Japan 2015 — Day 11: Okayama

We’ve well and truly shaken the crowds of Chinese tour­ists by the time we reach Okayama. While it’s the second biggest city in the Chugoku region after Hiroshima, it’s a much less busy city than we’re used to in Japan and even Australia, with a pop­u­la­tion of just over 700,000. Okayama is our last stop before we head back to our base in Osaka. We’re here chiefly for Koraku-en Garden, the second of the two ‘Three Great Gardens of Japan’ that we’re see­ing this trip, the first being Kenroku-en in Kanazawa. We’re walk­ing to get around Okayama (rather than catch­ing trams), so there’s a fair bit to see before we get there.

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Our hotel in Okayama offers free break­fast in the form of bread between 7 – 9am. 9am is a rather early to stop break­fast — very few shops or attrac­tions are open that early. But D fights his sleep­ing-in instincts to claim and heat them, while I lounge around in bed some more. This is the gratin cro­quette pan, so two potato cro­quettes on a bread roll topped with may­on­naise. The whole pan is mushy in tex­ture, so it’s not that great, but free!

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Our hotel is beside a river and oppos­ite a shop selling fancy ten­nis equip­ment. It’s a store that opens at about 1pm but closes before we get back around 7pm.

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We can see Aeon Mall, which is just a short walk away.

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Our hotel’s con­veni­ently situ­ated — we’re a short walk from Omotecho, the main shop­ping district.

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A block before we reach Omotecho, we head into Cred. There’s a ded­ic­ated children’s play area with lots of activ­it­ies occupy­ing half of one of the floors. Above this, though, we encounter a pasta place with a ser­i­ous cheese some prob­lem — and not the gooey melty cheese either — it reeked of some­thing rot­ten and unappetizing.

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Another level up, and we check out some books for English-speak­ers learn­ing Japanese.

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D asks me if we should first vis­it Loft in Okayama Lotz or Daiso across the street, and I tell him we should vis­it Daiso first because I’m ‘less likely to buy a lot of stuff in Daiso’. Well! I eat my words, ’cause this is one of the biggest Daiso stores we’ve seen to date.

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I’ve skipped break­fast at this point, but we’ve brought the bread with us. So after my hun­ger pangs kick in after trawl­ing through Daiso, we settle down out­side for some refuel­ing. This marugoto saus­age pan doesn’t look appet­iz­ing, I know, but it tastes much bet­ter than the gratin cro­quette we had earli­er in the day.

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Ramune usu­ally comes in a glass bottle with a marble in its neck (like the illus­tra­tion on the bottle), but we find a super­sized PET bottle at Daiso that tastes just the same without the marbly fun. We also have a mel­on pan from our hotel — it’s got a crispy top shell, but much like your stand­ard mel­on pan, that’s where its resemb­lance to a mel­on stops.

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We arrive at Omotecho at about 12pm, but it’s near-deser­ted and many of the shops are closed. We’re con­fused! But look at the dino­saurs in the ceiling.

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Did you know Nabisco, the com­pany that makes Oreos, also makes Pringle-like chips? These are more of a sweet-chilli than a spicy-chilli, though. They also come sealed in a bag, rather than toss­ing freely in the tube.

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This impos­ing cyl­in­der is the Okayama Symphony Hall.

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Further down the road is the Okayama Orient Museum. Isn’t the bowl in the poster for the Traditional Kogei Exhibition beautiful?

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The man­hole cov­ers fea­ture the fairytale Momotaro (the Peach Boy), which is set in Okayama.

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The streets are very quiet — there are only one or two oth­er people walk­ing down this rather wide road. Coupled with the unusu­ally quiet shop­ping street in a Saturday morn­ing, we’re begin­ning to won­der what’s hap­pen­ing! We do spot that there’s a major horse race going ok near Kobe but surely not everyone’s inter­ested in that.

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These are fake Calbee Jugarico we wanted to try from Daiso. They’re not as crispy and much too but­tery — I love but­ter (D was shocked by how much but­ter I used on a hot cross bun) but there’s such a thing as too much but­ter in Japan. They don’t know how to be stingy with season­ing though!

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The ped­es­tri­an side­walk is an add on to the ori­gin­al wooden bridge.

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The garden is loc­ated on the north bank of the Aashi River on an island between the river and a developed part of the city.

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We feel a little more com­fort­able after see­ing some people out­side Kenroku-en — still not many, but more than we’ve seen all day.

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At the souven­ir store, we spot these polar bear branded fla­voured nuts. Ah, Japanese packaging!

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There’s not many cus­tom­ers at the stalls, although we come back after vis­it­ing the garden to find a few more. Perhaps we’re just used to the crowds in big­ger Japanese cities.

