Gazing upon Okayama Castle from Okayama Korakuen Garden

Okayama lies in Japan's Chugoku region in the west of the main island of Honshu. Conveniently located with Okayama Station being reachable in around one hour from Kyoto and Osaka by shinkansen, the area has much to offer visitors, including a plethora of religious and historical locations, stunning gardens, and beautiful nature spots; many of which are wrapped up in mystical folklore. An area with a long and rich human history, I was eager to begin here my two-day trip to discover more about Okayama.

The first stop on my two-day tour of Okayama was at Okayama Castle to the east of the city center. Originally constructed in 1597, the castle is commonly nicknamed 'Crow Castle' due to its color, with its main keep making for quite the sight for visitors. After admiring the castle's exterior, it was time to enter the main keep building, where I took in views of the city from the observatory, before getting my hands dirty at the keep building's pottery studio.

Majestic Okayama Castle
Looking out over the city from the castle's observation area

Bizen pottery, or Bizen-yaki as it is called by locals, is an ancient form of pottery that originated in Okayama Prefecture around 1000 years ago and since then has gained nation-wide renown. Unlike many other forms of pottery, Bizen-yaki does not need nor employ the use of paint or glaze on its wares, and it is widely believed that drinks taste better and flowers live longer when contained in Bizen-yaki pots. Having minimal experience with any kind of pottery, I was fortunate enough to get the chance to craft a Bizen-yaki cup by hand, all under the watchful eyes of an instructor who guided me through the process. Relatively simple and surprisingly therapeutic, I highly recommend Bizen-yaki as a fun cultural experience for visitors to the castle.

The instructor guides me through the pottery process
Taking shape: making the final decorative marks
Leaving the castle, but not before sampling one of Okayama's famous parfaits

Next up it was time to make the short walk over to Okayama City's most famous attraction, Okayama Korakuen Garden. Constructed in the Edo Period as a place of entertainment for the local lord and his family, the traditional landscape garden is ranked among Japan's three best, along with Kenrokuen in Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture, and Kairakuen in Mito, Ibaraki Prefecture. Strolling through the garden, I took in some of the breathtaking views, including that with Okayama Castle looming in the distance. During my visit, the autumn colors highlighted the garden with fiery displays, however the garden is said to be beautiful in all seasons.

Visitors stroll around the beautiful grounds
Ample opportunities for visitors to relax in the garden
Autumn was burning bright inside the garden on my visit
Looking across the garden

Next on my list of places to visit was the nearby old merchant town of Kurashiki, but not before a quick lunch featuring the Okayama staple of ebimeshi; shrimp and rice cooked in a unique dark, tangy sauce. Satisfied with a full stomach I took a short train ride to arrive at Kurashiki Station, before a quick walk to the old town.

A lunch featuring ebimeshi

Many of Kurashiki's old buildings are centered around the town's canal area, which itself dates back to the Edo Period when Kurashiki was an important rice distribution center. The word 'Kurashiki' can be roughly translated into 'town of warehouses', with many of the old, picturesque buildings here formerly serving as merchants' storehouses where the rice was stored. Today some of the buildings have been converted into boutiques and museums, adding to the area's abundant charm.

That evening it was back to Okayama City to gorge on some more traditional Okayama fare; this time Bara-zushi, an 'anything-goes' dish of sorts, which is typically comprised of rice and different kinds of raw fish. It is believed that the dish resulted from a draconian law prohibiting common people from eating raw fish in centuries past. Bara-zushi, with its abundant scattered rice, made for a delicious dish in which the sea food could easily be hidden.

Looking along the canal at Kurashiki
The town is home to many old warehouse buildings
Taking a stroll down the picturesque streets
Bara-zushi, an Okayama signature dish

I awoke on my second and final day in Okayama and boarded a train to Bizen-Ichinomiya Station, less than 15 minutes away. It was time to embark on one of my most eagerly anticipated activities of this trip, the bike ride along Okayama Prefecture's famous Kibi Plain. Around 17 kilometers in total, the bike ride meanders along country paths that dissect rice fields and beautiful nature, passing various important religious and historical sites on the way, many of which are steeped in folklore.

