From not knowing a thing about the city, to falling in love with it — Okayama sure has many many reasons for you to visit, stay, and return. So before zooming pass this city on the Shinkansen on your journey from Osaka to Hiroshima (or return); drop by for a little while, and fall in love too.
I stayed for 3 days and was blown away by the city’s breathtaking sights — from its beautiful gardens and grand castles, to its unique shrines and fascinating legends. The number of days were definitely not enough; but with the time I had and the beautiful places I visited — here’s a list of all my favorite things about the city, and the reasons why you should make a visit to Okayama.
1. Locale of the Momotaro Folk Tale
Many Japanese children grew up listening to the Momotaro (Peach Boy) folklore — it is often told as bedtime stories, read in books, and even portrayed on cartoon and films. The Momotaro myth originates from Okayama. He was born from a peach, and was brought up by an old childless couple who found him. When Momotaro came of age, he decided to fight a group of evil ogres from a distant island — and set off on his journey with only some millet dumplings; and on the way, managed to persuade a dog, a monkey and a peasant to join him on his journey (by offering them his snacks). Of course, Momotaro defeated the ogres with the help of his friends, and became a celebrated hero. Because of this tale, Okayama is also popular for its peaches, and for the millet dumpling. Isn’t it just such a fun story?
2. Fantastic Location and Easy Access
Okayama is the capital of the Okayama prefecture, located in the western part of the Japanese island of Honshu. It is midway between the more well-known cities of Osaka and Hiroshima — and is therefore a popular transit point between these two cities (taking about 35-45 minutes from either way). It is a great place to stop for a few days while touring Japan, as it is connected to most major cities via the Shinkansen bullet train. Travel to and around Okayama is included in the JR Kansai WIDE Area Pass for JP¥9K ~ US$80, and it covers transportation for 5 days.
3. Delicious Food with Muslim-Friendly Options
During my visit to Okayama, I was pleasantly surprised with all the delicious food on offer. I thoroughly enjoyed the city’s demi-glaced dishes, ramen, barazushi, and of course, the most tender (and heavenly) Chiya beef. And not to forget, the kibi dango (millet dumpling) as well… it is after all, Momotaro’s favourite snack; and makes the perfect souvenir to bring home. In their latest bid to attract more visitors to the city, Okayama Health Tourism introduced ‘peach logos’ to guide Muslim travelers to halal and Muslim-friendly food options around the city.
Read more about Okayama’s delights here:- Mynn’s Top 10 Food Experiences in Okayama, Japan.
4. A Mecca for Fruit Lovers
Okayama is named the ‘Kingdom of Fruits’ as it is blessed with the most sweetest and juiciest of fruits, from crunchy grapes and persimmons to strawberries, blueberries and Asian pears. And peaches, yes, white peaches — it is the city’s pride and joy. During the summer season, fruit-picking is one of Okayama’s most popular activities; and visitors can pluck their own fruits to eat on the spot or bring home! However, if you visit outside of summer (I was there in autumn), another way to enjoy Okayama’s fruits is by having a fruit parfait. Best thing you’ll ever taste!
I also wrote about Okayama’s fruits here:- Mynn’s Top 10 Food Experiences in Okayama, Japan.
5. The Beauty of the Korakuen Gardens
The Koraku-en Garden is Okayama‘s most popular tourist attraction. This 17th century garden is so breathtaking that it has been named one of the top-3 best landscaped garden in the whole of Japan. Once belonging to a local feudal lord, the vast Koraku-en Garden is filled with spacious lawns, winding foot pathways, flowing streams, fish-filled ponds; as well as plum and cherry groves, and peony and daffodil gardens, just to name a few. During my visit in autumn, I was absolutely in love with the colors of green, yellow and auburn that surrounded the garden; best enjoyed with a warm cup Japanese tea in one of the garden’s wooden tea houses.
6. Home of the ‘Black Crow’ Castle
The imposing Okayama Castle was built in the late 16th century by the Japanese warlords of that period; but because it was completely destroyed during WWII, was rebuilt again in its original image in 1966. The castle is known as the ‘Black Crow’ Castle because of its dark greyish exterior — often compared to the contrasting ‘White Stork’ Himeji Castle in the neighboring city. The castle showcases the history and lives of the shoguns who once lived and fought within its walls; and you can also don a traditional kimono, or try your hand at bell-making in the workshops inside the castle.
7. Amazing Temples and Shrines
Okayama is dotted with many ancient temples and shrines — and during my visit to the city, I managed to visit two of its more prominent ones. The Saijo Inari Temple in Okayama is considered one of the three most important Inari shrines in Japan. It was founded about 1,200 years ago — and is known for its huge 27-meters tall red torii gate, and the En-no-Massha Shrine that allows one to rid bad relationships and welcome new ones. The other well-known shrine in Okayama is the Kibitsu-jinja Shrine, linked closely to the local Momotaro legend. Built in 1425, the shrine’s most significant feature is its 360m long corridor that ascends towards the temple.
8. A Taste of the Outdoors at the Kibiji Plains
Cycling the Kibi-ji Plains was my absolute favorite activity of my visit to Okayama. Just imagine whizzing down the path with the cold autumn breeze brushing against your skin, miles and miles of farmland around you, and the beautiful blue sky before you — absolute freedom. I rented a bicycle to traverse the 17km trail and was completely by myself most of the way; aside from a couple of lone cyclists, a few joggers and the local farmers. It takes 4 hours to complete the entire route, with stops for pictures and to visit some of its temples, shrines, and the burial mounds (kofun) that rise from the farmland like small hills.
9. Big Malls in a Small City
Like all Japanese cities, Okayama has a couple of shotengai (shopping arcades) that run through the city’s streets. The most popular one is the Omote-cho Shotengai that begins from the Shiroshita tram stop and is lined with traditional shops, restaurants and the Tenmaya Department Store. Another huge mall in Okayama is the AEON Mall, located right next to the Okayama Station. It is the biggest one on the western side of Japan, and is a great place to walk-about, shop, and eat… and if you’re up for some arcade games, drop by the Sega City. I had a fun time (and eventually spent too much money) on the claw machines — and brought back many many soft toys home with me!
10. Step into the Past at Kurashiki Bikan
And last but not least, Kurashiki Bikan. This ancient town is not part of Okayama City, but on the western part of Okayama prefecture. The historical quarter is unbelievably gorgeous, with locals who live there still preserving the life from the Japanese Edo Period. Walking through Kurashiki Bikan is like taking a walk through time — willow tree-lined canals with stone bridges, as well as traditional wooden houses and old storehouses from the 17th century with its white and grey tiles. You can spend a whole day here just soaking in the peaceful atmosphere, admiring the surrounding beauty, and visiting the many museums.
*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.