“Okayama. Where is Okayama?” That was the thought that ran through my head the very first day I received an email, inviting me to visit the city on a FAM trip. I was thrilled, and delighted, and looking forward to the prospect of exploring a city that is seldom on the tourist map of a trip to this part of Japan. So I did my research and found out as much as I could about Okayama — and the more I found, the more I excited I got. The pictures were gorgeous, but it didn’t prepare me for the immense beauty I was about to witness.
Okayama is the capital city of the Okayama prefecture. It is located on the Japanese island of Honshu, along its western coast — and is midway between the more well-known cities of Osaka and Hiroshima. Okayama is mainly used as a transit point between these two cities (it’s about 45-minutes both ways), but after spending three days in the city, I was blown away by its charm. It is the home of beautiful gardens, stunning castles and shrines, fantastic food and compelling legends — and is definitely well worth a stop for a couple of days. Here’s how I spent my 3 days in Okayama.
Day 1: Getting to Know Okayama
I traveled to Okayama on a FAM trip with fellow blogger Wilson Ng of placesandfoods.com; and we were hosted by the Okayama Tourism Board to enjoy and experience the city. On the first day, we were given an introduction to the main highlights of Okayama — which were its garden and castle, and some of its popular local dishes.
Getting to Okayama
We arrived in Kansai International Airport early on a December morning. We had already obtained our JR Kansai WIDE Area Pass (it costs JP¥9K ~ US$80, and covers our transport for 5 days) before arriving in the city — so all we had to do was claim it at the JR counter; and then got on the JR Haruka that whisked us to the Shin-Osaka station in less than an hour. From Shin-Osaka, Okayama is only a 45-minute ride via the Shinkansen bullet train, which is already included in the JR pass.
Okayama Train Station
We arrived in Okayama just in time for lunch; and after traveling for almost 2 hours, I could finally take in the fresh air of Japan. Winter was just about to begin, but the colors and breath of autumn still lingered on the trees and in the air — it was cold, but for someone who just came from the never-ending Southeast Asian heat, it was wonderful! We were met at the entrance by the lovely folks of Okayama Tourism. The journey begins!
Ebi Meshi for Lunch
Okayama’s train station is filled with restaurants and stalls selling lots of Japanese delights, from staple food to snacks and knick-knacks. Our hosts brought us to Sun Restaurant, where we were to try one of Okayama’s specialty dishes, the Ebi Meshi. It is rice cooked in demi-glaced sauce and shrimp, giving the rice a caramelised blackish color. I had mine as an omurice (wrapped in an omelette) and anything with lots of eggs always sits well with me! The trip was starting off great.
Hotel Granvia Okayama
It was a little too early to check-in to our hotel, the Hotel Granvia Okayama — so we just dropped off our bags and were on our way again. The hotel is located right next to the train station, which made it easy to get around anywhere in the city. Later on in the trip we were given a tour around the hotel — it is one of the ‘muslim-friendly’ certified hotels in the city, and offers 4-star services through its restaurants and roof-top skybar, spa, and also as a wedding venue (it even has a chapel!).
The City of Okayama
And we were off to explore Okayama! At first glance, the city seemed like a typical Japanese city — tall buildings, and a lot of people walking the streets. It is not as packed as the bigger cities like Tokyo, Osaka or even Kyoto; and as we moved out from where the main train station is, the crowds seemed to disperse. I loved how to city seemed to pay tribute to its local legend Momotaro (which means peach boy) by having statues and decorations of him and peaches all over the city. It’s cute!
A visit to the Koraku-en Garden is a must when you’re in Okayama. Koraku-en is rated one of the top-3 best landscaped gardens in the country; and when I first walked into the garden, I was awestuck by not only its size, but how the entire garden was just so pleasant to the eyes. Constructed in the late 17th century, Koraku-en has spacious lawns as far as the eyes can see; and paths that wind through ponds, streams and groves of plum and cherry trees. It was autumn during our visit, so the garden was a magical mixture of green, yellow and auburn colors. I could spend a whole day here — especially with a warm cup of Japanese green tea in the cold weather.
