After around 4 hours and multiple train changes, I had arrived at Okayama, the self-proclaimed Land of Sunshine, and the official home of the folktale character Momotaro (a boy who is born out of a giant peach found floating down a river). From Okayama Station, I then hopped on a local train and made my way further south into the countryside. Gazing out the window, I quickly realized this area could also be called the land of canals.
Rice paddy fields have a long history here in Okayama. Archaeologists have revealed that there were already sophisticated water irrigation systems established to supply water to the paddies in the Yayoi Period (300BC-300AD). But why the need for waterways here in particular? Well, the warm climate, low-lying land and the abundant nature meant this region was the perfect place to grow rice. The only problem was, as the prefecture’s ‘sunny’ title suggests, there was very little rainfall each year, and definitely not enough to ensure the fields got as much water as they needed. So, they endeavoured to divert water from the region’s 3 major rivers: the Takahashi, Asahi and Yoshii. The source of these rivers was over 100km away in the mountainous and wet northern part of the prefecture, which guaranteed a constant water supply. They were successful and over 1,000 years later, the same system continues to be used for the same purpose!
Throughout the different periods in Japan’s history, the canals were developed and took on new uses aside from providing water for the crops.
In the Edo Period (1603-1867) and Meiji Period (1868-1912), Kurashiki town became indispensable as the canals allowed for rice from Okayama to be transported to the nearby port and then on to major cities around the country. Japan had just opened its doors to the world again, and the Industrial Revolution during the Meiji Period meant it was a busy time for trade. Japan’s first modern cotton mill was built right in the town, which is now covered entirely in ivy and is aptly named Ivy Square. Rather than cotton, it is now full of stores selling denim clothing, possibly a tribute to the nearby town of Kojima which is apparently the birthplace of Japanese denim jeans!
With so many things happening, I can just imagine the buzzing energy that must have been running through this quaint town back in those days.
These days, canals and narrow waterways seem to be everywhere, from cutting between the city streets to surrounding the outlying farming fields. But that’s not always a good thing. While the cities and towns have developed and transformed radically, the waterways have been left without fences or guardrails. Last year, I remember reading in one of the national newspapers that in 3 years there were 31 cases of people falling off their bike into the water and dying, which is something like 10% of all traffic fatalities in the prefecture. Crazy!
In general though, Kurashiki is very calm and relaxing, especially the area around the main canal. During my recent trip, it was a national holiday period, so there were quite a few visitors, but it still felt so tranquil. The weeping willows lining the canal swayed in the breeze, as though they were soothing everyone around them. And the boat rides looked like a fun way to experience life in the old days. As a special event for the holidays, there were traditional play performances and boat-concerts to enjoy as well. It really felt like I’d been transported back to the Edo Period!
Throughout Kurashiki, there are traditional buildings called kura, which is where the town got its name. Kura means storehouse, and they have a distinctive white and black lattice exterior, with very thick walls which protect the inside from fires. Today, we can see lots of these storehouses in the preserved area of the town called the Bikan Historical Quarter. They are now used as shops, cafés and museums. This style of building can be seen in many towns around Japan, like Matsumoto.
One of the things I loved most about this old merchant town was that because it’s not a major attraction for international visitors, it’s got a very honest feel to it. It’s not touristy or cheap. There is a lot of history here that you would never know without being told, but there’s also a lot of history you can see with your own eyes. The original storehouses have been kept in such amazing condition and really prove how much the Japanese value their own past and want future generations to appreciate it, too.