Wednesday, December 5, 2012

04/12/12 – 05/12/12 – Kurashiki, a Final Taste of Rural Japan


Today was a very special day for Emma and I. It is our anniversary, and as such I wanted to spend it somewhere nice. I had planned in the trip that we would spend our afternoon/evening in a small city about 300km west of Osaka called “Kurashiki”. The town wasn’t really a major tourist attraction, and while it wasn’t brimming with tourist sites like Kyoto or other places we’ve visited, it does have a very nice “canal” area which has been preserved from an era long gone by.

Our day started in Osaka, where we spent a few hours in the morning browsing around the “kitchen” district. It wasn’t so much a district for food, but moreso a district for all of the cooking utensils and tableware that one finds in Japan. Here we bought a few bowls and cups – we are trying to put together a very Japanese-themed dinner set, and this is by far the cheapest and easiest place for a tourist to find them.

Afterwards, we went back to the hotel and got our bags. We then headed for Shin-Osaka, where we would catch a Shinkansen to Okayama. Today we would be catching the Shinkansen Nozomi, or “wish” in Japanese. It is the fastest of its kind in Japan, clocking in at 300km/h on its fastest sections. It’s a service that runs all the way from Tokyo to Osaka, and onto Hiroshima and Hakata as well. Even better, it runs every 15 minutes, so if you miss one train, the next one isn’t too far behind.

The only downside to this brilliant train is how expensive it is – our one hour journey cost us about 6000JPY – certainly not cheap, but boy is it an efficient (and very fun) way of getting around the country.

Unfortunately, when I bought our tickets at the kiosk, it spat out our seat allocations as aisle seats. Damn, no window views for us. To compound this, the guy we sat next to had his window closed for the whole time we were on the train. This was very unfortunate, as I really wanted to watch the world zoom by outside, but thankfully I still managed to see a few glimpses outside through the other windows in the cabin.

Aside from that, there isn’t too much to say about the Shinkansen – it’s a very smooth ride, and very quiet. It makes me wish that Australia had a similar system in place, but given our sparse population and huge landmass, it is a system that would never make a profit.

We were soon in Okayama, our last ride on the Shinkansen for this trip was over far too quickly. A short local train ride later, and we were in Kurashiki. After we got to our hotel, we headed down to the canal area to have a look around. By the time we got there, it was late in the day, so most of the stores were closed. Still, it was a very picturesque canal, and a perfect place for us to spend our anniversary. I had read about a nice restaurant in the guide, so we headed to that place for dinner. It specialised in seafood and especially sashimi – raw fish.

For the food that we ordered, it was surprisingly cheap – the entire meal for both of us was just under 6000JPY. This was less than the yakitori meal we had had in Osaka a few days earlier, and the quantity and quality of the food was much greater at this restaurant. The food was delicious, and the sashimi was probably the best I’ve had so far on this trip. The restaurant had a really nice ambience, and a beautiful view of the canal area outside. It was also very quiet. So very quiet. There were only a few people in there, but it was such a nice change from last year’s anniversary, which was spent in a Japanese Restaurant in San Francisco, next to quite possibly the loudest American man I’ve ever heard.

After that, we walked back to our room, and tried some more bizarre Japanese ice creams for dessert. A very nice and relaxing day, just what we needed after the hustle and bustle of Osaka.


Today was our last day to experience rural Japan – tomorrow, we are off back to Tokyo, and the craziness of the big city. So, as a nice day trip, I had done some research into a castle that was often missed by the masses of tourists. The humourously named “Bitchu-Matsumaya-Jo” was our destination for the day. It was located in a small town about 30 minutes away from Kurashiki, so the plan was to get a train to the town early in the morning, and spend the day around the town, as well as at the castle itself.

Unfortunately, we had forgotten that Emma’s timetable for university became available today, so the morning was spent organising that, and I had to change our plans for the day. Yes, we would still visit “Bitchu-Matsumaya-Jo”, but it would be a visit just to the castle, and not the town as well.