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A pretty paint­ing adorns the front of the tick­ets to Kenroku-en.

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From the map, you can see how the garden occu­pies an island.

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One of the first sites you encounter is this wide open field. This open­ness con­trasts starkly with the more intim­ate spaces cre­ated by the abund­ance of autum­nal foliage at Koraku-en.

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D mar­vels that the bridge over the stream con­sists of a single stone.

This is Enyo-tei House, loc­ated closest to the entrance. It was used as a place to receive the daimyo (Japanese feud­al lord) when he vis­ited the garden.

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We’re here in time for the autum­nal foliage.

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This is Kayo-no-ike Pond. There’s a water­fall at the left of this pond. The place­ment of the rocks at the base of the water­fall manip­u­late the flow of the water into the pond.

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And a path­way that leads to some­where secret!

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Noone seems to be inter­ested in this side of the garden with just a Japanese tour guide with a couple there either us. But that’s all right! We make our way across this zig zag bridge in the hopes of find­ing where that mys­ter­i­ous path leads.

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We find out the path leads to Nishiki-ga-Oka, which is filled with Japanese cypress trees and home to a num­ber of wild birds des­pite its loc­a­tion in the city.

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The forest opens up for Mosho-an Tea House.

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Everywhere you look, there are gems hid­den behind the trees.

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Jizo-do Shrine is one of Korakuen’s six tutelary shrines. You can’t get too close to this one though.

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This is Shitenno-do Shrine with it’s stone lined path.

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Ginkgo trees shed­ding their leaves into a golden car­pet beneath are some­times just as amaz­ing as maple trees. Maybe even more so because you see less of them.

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These are the remains of Ofuna-iri-ato, once a land­ing dock for boats used by the daimyo. The water sup­ply was cut off when they built a road around the out­side of the garden.

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So, all you see now are stone steps.

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A bam­boo thick­et sur­rounds the dock.

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And we’re on our way back to the cent­ral field.

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This is the view from the oth­er side of the nook in the back­ground of the earli­er photo.

The Renchi-ken Rest House sits on the bank, where the water has a second ‘pool’ under­neath the water’s sur­face that’s deep­er than the rest.

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These koi have gor­geously trans­lu­cent skin. I won­der how long you have to raise them for them to get to this size?

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The over­cast sky begins to clear up.

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Just as we reach Chaso-do Tea House the sun breaks through the clouds bathing everything in golden sun­light. The Tea House was part of a villa belong­ing to a high-rank­ing vas­sal. It was taken apart and rebuilt in Koraku-en.

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I have to admit, before the sun broke through, I was skep­tic­al that Koraku-en could com­pare to Kenroku-en. But D assured me that Koraku-en was just as impress­ive. And he was right! Both gar­dens are dif­fer­ent, but both are equally impressive.

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D wanders off and I won­der where he’s gone. Turns out he found a pic­nic spot…

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And it gives you get an stel­lar view of Okayama Castle. Good find!

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We take the oppor­tun­ity to rest our feet on the bench, and try these kiwifruit gummy candy. Kiwifruit fla­voured things are a bit of a hit and miss, but these were def­in­itely a hit!

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The Plum Grove would be an abso­lute sight to behold in spring.

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As would the Sakura Grove. We really need to vis­it in the spring!

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Next to sak­ura grove are maples trees in the Chishio-no-mori Grove. It is ser­i­ously pretty.

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The name ‘chish­io’ means ‘to dye a cloth many times’ and is a ref­er­ence to their appear­ance in autumn ‘when their vivid tapestry of auburn hues is like a Japanese brocade’.

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A view of the castle peaks out from between the trees across the field.

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A stream passes through the middle of the Ryuten Rest House.

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It would be a lovely place to rest while strolling through the garden.

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The Rest house is one of the few build­ings in the garden to escape dam­age dur­ing World War II.

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Yushinzan Hill is an arti­fi­cial hill giv­ing the the garden a more sculp­tured, rather than flat, landscape.

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We make our way up the hill.

The view from the top gives a spec­tac­u­lar pan­or­amic view of the garden.

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If D’s assur­ances did not con­vince me Koraku-en was an impress­ive garden, the view from the hill cer­tainly did. The body at the centre of the garden is Sawa-no-ike Pond. The island with white sand float­ing in the middle of it is Jari-jima Island.

The sun­shine makes everything look bet­ter. The big­ger island is Nako-no-Shima Island, while the smal­ler one is Mino-shi­ma Island.

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The Shima-Jaya Teahouse sits on Naka-no-Shima Island with its beau­ti­ful arched bridge.

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Next to Naka-no-Shima Island are rice fields that sit in front of the tea plantation.