Just next to Koraku-en Garden stands the imposing Okayama Castle. Built in the late 16th century by the Japanese warlords of the time, the castle is also known as the ‘Black Crow’ castle because of its dark greyish exterior. It was completely destroyed in WWII, but was rebuilt again in 1966. The castle acts as a museum — showcasing its history, and the lives of the shoguns that lived and fought within its walls.
The Bell-Making and Kimono-Wearing Experience
Inside the Okayama Castle, there are also a couple of fun local experiences to try. We had a go at the bell-making workshop, where we were taught how to make a small bell with Bizenware, a type of pottery from the Bizen province in the Okayama prefecture. I also had the opportunity to don a traditional kimono and fake wig; while Wilson got to wear a samurai outfit. I wished they let me put on a complete shogun warrior outfit instead — that would have been epic!
Okayama AEON Mall
It was dark by the time we left Okayama Castle — the sun goes down by 5.30pm during the autumn/winter period in Japan. We headed to Okayama’s AEON Mall for a little walk-about, shopping, and playing (my favourite place in the mall is SEGA City where I can go on the claw machines), as well as to grab some dinner. The huge mall is right next to the Okayama train station and our hotel, so it was pretty convenient for us.
My Fruit Parfait
And then it was time for desserts! I think one of the most delicious things I had while visiting Okayama was the fruit parfait. In the land of fruits — it is a must to try their most famous produce, which are peaches, pears and berries. Autumn is not exactly fruit season, so the next best thing is the fruit parfait; and I got my fix at Brasserie Chaleureux in AEON Mall. The dessert was absolutely divine, and just what I needed to end such an awesome first day.
Day 2: Okayama and Surrounds
The second day in Okayama was spent visiting the beautiful sights and temples a little out of the main city center; and to participate in some arts, crafts and cooking lessons to understand the local Japanese culture a little better. Our hosts were brilliant in organizing a well-planned itinerary so that we wouldn’t miss the best parts of Okayama.
Saijo Inari Temple
First stop of the day, the Saijo Inari Temple of Okayama, considered one of the 3 most important Inari shrines in Japan — especially the huge 27-meters tall red torii gate along the road leading to the shrine. Saijo Inari was founded about 1,200 years ago; and during our visit, we were lucky to be granted access to the secret garden within the temple grounds, received a short lecture from Monk Oseto about the history and teachings of the Saijo Inari, as well as guided through a special ritual called the Ryo-Mairi.
Ryo-Mairi Ritual at En-no-Massha
There are two rituals involved at the En-no-Massha shrine — the En-kiri prayers to get rid of bad relationships; and the En-musubi prayers to create good relationships and accomplishments. Most temples have separate shrines for both of these rituals, but in Saijo Inari, it is believed that severing an obstructive relationship provides better opportunities of welcoming a new one — and the combination is called the Ryo-Mairi. I was guided by Monk Oseto through the entire ritual; I wouldn’t have been able to complete it otherwise! You can find out about the full process here.
Sushi-Making with Chef Yasuo Namba
Time for lunch, and I had to make it my own at a sushi-making class! I never thought I’d learn to make sushi from a sushi masterchef like Chef Yasuo Namba, who runs the popular Kidoairaku Sushi Restaurant in Okayama that has been in operation for more than 40 years. It was a joy to watch him work, and a relief for him to be so patient with my clumsiness. The delicious sushi (some made by me, but most by him) at the end of the lesson was worth it, and he made fugu (puffer fish) tempura for us too!
Fake Food-Making with Reiko Kojoh
After lunch, we were driven to La Luce Dolce at Hokan-cho Shotengai (shopping street) — a fake food-making workshop owned by Ms Reiko Kojoh. I’ve always been intrigued by all the realistic food displays outside Japanese restaurants, and I finally get to learn how to make it! Ms Kojoh taught me how to mold and color a ‘fake’ fruit parfait, and after a couple of hours working on it; I really think that it looks like the real deal. My masterpiece now sits on my desk as a note-holder, and a reminder of the delicious fruit parfaits of Okayama.
