Kurashiki is a city in Okayama Prefecture, about two hours west of Osaka by train. Within it, along the canal, is the Bikan Historical Quarter where many buildings are preserved in their Edo Period state to show what the city was like two hundred years ago. The city has even gone so far as to install electrical supply underground to preserve the romantic charm of the area – and the tourist literature is awfully proud of this particular fact.
The town is named Kurashiki after the plentiful warehouses (kura) along the canal’s edge. It was governed directly by the Shogunate, indicating its importance: the canal and the town surrounding it was essential for the transportation and storage of Japan’s most precious commodity, rice.
Many of the warehouses are preserved in their original forms, as are merchant houses. One, Ohashi House, is open to the public so that you can see how the wealthy merchants lived. Ohashi House has many features which show how merchants were starting to blur the lines between the Samurai class and the common folk, incorporating features that either delicately skirted around what was allowed for families of their class, or breaking the rules altogether. For example, Ohashi House has a gate facing the main road – strictly disallowed for the lower classes at that time, yet Ohashi’s owner was so wealthy and influential that he managed to get away with it.
Other merchant houses along the canal’s edge have architectural elements which were strictly very naughty at the time. While Samurai were allowed to overtly display their wealth, the Merchant class was not, so their displays were more subtle, but any Merchant worth their salt could recognise them in an instant. Exquisite tiled roofs in the style of Samurai homes, with the Merchant’s own design in place of a Clan mon were bordering on insolent.
The area is pretty, even on a gloomy day such as this one.
While it was traditional for rice to be transported along the canal by boatmen in takasebune, cargo boats, visitors can now take a sedate trip along the waters from the same style of boat.
Bikan’s so pretty that it’s not unusual to find couples here for wedding photographs. This couple were taking a short break between poses.
I found a demonstration area, but no demonstration was in progress, so I’m afraid I’ve no idea what it was for.
The area has a multitude of museums. The Ohara Museum of Art was Japan’s first museum of Western Art. Sadly it’s a hideous building, sticking out like a sore thumb in this otherwise ancient setting. Then there’s the Museum of Folkcraft, a converted storehouse which contains a collection of traditional crafts such as textiles, ceramics and lacquerware; the Toy Museum, housed in several converted storehouses and featuring toys from each one of Japan’s 47 Prefectures; the Archaeological Museum, with pottery and artefacts from early Japanese civilisation; and the Kake Museum, devoted to showcasing techniques used in the preservation and restoration of art. Do be aware that most museum literature is in Japanese, although English leaflets are available.
To the far end of Bikan is Ivy Square, a small complex including pleasant gardens (with terrapins in the ponds), an hotel, and more museums. To pique the curiosity of any visitor are the fabulous Piggy Bank Museum and the Momotaro Karakuri Museum – much more fun if all the arts and crafts along the Canal is getting to you. The Piggy Bank Museum hosts hundreds of Piggy Banks, all made in Japan, and is easily recognised by the thirty or so identical dog statues along its roof. The Momotaro Karakuri Museum is devoted to items related to the legend of Momotaro, the Peach Boy. The former has a little English-language literature, but the latter has none.
The moment you step beyond the preserved areas, reminders as to what’s so great about underground electricity are in abundance.
Adjacent to the nearby Aeon Shopping Mall is Achi Shrine, a 1,700 year old Shinto Shrine with a 300 year old Wisteria tree, a Noh stage, and an ancient garden.
From JR Kurashiki Station, follow the Aeon Shopping Arcade to the Ohara Museum. Bikan is to the left, along the canal’s edges.
Admission: Free, although various museums have their own entry fees.