kurashiki became a center for cloth. Today, the imposing redbrick Kurabo
factory buildings house a hotel, shops, restaurants and more museums.
Ivy Square, with its graceful blend of old and new, stands where the Edo-period
magistrate's office once was. A cotton mill was built on the site in 1889,
and today its ivy-covered walls stand as the heart of the Ivy Square complex
and are a major tourist attraction. The Kurabo Memorial Hall, held within
the old mill, contains a museum where you can view works by the local
artist who helped Ohara establish his vast European collection, along
with some fine art works from the Middle East.
If Kurashiki's rich tapestry of history and culture inspires further exploration,
look no farther than Ohashi House, a National Important Cultural Asset
and one of Kurashiki's largest machiya (merchant houses). Built in 1796,
Ohashi House was the home of the family of the same name who, defeated
in the upheavals leading to the rise of the Tokugawa Shogunate, abandoned
its samurai status and established a sanctuary in Kurashiki. Constructing
an elegant merchant residence befitting their class, the Ohashis lived
in the idyllic heyday of a town that today retains much of its splendor.
Where to stay
The Tokusan Kan is near Ivy Square
Kurashiki Tourist Information Office in Bikan historical area (tel: 086-422-0542)
and at JR Kurashiki stn (tel: 086-426-8681). Kurashiki is 4hrs by shinkansen
from Tokyo via Osaka.
Photos: Mary King
To coincide with the opening of Narita's new runway, United Airlines has
announced it will introduce a new nonstop daily flight linking Tokyo and
Taipei. The service, due to start April 18 using Boeing 777 aircraft,
will depart Narita at 6:30pm and arrive in Taipei at 9:05pm with continuing
service to New York's John F Kennedy airport. The flight will depart Taipei
daily at 10:20am and arrive in Tokyo at 2:30pm before continuing on to
New York. Tickets for both flights are available now at www.ual.com
Osaka will host the country's first Novotel when the four-star hotel company
takes over a property in the Osaka-Kobe district. Novotel Koshien Osaka
West will be the third Accor brand to enter the Japan market, following
the launch of Sofitel and Formule 1. Well-known among business travelers,
Novotel already maintains 350 hotels and resorts in business centers around
the world. The Osaka property will offer a health club, pool, salon and
eight banquet rooms in addition to its 200 rooms overlooking the Rokko
Mountains and Osaka Bay. Keep an eye on www.novotel.com
for opening information and reservations.
On the high seas
Boasting the largest fleet in its history, the cruise industry is set
to sail into a successful 2002. Seaworthy travelers can sample from a
variety of new routesÑincluding the South Pacific, Far East and
AfricaÑand services ranging from health spas to cultural classes.
ÒLove BoatÓ fans can also book singles' cruises or take
a peek into the latest nude cruises and around-the-world voyages. With
ports of call as close as Hong Kong and Singapore, Tokyoites shouldn't
feel left out. Click on www.cruising.org
or cruises.about.com to start sailing