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Cycling in the Kibiji District

Okayama City in western Japan is a haven for those looking for a travel destination that combines history, folklore and local fare. The city is almost equidistant between the two other major tourist destinations of Osaka in the east and Hiroshima in the west. Well-known for Okayama Castle, Okayama Korakuen Garden, one of Japan's top three landscape gardens, and noted as a major fruit cultivation area in Japan, Okayama is also popularly associated with Momotaro, one of the most well-known folktales of Japan.

I spent three days exploring Okayama City and the Kibiji District, participating in an assortment of activities. On my first day, I went canoeing on the Asahi River, the main river in the city, and ended the day with a beautiful sukiyaki dinner. The second day was spent cycling in the Kibiji District and taking in some of the spots related to the story of Momotaro, whereafter, it was on to a ramen making activity for an early dinner. Finally, on the last day, I dressed up in a rental kimono and visited Okayama Castle and Okayama Korakuen Garden.

Streetcar in central Okayama
Asahi River which empties out in the Seto Inland Sea
A cafe selling local Okayama fruit products
The Okayama Health Tourism Peach Mark indicates the level of inclusiveness in restaurants for Muslims. See the links below for more details
Okayama is known for its fruit parfaits, and this seasonal strawberry parfait from the Hotel Granvia Okayama was sinfully good

Day one

I arrived at Okayama Station, the main station serving the city center, by bullet train in the early afternoon. The first item on my itinerary was a canoe tour along Asahi River, which runs between Okayama Castle and Okayama Korakuen Garden. Operated by experienced guides at Canoe Park Okayama, the 2.5 hour leisurely tour began at the riverbank below Kyobashi Bridge, where a quick lecture on water safety and piloting a canoe was held.

It wasn't long before we were all aboard our single canoes and set off for a nice paddle in the river. Hongoku-san, my canoe instructor and guide, pointed out the Asahi River was one of the main shipping and transportation routes for Okayama in the feudal period, and the western end of Kyobashi Bridge used to be the gateway and entrance to Okayama Castle and its castle town. Today, the bridge is the only one of numerous bridges spanning the river that allows the local streetcars to cross.

As we continued paddling upstream towards the castle, Hongoku-san provided further canoeing tips and introduced the area's history. The abundant sunshine and mild breeze made the canoe ride extremely enjoyable, and we were treated to a lovely view of the castle from the water. We made it to the u-turn point in good time and returned to the start point in no time. Not only did I get a unique tour of Okayama on this canoe tour, I also managed to pick up some canoeing skills! Definitely a good experience and activity for those looking for something different.

Land practice before heading down. My tour buddies were first timers on a canoe, and they did just fine!
Approaching Okayama Castle, and my tour buddies looking like canoe veterans
Great day for canoeing on the river, and an excellent view of the castle
Okayama Castle and a giant floating peach
Tour buddies and tour guides at the u-turn point

After that invigorating tour, I headed to the Hotel Granvia Okayama, my accommodation for the two nights I spent in Okayama. With direct access to the JR Okayama Station, the upmarket hotel offers guests comfortable rooms and an assortment of facilities and amenities. The hotel has large family rooms that can accommodate up to seven people, a swimming pool with views of the train tracks, and restaurants for a variety of occasions and purposes.

What is more, the inclusive hotel has also made efforts to provide for the needs of Muslim travelers by having clearly marked Muslim-friendly dishes at the restaurants and even a Muslim prayer room which is available to anyone, not just staying guests.

Streetcar terminal outside Okayama Station
Massive family room at Hotel Granvia Okayama
This is the only hotel with a pool in Okayama
Great views from the restaurants on the top floor
Muslim prayer room that is open to everyone. Prayer mats and Qibla compasses can also be provided upon request

Following a quick refresh at the hotel, I left for dinner at Hitori Nabe Megu about a ten minute walk away. Hitori nabe literally means one person hotpot, and Hitori Nabe Megu specializes in individual serves of sukiyaki and shabu shabu, two popular Japanese dishes. In addition to being able to have single serves of Japanese cuisine typically meant for larger groups, the restaurant also has halal-certified Australian beef as well as the local Chiya Japanese wagyu beef on the menu.

It was a stunning and satisfying sukiyaki dinner as I filled up on both Chiya wagyu and halal beef. The meal was extremely affordable and cheaper than I had expected, and I rolled back to the hotel very contented.

Hitori Nabe Megu is a Muslim-friendly restaurant with halal options
English menu available here
Local Chiya wagyu beef ready to be eaten
Halal Australian beef and the halal certification

Day two

I woke up bright and early on the second day, ready and raring to see what else the city had in store for me. The plan for Day 2 was to cycle about 17 kilometers in the Kibiji District, and end the day with a ramen making activity. Nothing too packed nor crazy, and just the right amount of things for a leisurely holiday.

Cycling in the Kibiji District is not to be missed when in Okayama. Much of the cycling route cuts through rice fields and crosses a number of cultural heritage spots. Rental cycles are available from Soja or Bizen-Ichinomiya stations, and visitors can rent from one and return to the other.

