DE­TOUR

For a respite from the crowds of Kan­sai’s more pop­u­lar des­ti­na­tions, hop aboard a bul­let train to this oft-over­looked Ja­panese city.

DestinAsian - - DEPARTMENTS - BY JAMES LOUIE

Ex­plor­ing Okayama, Ja­pan.

Just 45 min­utes by Shinkansen to the west of Osaka, the laid-back city of Okayama and its im­me­di­ate sur­round­ings har­bor an al­lur­ing mix of cul­tural at­trac­tions, some of Ja­pan’s best agri­cul­tural pro­duce, and lip-smack­ing lo­cal cui­sine.

STAND­ING GROUND An ideal start­ing point for any visit to Okayama is the sub­lime gar­den of Ko­rakuen. What orig­i­nally took shape in 1687 as a re­treat for the lo­cal daimyo (feu­dal lord) has been em­bel­lished over the en­su­ing cen­turies, sur­viv­ing the rav­ages of World War II. A prime ex­am­ple of the “scenic prom­e­nade” style, which of­fers new vis­tas at ev­ery turn, Ko­rakuen is now con­sid­ered one of Ja­pan’s three most beau­ti­ful land­scaped gar­dens.

A DIF­FER­ENT SPIN The Kibi Plain, an idyl­lic ru­ral area stud­ded with re­li­gious mon­u­ments just out­side the city, is best ex­plored via a 17-kilo­me­ter-long cy­cling trail that con­nects the main sights. Don’t miss Kibitsu Shrine—with its 600-year-old main hall—and Bitchu Kokubunji tem­ple, whose five-story pagoda is re­puted to be the last one built in the coun­try. BEAR­ING FRUIT The sunny, mild cli­mate of Okayama and its ru­ral hin­ter­land is well suited to agri­cul­ture. Chief among the soil’s bounty are white peaches and candy-sweet mus­cat grapes, which are both prized through­out Ja­pan. Sev­eral farms al­low vis­i­tors to pick peaches from July to mid-Au­gust or join the grape har­vest in Septem­ber and Oc­to­ber. SEAFOOD SUPREME Fish from the neigh­bor­ing Seto In­land Sea are a sta­ple of the lo­cal cui­sine, with a peren­nial fa­vorite be­ing Span­ish mack­erel. Its sashimi is lightly grilled on the edges and laid onto sushi rice to make sawara-don, while other must-try spe­cial­ties in­clude slices of pick­led sar­dinella ( ma­makari) and bara-zushi— a plat­ter of as­sorted sashimi, cooked seafood, and sliced lo­tus root served atop a mound of shred­ded egg and rice. PIC­TURE THIS Opened in 1930, the Ohara Mu­seum of Art in nearby Kurashiki lays claim to the old­est per­ma­nent col­lec­tion of Western art in Ja­pan. High­lights here in­clude El Greco’s 16th­cen­tury An­nun­ci­a­tion, art­works by Im­pres­sion­ist masters Monet and Pis­sarro, not to men­tion

De­light­ful Land (Te Nave Nave Fenua)— a Gau­guin oil paint­ing. Vis­i­tors come as much for the col­lec­tion as the mu­seum’s pic­turesque, canal-side set­ting in the heart of an old mer­can­tile quar­ter known as Bikan.

Above, from left: A stroll through Ko­rakuen yields views of Okayama Cas­tle, a for­mer seat of feu­dal lords that was re­con­structed af­ter be­ing fire­bombed in World War II; a plate of bara-zushi at the rail­way sta­tion.

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