BACK ISSUE #408

Edo elegance
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.

 

Time being
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.

Culture vulture

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
Tel: 086-425-3056
Ryokan Kurashiki
Tel: 086-422-0730

Tourist Information
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


 



TRAVELOGUE
United Airlines

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 or 0120-11-44-66.

Novotel
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 away.