Later on in the afternoon, we took an hour’s drive to Kurashiki, a historical city located on the western part of the Okayama prefecture. Home to many museums, including the Ohara Museum (apparently housing an impressive collection of Western art — I didn’t get to visit it though); Kurashiki is most known for its historical quarter with its willow tree-lined canal, and its 17th century white and grey-tiled traditional storehouses.
Kurashiki Bikan’s Historical Quarter
Kurashiki Bikan’s Historical Quarter preserves the local life from the time of the Japanese Edo period (with people still living in it), and the place is just so beautiful. We arrived at the town an hour or two before sunset, so the place had a magical glow — giving breath to the autumn colors on the trees. I really enjoyed my stroll along the old traditional houses and across the stone bridges. From time to time, a lone boat plies the river, carrying visitors enjoying the town from the Kurashiki river.
Inside one of the old houses in Kurashiki, a Shiba Inu dog cafe just opened its doors — Mamesiba Cafe. We decided to drop by the cafe to play with the little pups; and it was my first time visiting one of these animal cafes that is popular in Japan and gaining popularity in Malaysia too. An entry costs JP¥780 ~ US$7 — and after my short visit, I honestly don’t get the hype of just watching the dogs and holding them for a while. The shophouse also has a hedgehog, owl and bengal cat cafe.
Kurashiki Outlet Stores
From the historical quarter, we walked over to the Kurashiki Outlet Stores located next to the Kurashiki train station. It was dark by the time we arrived, but we spent a couple of hours shopping at the Mitsui Outlet Park. Can’t help but get myself some retail therapy while in Japan!
Chiya-gyu Shabu Shabu for Dinner
An half-hour’s train ride from Kurashiki brought us back to Okayama city. It was time for dinner, and we headed to one of Okayama City’s muslim-friendly certified restaurants, Megu, for the famed Chiya-gyu (beef) — Okayama’s very own brand of wagyu beef. My order was the shabu-shabu Chiya beef meal set at JP¥6,500 (US$60), and I absolutely relished every bit of that tender, juicy pieces of perfectly marbled meat. Best dinner in Okayama!
Desserts at Cafe Moni
Dinner wasn’t enough to end our night in Okayama; so our last stop for the day was at Cafe Moni, another muslim-friendly certified joint in the city that is popular for their chiffon cakes. After ordering and eating all three flavors off the menu that day — chocolate banana, cream cheese, and raisins… I could see why. The chiffon cakes at Cafe Moni are rich, spongy and delicious; and went well with the nice warm cup of latte I had.
Day 3: Okayama In-Depth
Final day in Okayama! It was a day I got to explore on my own — and I decided that I’d love to spend it visiting the many museums around the city, and to explore the expanse of the Kibi-ji plains on a bicycle. I was lucky that the weather was perfect for me to walk and cycle by myself — the sky was a clear blue and the sun was shining brightly on that cold autumn’s day.
Cycling the Kibi-ji Plains
I was excited at the prospect of cycling the beautiful Kibi-ji Plains, so I was up early and ready to go! The popular cycling path runs from Soja Station to Bizen-Ichinomiya Station (or vice versa), and I arrived in Soja at 9am just as the bicycle rental shop opened its doors. A one day bicycle rental costs JP¥1,000 ~ US$9 (pick-up in Soja, drop-off in Bizen), and the lady at the counter was extremely helpful with maps and pictures to help me with my directions. The 17km cycling path is actually very clearly marked with signboards, but her tips helped a lot at certain turns and forks along the road.
It took me about 4 hours to complete the entire route, with plenty of stops for pictures and temple-visits. Cycling the Kibi-ji Plains was my absolute favorite activity of my visit to Okayama — I have never been so much in awe of the beautiful views all around me, and the complete freedom I felt while cycling alone. The locals I occasionally met along the way were lovely — they would smile as they jogged pass, and one even stopped to volunteer to help me take a picture.
