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.


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!


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.


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


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


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


This impos­ing cyl­in­der is the Okayama Symphony Hall.


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


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


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.


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!


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


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.


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


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


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.


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


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


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.


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.


We’re here in time for the autum­nal foliage.


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.


And a path­way that leads to some­where secret!


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.


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.


The forest opens up for Mosho-an Tea House.


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


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


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


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.


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.


So, all you see now are stone steps.


A bam­boo thick­et sur­rounds the dock.


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


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.


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


The over­cast sky begins to clear up.


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.


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.


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


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


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!


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


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


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


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’.


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


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


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


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


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


We make our way up the hill.

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


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.


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


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


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


…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.


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


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…


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


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


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


And we see a water­wheel near the crane avi­ary.


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


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


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


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


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!


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.


We head back the way we came to Omotecho.


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.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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!


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


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


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


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.