Kurashiki Is Not the Venice of Japan, Thankfully.
In praise of Japan’s small cities, Part 1.
On my first trip to Japan in 2016, I spent about 24 hours in center-of-everything Tokyo before hopping on the bullet train out of the big city. Destination: Kurashiki, a town you’ve never heard of, and that I knew next to nothing about at the time.
Kurashiki is called a “city” but it’s really a suburb of nearby Okayama City, its population of 500,000 spread out over a large area, with a small urban core surrounded by rice paddies, tidy suburban homes, and forest. Kurashiki is formally pronounced ku-ra-shi-ki, but as with many Japanese words that feature the shi (し) sound, the vowel is swallowed in normal speech, resulting in ku-RASH-ki.
Like almost all of Japan outside Tokyo and Osaka, the population is aging and shrinking here. But also like almost all of Japan, Kurashiki is not going down without a fight. Its local tourism engine is waging a valiant information campaign, circulating flyers promoting the small historic quarter, called Bikan, which is Kurashiki’s main attraction. Bikan hosts a picturesque stretch of canal and dozens of grand old buildings, including a European-styled structure built in 1917 that houses the tourist information center and is on the cover of every brochure about the town.
In the willow-lined canal below, the north end of the lazy Kurashiki River, gondolas ferry groups of passengers leisurely under low bridges. On the paths above, expertly persistent young men in period garb charm tourists into their rickshaws for jaunts around the district paired with a local history lesson. You get it pretty quickly upon entering the Bikan district — this is a tourist place, where tourists can come to do touristy things. Kurashiki is even apparently described as the Venice of Japan, though it’s just one of several places with canals and old buildings in Japan that have vied for this questionable title.
So let’s just get this out of the way: Kurashiki is not the Venice of Japan. Thank goodness. Here you can get your gondola ride, if you want it, without the shadows of towering cruise ships or tourist hordes outnumbering residents by over 100 to one. Welcome to small Japan.
Kurashiki is modest, a place that rewards wandering. The old buildings in Bikan offer atmosphere and variety, from the traditional timber structures with burnt-cedar siding, to a long brick factory covered in ivy — originally a mill and now a hotel — to the neoclassically-columned Ohara Museum, established in 1930 as Japan’s first museum for western art. The unselfconscious mixture of western influences is a regular theme: El Greco, a coffee shop named after the Spanish Renaissance painter from Crete, naturally serves French pastries. (Their coffee, while expensive, was excellent.)
Even if the gondola rides are not for you, there are many interesting shops to check out in the Bikan district. The town has invested heavily in promoting its local crafts and foods, which is the heart of activity in the tourist quarter. You will see this celebration of local enterprise nearly everywhere you look in Japan, but here it’s especially rich and worthy of exploration.
A multi-floor shop with vaulted wood-beam ceilings displays crafts from around Okayama prefecture. A few blocks away, a shop is devoted to little rolls of masking tape, produced locally and printed with countless colorful patterns and designs. There are several shops for textiles and clothing, as the region is a major producer of cotton fabric in Japan.
One shop is devoted to all things oyster, from oyster salt to dried oysters to oyster soup stock to the beer best paired with said bivalve. Another shop is jammed with gourmet foods. It’s less a souvenir shop than a serious destination for connoisseurs, with the expected items like local salts, snacks, and sake vying for attention with artisanal cheeses, baked goods, craft beer, spices, and interesting seafood. All this with close to zero slow-food pretense, more an attitude of, Well, what else would we be selling?
Kurashiki is flat with a few exceptions, like the small, tree-covered mountain that sprouts up suddenly from Bikan’s eastern side. At the top of this mountain sits the Achi Shrine. After a steep walk up the paved forest path, you ladle ritually purified water over your hands and rinse your mouth in a ceremonial act of cleansing before climbing the stairs to the shrine complex above. You are immediately presented with the main shrine building, which sports a huge shimenawa, or sacred rice-straw rope, above its entrance. The generously sized grounds host several other buildings, most in graceful states of aging. At least one building is newly constructed, the artfully joined Japanese cedar still golden, smooth, and fragrant.
At the northwestern corner of the Achi Shrine grounds, a covered wooden observation platform juts off of the slope, supported below by tall stilts. My companion and I sat for a while to look out at the city below, next to wooden placards hanging from the railing with handwritten wishes from the shrine’s visitors. It was July, warm and humid, cicadas at full volume in the trees. It was delightful.
On our second day in Kurashiki, we walked across the street from our hotel to get coffee. We asked the proprietor of the cafe what else was worth seeing in Kurashiki besides the Bikan district. He was in his early thirties like us, and he eyed us almost wearily. “There’s not really anything to do in Kurashiki. You should go to Okayama.”
Instead, we headed north. We crossed the tracks west of Kurashiki station and spent a few hours exploring quiet residential neighborhoods. We crossed over streams and walked along countless rice paddies alongside and between the suburban houses. In fact, it was nearly impossible to find an empty lot that had not been commandeered for rice growing. It’s clear that despite bread’s reputed supplanting of rice as the preferred starch in Japan, the demand for rice remains strong. It’s also a reminder of the historic scarcity of arable land in Japan. While vast fields of grain adorn the American heartland, it’s difficult to imagine small patches of wheat stuck between houses in suburban Pittsburgh. But Japan has half the population of America in a space the size of California, most of which is mountainous — hence the city rice paddies.
Without really intending to, we discovered the source of Bikan’s canals. Emerging from the winding neighborhoods, we found ourselves at the wide Takahashi River, which carries water from the heart of Honshu’s mountainous interior to the Inland Sea. We gazed out over a large pond diverted from the river, from which several channels directed water into the city. One of these channels, after winding past homes and through culverts, would meet the gondolas in the middle of town.
We dawdled at the edge of Kurashiki, visiting a small shrine and exploring the scenic waterways. We walked through Sakazu Park, where the racket of cicadas was cacophonous, yet finding an individual insect in the trees was next to impossible. Every year, the cicadas emerge across Japan to create the soundtrack of summer before dying off with the coming of autumn. Along with the heat and humidity, they bring an intensity to the season that is overwhelming, yet enthralling.
After making our way back into town, we found dinner at Tenryō, an izakaya near our hotel. We ate early and had the place mostly to ourselves, which might go some way toward explaining the excellent service we received. It’s tough to match the allure of grilled chicken on a stick and cold beer after a long day spent exploring a new part of the world.
Afterwards, with a few additional beers purchased from the local convenience store, we climbed back to the top of the little mountain and sat quietly in the observation building at Achi Shrine, looking out once more at the view, this time by night, with the city lights stretching out toward the river and the mountains beyond. If an equivalent to Kurashiki can be found in Italy, it most surely is not Venice, but I think it would be a place worth exploring, like here.
To our left somewhere, the Inland Sea beckoned — we would leave for the coast in the morning. But in the meantime, we sat in the warm evening’s embrace as Kurashiki twinkled below.
This entry continues a series I didn’t know I was starting when I wrote a long article on Medium last month about Japan’s rural art festivals. Through these articles I aim to describe the many Japans — places, cultures, identities — I have discovered since I started paying attention. I’m calling this series Another Japan.