I will always remember this wondrous experience of whizzing down the trail completely by myself; with the cold autumn breeze brushing against my skin, miles and miles of farmland around me, and the beautiful blue sky before me.
Kibi-ji Temples, Shrines and Kofuns
The Kibi-ji Plains are dotted with a couple of temples and shrines. Along the way, I passed by the Bitchu Kokobunji Temple with its 5-storey pagoda, the Koikui Shrine, the Kibitsu-jinja Shrine and the Kibitsuhiko Shrine. Another key sight on the trail are the burial mounds (kofun) that rise from the flat farmland like small hills (it’s a keyhole shape when seen from the top). The 5th-century Tsukuriyama Kofun is the largest kofun in the area, and 4th largest in Japan.
The most impressive temple along the Kibi-ji cycling trail is the Kibisu-jinja Shrine. It is said to be the main and most important shrine in the region, and is closely linked to the local Momotaro legend. The main temple was rebuilt in 1425, but the most impressive feature of the shrine is its 360m long corridor that ascends in a straight line — I could see the length of its structure as I walked from the start to the end of the walkway.
The return trip from Bizen-Ichinomiya Station to Okayama takes only 15 minutes, and after a short rest (from all the cycling), I was ready to head out again! I took the electric city tram (JP¥100~US$1) to the Shiroshita stop, which was right in front of the Omote-cho Shotengai (yet another shopping street in Okayama). I wanted to do a little last minute souvenir shopping, and to look for lunch.
Chuuka Soba for Lunch
Lunch for the day was at Yamato, an Okayama Ramen shop along one of the lanes of Omote-cho. The restaurant is popular for Chuuka Soba, which is a combination of Chinese-style noodles in a Japanese soba broth. Yamato uses their own homemade ramen broth, and their soup is slightly thick and fishy. I enjoyed eating by the counter, and paired my noodles with a small glass of cold beer.
Hayashibara Museum of Art
After lunch, I took a short walk to the Hayashibara Museum of Art, housed in a former guesthouse of Okayama Castle (which is just next to it). Opened in 1964, the museum displays the personal collection of Ichiro Hayashibara (a local businessman), and is filled with historical Japanese items like paintings, calligraphy, pottery and weapons. I couldn’t really grasp the importance of some of these artifacts, as everything was in Japanese.
Okayama Orient Museum
The other museum I visited in Okayama is the Okayama Orient Museum. This museum doesn’t really focus on Japanese relics — most of the artifacts here are from the Middle East. However, it was still pretty interesting browsing through the displays of Middle Eastern stone sculptures, pottery and art. There’s also a booth in the museum that allows visitors to try on Arabic costumes and headgear.
It was almost closing time when I ended my visit at the Okayama Orient Museum. I wish I had more time though, as the nearby Yumeji Art Museum was also on my list of Okayama museums to visit — it displays local artist Yumeji’s 19th century Japanese art nouveau pieces, which would have been fascinating to see.
Demikatsu-don for Dinner
For my last dinner in the city, I had a delicious bowl of Demikatsu-don at Ajitsukasa Nomura. In my opinion, this restaurant serves the best version of this dish — the rice bowl topped with deep fried pork cutlets in a thick demi-glace sauce was perfect. Ajitsukasa Nomura has been running for three generations, and is the best place to go to for this popular local dish.
Walking around Okayama
I spent the rest of my final night in the city walking its streets and taking in the night atmosphere. The weather was getting colder as winter was coming! I slipped into AEON Mall when the cold became unbearable, and got caught up spending lots of money on the Japanese claw machines. No regrets though, I picked up three soft toys in total and had a newfound sense of ‘claw machine’ accomplishment.
I left Okayama the next day, using the convenient JR Kansai WIDE Area Pass for my ride on the Shinkansen bullet train.
*She Walks the World visited Okayama, Japan on the invitation of Okayama Tourism and JTB Malaysia. However, as always, all opinions and suggestions stated here are my own.