Taking the scenic local train from Okayama to Soja Station
Rental cycle at Soja Station
Got all I need to navigate the route
Following the signs along the way

The Kibiji District is the main region where the folktale of Momotaro is based on. Legend has it that Momotaro was sent to the Kibi Province to fight against the ogres and protected the people valiantly from them.

One of the stories tell the tale of Momotaro defeating and killing an ogre whom he thought was attacking his hometown, only to find out that the ogre was actually a protector of a nearby town. Momotaro found out about the ogre's reputation after visiting that town, which was too late, and swore to make things right. He buried the head of the ogre in that town so that it could keep watching over the town for eternity.

From Okayama Station, I took the local train to Soja Station and rented a bicycle from there. The first kilometer from Soja Station is mostly through the town, but the townscape soon gave way to rice fields. It was a very pleasant day out with few clouds, which made for a comfortable cycle. Along the way, I saw a five-story pagoda, seasonal flora, massive burial tombs also known as kofun and countryside views.

Cycling in the Kibiji District
Five-story pagoda of Bitchu Kokubunji Temple with plum trees around its base
Very scenic views and mostly flat cycling roads
Part of the Tsukuriyama Kofun, the fourth largest keyhole shaped burial mound in Japan

I stopped at Kibitsu Shrine near the end of my cycle route. The shrine has Kibitsuhiko-no-Mikoto, which is the foundation of the legend of Momotaro, as its main god. The main hall was twice destroyed in fires, and the current one, which is a national treasure, took 25 years to be reconstructed and dates back to the 15th century. The hall is built in the unique Kibitsu-zukuri shrine achitectural style, in which two smaller roofs are placed over a larger one. Kibitsu Shrine is said to be the only shrine in Japan where this style can be seen.

A ritual unique to Kibitsu Shrine is the Narukama Shinto Ritual, a type fortune telling ritual wherein a priest and his helper commune with the deity via a steaming pot that wails. The name Narukama is made up of two words: Naru which means to sound, and Kama which means pot. It is said that a positive outcome begets those who hear a rich tone, while those who hear a thin, harsh tone should reconsider what they were asking about. There have also been instances when people do not hear anything at all.

Legend has it that the ogre's head from the Momotaro folktale was buried there, and the wailing sounds were the ogre's way of keeping watch over the town. With that impactful experience, I wrapped up the rest of my cycling journey without mishap and made the train back to Okayama Station.

Kibitsu Shrine with its unique architecture
Approximately 400 meter long covered corridor
The shrine is surrounded by verdant greens outside of winter
Unique Narukama Shinto Ritual
Kibitsuhiko Shrine at the end of my cycling route. Note that this does not have the same Kibitsu-style architecture
Tying the peach fortune slip at the shrine

After a short rest at the hotel, I walked over to Okinoshima Ramen for a crash course in ramen making. Okinoshima Ramen, a regular operating ramen restaurant, is a Muslim-friendly place, which is a rarity considering how pork can be found in most bowls of ramen. Here, the activity included making onigiri rice balls, followed by a chance to be behind the counter and make a bowl of ramen. Despite having eaten many bowls of noodles, it was the first time for me to make real - not instant - ramen.

What I liked about the crash course in making ramen was the explanation of noodle doneness at the beginning. The owner and my instructor explained the different levels of noodle doneness one can order at a ramen store, and prepared a variety for me to try from soft to regular to barely cooked. It was a fine balance between noodle doneness, temperature of broth, and how fast one can slurp the noodles down. On to cooking up the broth, my instructor first gave me a demonstration, after which it was my turn to repeat his steps.

I polished off my bowl of ramen noodles for dinner and can say without doubt that it was the best bowl of ramen I have ever made. This is definitely an activity that even those who have never cooked can handle, and the instructor will be there to support you all the way. Note that this activity has to be booked in advance as the restaurant will be closed to other diners during the activity.

Exterior of Okinoshima Ramen. Spot the Peach Mark on the door
Making an onigiri together with the staff
Tasting and making notes about the different levels of noodle doneness
Oodles of noodles
Could this be the changing point of my life to be a ramen master?
Plating up my bowl of ramen
My bowl in the front and my teacher's bowl at the back. How did I end up with less broth despite following the foolproof instructions exactly?
The author with her handiwork and subsequent dinner

Day three

Saving the best for the last, I visited Okayama Castle and Okayama Korakuen Garden on my third and last day in Okayama. To sweeten the visit, I got dressed up in a rental kimono from Kimono Rental Cha Cha and proceeded to spend the entire day in traditional Japanese wear. Not only did I get to do some cultural sightseeing at the castle and garden, I also managed to take some great pictorial memories in my kimono, not to mention the two spots made for photogenic backdrops.

