As the largest city in the Chugoku Region after Hiroshima and an important transportation hub, Okayama serves as a good base to explore the nearby cities and is a great pit stop in the western part of Japan. It is right smack between Osaka in the east and Hiroshima in the west. For art lovers, it’s the place to hop from onto the popular Naoshima Island to see Yayoi Kusama’s famed polka dotted Red Pumpkin.
We parked ourselves here for three nights and took the opportunity to check out Okayama, visit Tottori up in the north and pop by Kurashiki’s Bikan Historical District, with Shin-Kurashiki just eight minutes away on the JR Sanyo Line. And because we couldn’t resist another round of Kobe beef, it was near enough for us to head back eastwards for second helpings with our 7-day JR Pass.
Arriving at Okayama Station
Once you step out of JR Okayama Station, you will be greeted by the iconic statue of Momotaro (Peach Boy), the local hero of Okayama Prefecture. If you’re wondering why it’s there, the charming tale will endear you to the city.
According to the famous Japanese folklore, Momotaro was a baby found inside a giant peach floating down the river and adopted by a childless, elderly couple. In his adolescence, he marched off to fight off the ogres of Onigashima and befriended a talking dog, monkey and pheasant. They assisted him in his quest and he returned triumphant with plunder to boot.
Beyond the statue, across the road, you will see a shopping street with a banner proudly bearing a giant white peach. Also known as the “Fruit Kingdom”, Okayama, with its sunny climate and few days of rain, is known for its white peaches, Muscat and Pioné grapes. You could try the pretty Fruit Parfait found in many cafés or go fruit picking at Tomomien or Ishihara Fruit Farm in the summer time till the end of autumn.
Places to Stay in Okayama
Okayama train station is flanked by Hotel Granvia Okayama on the right and Daiwa Roynet Hotel Okayama-Ekimae on the left.
The former has large rooms and more facilities which are great for families, and the latter’s rooms are a tight fit like most hotels in Tokyo but more attractively priced. The close proximity of the hotel to the station greatly assisted us in our conquest of the surrounding region.
Key Attractions in Okayama
There are two main things to see in Okayama. The star attraction in Okayama is none other than the Okayama Korakuen Garden.
The Asahi-gawa flows through the city next to the other key attraction – the Okayama Castle.
On the eastern bank of the Asahi River is the Sakura Road lined with approximately 200 cherry trees. This special road springs to life when the trees bloom from late March to early April and the area is packed with food stalls during the Okayama Sakura Carnival.
Getting to Korakuen and Okayama Castle
To get to Korakuen and Okayama Castle, we took the tram which operates in the middle of the road from the terminus outside the Okayama JR Station past Momotaro-dori to Shiroshita. It costs 100 yen for these two stops.
After alighting, we followed the directional signages along the way, went underground first, passed the junction above us and headed north till we saw a road and a bridge ahead.
We headed first to the castle on the right before crossing the bridge to the South entrance of the Garden. The flow of the Asahi River was redirected centuries ago to protect the castle from enemy attacks and serve as a natural Eastern moat.
Okayama Castle was built by Hideie Ukita, Okayama’s daimyo (feudal lord). It took eight years and was completed in 1597, cementing Okayama as a true castle town.
The outer walls of Okayama’s Castle were made of weather boards coated with black lacquer, used as a preservative. Hence, the Castle became known as U-jo, meaning “Crow Castle”, because of its resemblance to crow’s feathers.
What makes this castle unique is its irregular pentagon-shaped base, the rectangular shape in the middle and the square at the top.
Designated as a national treasure before World War II, the castle keep was destroyed during the war and rebuilt in 1966. The original buildings standing today are the Tsukimi Watch Tower and the Nishinomaru Nishite Yagura (Western Tower).
It was our first chance to enter a Japanese castle and of course, our two little princesses were raring to race to the top of the tower.
It is free of charge to visit the grounds of the castle. Admission to the castle tower is 300 yen for adults and 120 yen for children. To enter the Korakuen, the admission fee is 400 yen for adults and 140 yen for children. As there was a value package for both the castle and garden available, we paid 560 yen per adult (a discount of 140 yen) and 260 yen per child (same price combined). Seniors above 65 years old pay a special rate of 140 yen for the entry to the garden.
Thankfully, the rebuilt castle had a lift within and we took it to the top before navigating our way down six floors.
From the top of the castle, we caught the expansive view of the garden as well as Okayama City.
Making our way down the stairs, we went past little nooks with various exhibits showcasing the history of the Lords of Okayama. On the second floor is a rare replica of the actual Lord’s Chamber.
Okayama Korakuen Garden
A spacious landscaped garden, Okayama Korakuen is renowned for being one of the three great gardens of Japan. The other two are Kanazawa Kenrokuen and Mito Kairakuen.
Built in 1700 by Tsunamasa Ikeda, the Lord of Okayama, the extensive 14-hectare landscaped gardens and Enyo-tei House became a place for relaxation and enjoyment of the arts. He planted the sakura and maple trees, popular trees during the Edo period, as well as pine trees and seasonal flowers for bursts of colours.
Tsunamasa’s son, Tsugumasa, added an artificial hill in the middle of the garden and streams of water pulled from the Asahi River, making a stroll through even more satisfying.
From various angles within the garden, the castle looked charmingly framed as part of the scenic garden.
The short walk to the Okayama Castle and through the Okayama Garden certainly gave us the quiet respite we needed after the first few hectic days of travel.
If you’re up for more walking, the whole area around Okayama Station offers plenty of shopping and dining opportunities.
Okayama Ekimae Shopping Area is a long pedestrian-only covered street.
Below Okayama Station itself is a large underground shopping area – Okayama IchiBanGai Shopping Centre. Next to the trains on the second floor is the Sun Station Terrace Okayama with a food terrace. Across the road is Okayama Takashiyama.
And if walk just beyond Hotel Granvia Okayama, you will find Aeon Mall Okayama, one of Western Japan’s largest shopping malls, with a great variety of shops and dining options. Our best finds were the massage centres on the top floor where we relaxed our tired soles!
Though we had initially planned on using Okayama as just a launchpad, it was at this Land of Sunshine that we found time to smell the flowers, re-energise our souls/soles and discover a beautiful side of historical Japan.