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The rice fields hark back to earli­er times when rice fields were spread through the garden…

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…while the tea from pro­duced by the Tea Plantation used to be reg­u­larly drunk by the daimyo. For a tea lov­er, this it the first time I’ve seen a tea plantation.

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The pond is awash with like as the sun begins to set. This is Yuish­in­zan Hill.

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There’s really noth­ing like it. This shows Mino-shi­ma Island with its fish­ing palace, and Jari-jima Island with its white sand and green pines…

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…while this shows Naka-no-Shima Island and Mino-shi­ma Island.

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Many fam­il­ies buy feed so their chil­dren can feed the koi.

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Almost back at the entrance, we pine trees have their torso wrapped.

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And we see a water­wheel near the crane aviary.

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Sunlight and autum­nal foliage make for some of the most beau­ti­ful sights.

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I can­not get enough of trees with pretty leaves. D knows that only too well.

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The sun peeks through the foliage as we look towards the centre field.

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Now, if I’d seen this sun-dappled view when I first entered the garden, I’d be won over.

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The paper umbrel­las hide the lights illu­min­at­ing the park at night.

20160109-DSC04713Back out­side the garden, a gen­tle­men asks us to com­plete a tour­ist sur­vey. He asks us ques­tions like what we’re doing in Okayama, how we’re get­ting around, what oth­er places we’re vis­it­ing in Japan, and how long we’re stay­ing. We were happy to do it for free, but he gives us each a ukiyo-e envel­ope. We once did some­thing sim­il­ar in Uji, Kyoto in 2011 and they also thanked us with candy and a post­card. Only in Japan! In Australia, they expect you to do it for free!

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We try some White Peach Cider back at the souven­ir shop. It’s refresh­ingly peachy, which I quite enjoy, although a child­hood of peach-fla­voured medi­cine has spoiled it for D.

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We head back the way we came to Omotecho.

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On the way, we see some pretty amus­ing signs! If you’re a dog, you must tell your own­er you pooped. The second sign isn’t imme­di­ately obvi­ous, but it tells you to ‘cov­er your ass’ by only park­ing in des­ig­nated park­ing spots or risk a fine.

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Back at Omotecho, the shops are mostly open with more ped­es­tri­an traffic, which begs the ques­tion of when do shops open in Okayama?!

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The ceil­ing the Ometecho is ornate with some stain glass panels.

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Near Temaya, a depart­ment store, it’s hum­ming with the kind of activ­ity we’re used to in Japan.

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It’s dark but it’s not quite din­ner time, so we stop by Gindaco for a snack.

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Gindaco is a takoy­aki chain through­out Japan, unlike Wanaka, our favour­ite store that only has stores in Osaka.

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The takoy­aki are nev­er quite as hot at Gindaco, or as gen­er­ous with their aonori, but they’re still tasty.

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A new item on the menu at Gindaco are crois­sant taiyaki. Is that a croy­aki? But then you lose the ‘sea bream’ part of taiyaki. So a tais­ant is prob­ably more accur­ate. Anyway! This is ser­i­ously deli­cious — flaky, but­tery pastry with red bean filling. Yum!

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Walking back to our hotel, we spot a Christmas tree out­side Cred.

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This is a cov­er for a fire hydrant — the little man doesn’t look too chipper.

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Here’s a group shot of all the fla­vours of Calbee Jugarico we found at the loc­al pharmacy.

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After rest­ing up in our hotel, we head towards Aeon Mall for din­ner. We have one place for din­ner in mind but we’ve for­got­ten the name. After not find­ing it on the store dir­ect­ory, we loc­ate it after con­nect­ing to WiFi.

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The place is Kabakuro, and why were we so des­per­ate to find it? Kabakuro is a spe­cialty store in Okayama that serves grilled pork. It’s not your ordin­ary grilled pork, but pork grilled with char­coal with the sauce used for grilled eel, which we love.

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I get my grilled pork with an ontama egg, that’s per­fectly oozy and delicious.

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D gets his with an extra serving of pork, a fried egg, and lettuce. We’re both in rap­tures at how the pork is amaz­ingly juicy and tender and just deli­cious with the car­a­mel­ised eel sauce. I eat all my pork, and try to sneak a few pieces of meat from D’s bowl, which he’s guard­ing intently! We could go for seconds, but for­tu­nately and unfor­tu­nately, the store closes for the night while we’re eating.

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While the food court’s closed for the night, the shops remain open for an hour longer. There’s some wine tast­ing hap­pen­ing on the bot­tom floor, it seems.

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After the shops close, we head back to our hotel to enjoy the free drink bar (why do hotels in Osaka and Tokyo not do this?) before catch­ing some sleep.