On our way to Kurashiki train station, we stopped at a “ticket-vending machine” styled restaurant. I’ve probably explained this system before, but essentially, instead of having to try and explain your order of food through poor phrasebook translations or interpretive dance, you merely put your money into a vending machine at the front of the store, press the nice shiny button that corresponds to the picture of your meal, and then give the ticket to the nice wait staff. A few minutes later, they bring you your meal. Easy. The system worked for us, and we soon each had a lovely hot meal. The food was so good that we returned later in the day for our dinner, as well.

After another enjoyably slow train ride through rural Japan, we were soon at Bitchu-Takahashi, the name of the local train station. Amazingly enough, Emma and I managed to go the whole day without childishly giggling at the names of everything around the town, considering about three quarters of the local areas had the prefix of “Bitchu” attached to them before the name of the actual place.

We decided instead of walking to the castle to take a taxi. Did I forget to mention where this castle is? Oh, well, it is the highest-situated castle in Japan. Essentially, it is on top of a mountain, a good 400 metres above sea level. As I was doing research into the location, I also found out that unlike pretty much every single other cultural asset in Japan, this castle had not been burned down. Not once. Ever. While this might sound fairly strange to be making such a point of this achievement, you need to consider that some temples in Kyoto have been burned down SEVENTEEN times over the course of their existences. Therefore, this is quite a feat.

After the taxi ride up the mountain, up a long and winding road, it dropped us off 700 metres shy of the castle itself. It was another 20 minute steep uphill hike until we reached the actual castle walls. It was then that I realised why this castle had managed to never have been burned down – any passing Samurai clans, covered in their heavy iron armour, would have taken one look at the towering mountain, and the tiny castle perched atop it and thought “Screw it. We’ll burn the village instead. That’ll be enough.”

The hike was well worth the effort though – not only did the mountain offer stunning views of the town below, but it was so nice to get off the beaten path and experience the quieter side of Japan. In our entire couple of hours we spent climbing the mountain, we saw only a handful of other tourists.

The castle itself was very small – tiny in fact, at only three stories in height. But, this castle was not built as a grand monument – it was built as a lookout to defend the town below. It was really nice to actually see a proper Japanese castle. Last time we tried to was at the very end of our previous Japan trip. We had gone to Himeji to see the famous Himeji castle, only to find that the castle was under renovation, and had been so for the past two years, and would be for the next six. I was disappointed to not see a castle on that trip, so this one more than made up for it, especially when combined with the utter peace and quiet we experienced on top of the mountain. The only other sounds heard were the occasional squawks of the birds overhead, and the very distant rattle of the trains in the valley below.

We then had a look around inside the castle itself, which wasn’t exactly thrilling. It was essentially just a series of big, empty wooden rooms, with very steep stairs, and large, tree-sized wooden beams supporting the roof. What I did like about the inside of the castle was the squeaky floorboards. They sounded very old and rustic – a perfect opportunity to use my field recorder to get some awesome footstep sounds. Plus, with the utter silence that was outside, I managed to get them with no background noise whatsoever.

Afterwards, we then began the long trek back down the mountain, and back to the train station. We decided to do the entire journey on foot this time, as we had some spare time, and taxis in Japan are quite expensive. It was roughly a 90 minute walk from the peak of the mountain to the train station, but it was well worth it. We saw crisp alpine forests, bamboo groves, countless rice paddies and traditionally-styled homes. As we walked down the hillsides, we followed a serene mountain stream that was dotted with bridges and water wheel-houses. It was a fantastic send-off to our rural experiences in Japan – at last we weren’t on a train rolling through the countryside – we were actually walking through it. We could smell the fresh air, hear the locals conversing with each other and feel the cold breeze against our faces. This simple act of walking through a small town was one of my most enjoyable experiences I’ve had overseas thus far.

We then caught the train back to Kurashiki, where we headed back to the hotel. As we’re going on a flight tomorrow, we had to weigh our bags to make sure they’re under the weight limit. However, we didn’t have a set of scales, so we had try and communicate this to the front desk. Trying to ask for a set of scales is quite difficult when your phrasebook doesn’t cover it in the slightest. We ended up getting our message across, but there was a good three minutes or so there where Emma and I were acting out the most bizarre game of charades I’ve ever been a part of.

 Tomorrow: Back to Toyko, on a plastic plane!

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