It was a short walk from Kimono Rental Cha Cha to Okayama Korakuen Garden, and it was starting to get busy at the garden. As one of the top three most beautiful landscape gardens in Japan alongside Kenrokuen Garden in Kanazawa and Kairakuen Garden in Mito, Okayama Korakuen Garden offers visitors seasonal flora, teahouses and scenic views. It was hard to believe that I was in the city center standing in that oasis of calm and green.

Accessory making activities using kimono fabric can be done at Kimono Rental Cha Cha
Getting all dressed up for the day

Constructed in the 17th century, the garden offers a view of Okayama Castle, which also makes up part of the borrowed scenery. I strolled around the garden and found that there was no lack of scenic spots for pictures. Towards the southern end of the garden are the plum and cherry tree groves, which would undoubtedly be the darlings of Okayama Korakuen Garden when in season. As I had a bit of time, I decided to visit one of the two tea houses in the garden for tea and sweets before lunch.

Lunch was a simple affair at Shikisai, a restaurant just outside of Okayama Korakuen Garden's main gate that serves local dishes as well as kaiseki multi-course meals. I went for barazushi, a local sushi meal in which cooked seafood is placed on top of a bowl of vinegared rice. It was definitely one of the healthiest meals I had all this trip, and one I was grateful for.

View at Okayama Korakuen Garden
The author posing in the plum tree grove where the season was almost over
Lots of photo spots in the garden
Looking down at the lake from one of the lookout points at Okayama Korakuen Garden
Okayama in a nutshell. The author in Okayama Korakuen Garden with Okayama Castle in the background
Halal souvenirs in Okayama
Drinking tea with a view the feudal lords would have seen back in the day too
Stepping stones
Shikisai restaurant is just across from the Okayama Korakuen Garden's main gate
Barazushi with a variety of seafood

After lunch, I made my way to Okayama Castle. I had already seen the castle from the river on the first day, and it was time to see it up close today. Okayama Castle was built and completed in 1597 by Ukita Hideie, the young and talented feudal lord of Bizen, the old name of Okayama Prefecture, who earned the recognition of the ruling regent in the late 16th century.

The current castle keep is a reconstruction from the mid 1960s as the original was destroyed by the air raids during World War II. Had it not been destroyed, the castle keep would have been one of the oldest in Japan.

As I made my way down from the top floor, displays and relics inside the keep explain the history of Okayama Castle, Ukita Hideie and the feudal lords that followed. It was quite an educational tour down the castle, and I was glad to be able to visit. On the first floor, there was one last item left to check off my list before drawing my visit to Okayama to a close: making Bizen pottery, the local ceramic ware, which is also one of the six oldest pottery styles in Japan.

Walking across the pedestrian only bridge between Okayama Korakuen Garden and Okayama Castle
The middle floors of Okayama Castle are actually five-sided. Can you see the edges?
The author standing in front of Okayama Castle
The peach decorations on the roof are not related to Okayama's fame as a peach growing region, but are the Chinese symbols of health and longevity
Display inside the castle showing the feudal lords of Okayama Castle
Visitors can enter a palanquin to feel how aristocrats moved around
There is a small dress up corner where visitors can dress up as royalty and take pictures

There is a pottery studio inside the castle itself, something not many castles can boast about, and a pottery activity takes about one hour on average. Advance reservations are not required and anyone can participate to make Bizen pottery. There was a list of items to choose from, and I went with a cup.

My instructor showed me how to make a cup in the Bizen pottery style, and there was a lot of pressing and feeling going on. But in the end, I managed to complete the task without tearing a hole in the clay! My work of art will be fired when the kiln is full and posted to me in a couple of months. For those living overseas, note that additional fees apply for international postage, and expect at least three months before checking the mail.

With that last item checked off, it was time to return the rental kimono and catch my train out of Okayama. In the three days, I felt that I had covered the basics of Okayama and learned that there was more to the place. The next time I want to visit in summer during the fruit season to taste for myself the delicious fruit that Okayama is known for, namely white peaches and grapes. Until then!

Bizenyaki in the castle
Participants can choose from cups, plates and chopstick rests among other items
The author prepping the clay on the wheel
Pinching and pressing the clay to the desired height

Access

Okayama Station is a stop on the Sanyo Shinkansen. It can be reached from Shin-Osaka (about 50 minutes, around 6000 yen one way) or Hiroshima (about 40 minutes, around 6000 yen one way). Those in Osaka can consider getting the Kansai WIDE Area Pass, which is a 5-day rail pass that allows foreign tourists to travel between Osaka and Okayama. This value-for-money pass covers the bullet train between Shin-Osaka and Okayama as well as the local line to the Kibiji District.

The Okayama Momotaro Airport is the closest airport with international flights to Seoul, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Taipei, and domestic flights to Tokyo, Sapporo and Okinawa. The airport is only 30 minutes by bus from central Okayama.

A good network of streetcars and local buses provide access to almost all the tourist attractions in the city center. Fares start from 100 yen per trip depending on distance.

Onboard the direct Okayama Korakuen Bus, which has a video presentation of Okayama Castle and Okayama Korakuen Garden