The story of Momotaro the peach boy is a famous fairytale throughout Japan, with Okayama's legend of Kibitsuhiko and Ura widely accepted as the prototype for the story. In this tale, Kibitsuhiko, accompanied by his three retainers who gain animal nicknames, goes to battle Ura, the seemingly evil ogre thought to be terrorizing the Kibi Province. After taking on various animal forms, Kibitsuhiko defeats Ura and keeps his severed head in a pit underground before the two eventually reconcile.

A statue of Momotaro with his three animal retainers stands outside Okayama Station
Bike rental shop outside Bizen-Ichinomiya Station

Shortly after riding away from Bizen-Ichinomiya Station with the morning sun on my back, I made my first stop at Kibitsuhiko-jinja Shrine. Believed to be built on the remnants of the old residence of Kibitsuhiko, on whom Momotaro is based, this shrine is very atmospheric with a main hall that shimmered beautifully in the morning light. My appetite whetted for more picturesque sites, I remounted my bike and cycled on to one of the area's most revered institutions, Kibitsu-jinja Shrine.

The first stop along the Kibi Plain was at Kibitsuhiko-jinja Shrine
Pretty in the morning light

Kibitsu-jinja Shrine is believed to have been constructed many centuries ago by an Emperor in admiration for Kibitsuhiko's accomplishments. Today, this large complex's highlights include its main hall, which, built in the unique Kibitsu-zukuri style, is the only one of its kind in the country and has been designated as a national treasure. After admiring the main hall, it was time for me to receive a special blessing from one of the shrine's priests.

For this special procedure, I had to first walk along the complex's celebrated 400-meter-long cloister to reach Okamaden shrine, where the blessing rituals take place. Once inside one of the wooden buildings, I knelt while the priest spoke sacred words before a roaring fire. When the priest had finally finished his holy recital, I was told to listen carefully through the silence. Suddenly, a mysterious groaning sound came from under the building and filled the room! Said to be the growls of Ura's head after it was buried by Kibitsuhiko in the legend, the presence of the sound for those partaking in the blessing ritual bodes well, signaling that prayers will be answered.

Kibitsu-jinja Shrine
Meandering down the shrine's famous, 400 meter-long cloister
The priest recites as part of the blessing ritual

Following such an interesting and mystical experience, it was back on my bike to continue riding along the quaint Kibi Plain, through fields and through small farming communities as I did so. After around 40 minutes at a relaxed pace, I came to the next point along the route, Koikui-jinja Shrine. Contained on a small mound in a quiet neighborhood, this shrine is said to be the place where Kibitsuhiko finally defeated Ura the ogre. Following Ura's shapeshifting into a Japanese carp, Kibitsuhiko took on the form of a cormorant and ate the fish, hence the name, which literally translates to 'Carp-eating Shrine'.

A view along the Kibi Plain
Koikui-jinja Shrine
A couple also taking a ride along the plain

I continued riding and eventually came to Tsukuriyama Kofun. Kofun are ancient tombs that are scattered all over Japan, the largest of which housed emperors and typically come in the form of a keyhole-shaped mound. Tsukuriayama Kofun is the fourth-largest in the country, and is the biggest one that is open for the public to climb. An interesting stop along the cycling route, from the edge of the kofun great views could be had of the Kibi Plain.

My final stop along the Kibi Plain bicycle route was at Bitchu-Kokubunji Temple, which houses an iconic five-story pagoda said to be the only one of its kind in Okayama Prefecture. From here it was around 40 minutes to Soja Station, where I returned my rental bike and warmed my chilly hands.

Tsukuriyama Kofun
Looking down from the kofun over the Kibi Plain
Bitchu-Kokubunji Temple

My time in Okayama was coming to an end, but there was still time to fit in one last site before departing. Kinojo Castle is located a few kilometers north of Soja Station and is most easily accessed by car. The old castle, who's name translates as 'Demon Castle', is said to be where Ura and his army of ogres were based and from where they terrorized the people of the Kibi region. Legend aside, the location, which is set high up in the hills, provides fantastic views of the surrounding area and made for a great way to end a memorable trip.

Kinojo Castle
A couple looks out on the surrounding hills