Updated: Jul 5, 2018
Sometimes there are places that just resonate with you. Something about it just lets you feel at ease and you feel right at home. For me, that place was the city of Kurashiki in Okayama prefecture. A place where you can find all the amenities from home but turn a corner and feel as though you have slipped back in time. Arts, culture, a rich history, shopping, a Starbucks on either side of the station, and so much more. Kurashiki has it. It’s a great place to lose yourself in. The more you explore this beautiful place, the more you will find. Sure, some of it can be a very touristy destination, but for me it was a place I had never heard of before finding myself there on a class trip during my time at Hiroshima University.
The Bikan Historical Quarter
The city is most famous for it’s Bikan Historical Quarter and for it’s jeans. Yes bluejeans, like the pants many of you are probably wearing right now. But there is so much more to this wonderful place and after regularly visiting it for two years, I am still finding new things. During World War 2, Kurashiki was a place that was purposefully spared from the carpet fire bombing by the U.S. air raids. Because of this, you can find many buildings and areas that make you feel like you have just traveled back in time to the Meiji era. One such place that you really get a sense for this is the Bikan Historical Quarter. The buildings in this area have remained almost exactly the same since their construction. The area is meticulously maintained to make you feel and experience life from the Meiji era. The streets are lined with its iconic white buildings, runners pushing carts with couples riding in them, and people dressed in kimono. The river through the middle is lined with walkways, stores, and cherry trees on either side. Beautiful stone bridges cross the small waterway while men push their small boats filled with tourists forward using poles.
The river marks the central part of the area and spans outward from there. Even if this is a place that is a big tourist destination, it is still a place i love to walk. Especially after hours or in time of year fewer people go on vacation. Basically anytime there are less people there. But if you do what I do then you will miss out on a lot of amazing things. Such as the wide variety of specialty shops, cafes, restaurants and museums that can be found around every corner. Or the craft fairs where you can go and paint your own pottery, the festivals that show off more traditional Japanese culture, and the musical events. The area is also very popular for weddings and bridal photos dressed in their Kimono. It is truly spectacular to see and always so ridiculously beautiful. Just please be respectful if you do see them. Enjoy the sight of the happy couple and the beauty of the bride in her kimono, but remember that this is their special day and probably not the best time to interrupt and ask for a photo. If you are just passing through the Okayama area, this can be a great stop off on your trip. Just hop off the train, take a left out of the gates, then follow the signs to the Bikan Historical Quarter. But if you want to experience more of Kurashiki, then you might need a little more time.
Within the Bikan historical Quarter, you will find a few noteworthy museums if you are interested. There is a material and manufacturing museum deep in the quarter or, more famously, there is the Ohara Museum of Art that sits adjacent to it. Personally, I like the museum area because it feels like an escape. When I walk through the museums I let my mind wander and dwell upon what it must have been like here in Japan long ago. I have always had a fascination with old things. When you combine that with my fascination of Japanese history and culture, then its no wonder I like these places. That being said i can count on one hand how many times i have visited these museums. What I cant count on one hand is how often I find myself sitting in the tea house in the park next to the Ohara Museum of art. I love that place. I will sit out there for hours and avoid the crowds of tourists while still getting to meet some interesting people and enjoy a beautiful Japanese garden.
Moving on from the museums in the Bikan Historical Quarter, you can also find a large plantation that has been preserved as a museum to showcase the areas history with salt making and the Betty Smith Jeans museum. Kurashiki is well known for its denim. The museum at first feels like you were just flung back to the United States and the old west. Lots of decor looks like its straight out of a Cracker Barrel restaurant. But as you go on, you get a sense for the relationship between Kurashiki and denim. You also will start to see more about the manufacturing process and how this town made it its own. Now Kurashiki is known as the Denim Capital of Japan, but it is also known as the birthplace of denim in Japan. All because someone had the idea to stop altering American imported jeans and start making their own. The museum is an interesting little side visit when you go shopping on Kojima street, the best area for shopping some of the worlds best denim in a lot of stores that are dedicated to it.
Kojima street is a fantastic place to do some shopping, but Kurashiki has no shortage of other places for you to get what you need. Connected to the train station by a walkway, you will find the Ario shopping mall as well as the Mitsui Outlet Park. There are tons of shops and good deals to be found there. and its a bit cheaper to get some of your souvenirs from there than from the shops in the historical quarter. Ario has a great food court on the second floor that sits above a nice restaurant area on the first floor. Right next to that restaurant section is a Kaldi, where you can get a lot of foreign food and other groceries. Don't miss the outlets too. Who doesn't love some outlet shopping.
Of course on the other side of the station, the side that takes you toward the Bikan Historical Quarter, you will find the Tenmaya department store. Several floors of shopping, places to eat, and a Starbucks. Head back to the other side of the station, and you can catch a bus to the cities AEON mall. Still lots of shops to explore and a movie theater where you can sometimes find movies in English with Japanese subtitles. If the modern Malls and outlets aren't to your liking, then check out the covered shopping street that connect the station to the historical quarter. There are lots of unique small shops and places to eat there. Recently, more restaurants and Izakaya have appeared there in place of empty shops.
My Favorite Shop
I can't talk about Kurashiki without mentioning one of my absolute favorite shops. Deep in the Bikan Hisorical quarter, off one of the streets that connects to one of the museums I talked about earlier, there is a small paper craft shop. Inside are decorative items made from paper and string by hand. They are absolutely beautiful and a perfect gift or souvenir as my family will tell you. The last time I went home for Christmas, they all got something from this store. I highly encourage you to check it out and meet the old man who owns the store and makes the crafts.
The city of Kurashiki maintains a smaller town feel while having a lot to offer. The people are kind and you can experience the craftsmanship that exists throughout the area. It's a short trip from Okayama Station on the Sanyo Line towards Hiroshima. If you are traveling through the area, I highly recommend it as a great place to stop. Do some shopping, experience some culture, eat some great food, learn about the past, or slip on a rental kimono and pretend to walk through time. Japan has a lot to offer, you will never find out what unless you take the first steps and explore new places.
Leave us a comment below with your thoughts or questions. If there is something we missed about Kurashiki you really like or you want to share about your experiences there, then let us know!