Kurashiki, an old, unspoiled provincial city, is the perfect place to unwind
In Kurashiki, you may feel as if you had time traveled to Japan’s feudal period. The city preserves the glory of the old provincial city from the time when it served as an important rice distribution center. Today, Kurashiki is characterized by its industries, cultures, and traditional heritage.
Lying halfway between Kyoto and Hiroshima, not far from Osaka, Kurashiki evolved in modern times around the Ohara family, who have established several industries and enhanced cultural advancement. Above all, Magosaburo Ohara’s encounter with Torajiro Kojima has developed resources to create a rich culture in this city. Kurashiki offers much to see and many stories for visitors. By all means, tourists should take a closer look at Kurashiki’s history and culture.
Old Japanese town lives
War and natural disasters have destroyed many provincial cities’ historical assets, so few present any features of interest. Kurashiki, however, was fortunate to escape wartime calamities and still retains its rural culture and the image of the old way of life that Japanese people keep in their hearts. Many significant Japanese cultural assets remain in Kurashiki’s Bikan Historical Quarter.
Kurashiki prospered as a distribution center
In the Edo period, Kurashiki was directly administered by the Shogunate; it prospered as the main port of the Matsuyama Domain, serving as a distribution center. The rise of merchants and landowners brought prosperity to the district, and its canal carried grain from the countryside.
Although during the Edo period, Kurashiki thrived, during the Meiji Era, it gradually declined. Then, in 1888, Ohara established Kurabo Industries to remedy the stagnant economic situation. The city regained strength by shipping textiles and other products to various places.
Ivy Square, once a vast textile mill
Once a vast textile mill, Ivy Square’s red brick buildings, covered in ivy, and its piazza are now a complex of restaurants, shops, and hotels. A couple of years ago, a popular TV drama was filmed on its site.
Ohara Museum, first and foremost
Among museums, first and foremost is the world class Ohara Museum. Mr. Ohara, the textile tycoon, gathered a remarkable collection of western paintings by Cezanne, El Greco, and Picasso, along with various pieces of Egyptian and Chinese art.
After starting textile, banking, and power businesses, the Ohara family built the museum, which greatly contributed to Kurashiki’s growth. Three times, entrepreneur Magosaburo Ohara sent his artist friend Torajiro Kojima to Europe to study art and collect European masterpieces. Ohara’s unique idea and farsightedness in recognizing the importance of art undoubtedly contributed to Kurashiki’s appeal.
Encounter with Torjiro Kojima
The Ohara Museum was founded in 1930 to commemorate Kojima Torajiro, who helped collect the museum’s European masterpieces. Without the encounter between Magosaburo Ohara and Torajiro, the museum could not have existed to attract people from all over the world.
With Ohara’s aid, Torajiro Kojima studied art in Japan and Europe as a scholarship student. His first voyage to Europe took as long as 45 days for him to arrive in Marseille.
After a brief stay in Paris, he moved to Belgium where he spent 3 years learning about European painting. The techniques of depicting light that he learned in Belgium appeared in his Japanese landscapes. Later, he explored his own style of painting and artisitic identity through his travels to China and Korea.
Magosaburo Ohara highly appreciated Torajiro’s talent and modest attitude toward artistic creation. Torajiro prudently chose masterpieces with the Japanese aesthetic sense. With a spirit typical of the Meiji Era, Torajiro is said to “have felt torn between highlights of Western art and his Japanese aesthetic sense.”
It is not difficult to imagine Torajiro’s struggle to collect artworks tracing the source of culture between the East and West. This occurred about a century ago when many Japanese people admired foreign countries with high cultural standads, but actually knew nothing of foreign things and longed for them.
In 1924, the government assigned Torajiro to work on a mural painting to praise the Meiji Emperor. He put his heart and soul into the work. But because of this excessive burden, he fell ill and passed away in 1929, at the age of 47, before seeing the mural finished.
Magosaburo Ohara deeply mourned Torajiro’s death and decided to launch the museum to commemorate his friendship with Kojima Torajiro and his arts. In 1930, it opened as the first western museum of art in Japan. At that time, Japan was stuck in a recession, and Ohara’s company was not running smoothly. Ohara founded the museum anyway, hoping it would have profound significance for society and be passed down through future generations.
Strolling about the Bikan Area in Kurashiki
The pleasure of Kurashiki lies partly in its size. You can see the essential places on a day trip. I stayed overnight at Kurashiki Kokusai Hotel, adjacent to the Ohara Museum, in order easily to visit the old merchant house and folklore museums. I didn’t want to miss any high points.
Kurashiki is charming with tiny narrow streets and a canal that runs through the middle of town. Its houses have gray and white trellis-patterned walls, there are black-and-white latticed storehouses, and willow trees along the canal. Unfortunately, I visited in early March, before the willow trees turn green.
Away from the canal, in Honcho and Higashicho, it is quieter, and there is a grid of narrow, flagstoned streets, lined with old rice granaries and stores. Formerly, there were cabinet makers and Hooper artisan stores side by side along the alley. Former stone houses have been converted into galleries, museums, cafes, and artisan workshops. I stepped into a shop selling jeans, and artworks. The shop owner told me, “Every house in Kurashiki has a big cross beam, and the second floor has a low ceiling because they were used for storage. The houses there have a narrow frontage, but considerable depth and a patio.”
Old Merchant house—Ohashi residence
Designated as a National Important Cultural Property, the Ohashi house is a fine example of an 18th-century merchant residence. The Ohashi family made a fortune by developing a new rice field, and the house was built in 1796. It is a typical merchant house with a Nagoya Gate, which was allowed only to samurai or rich farmers. The windows and lattices unique to Kurashiki exude a certain dignity.
Presently, living quarters, a kitchen, storerooms, and tea rooms have all been restored to calm perfection. Many old artifacts there include a well, a tea kettle, a rice cooker, and a portable sake heater.
Travel to Kurashiki
Kurashiki is halfway between Kyoto and Hiroshima, not far from Osaka. Traveling from Tokyo and Okayama Station by the Tokaido-Sangyo Shinkansen Line takes about 3 hours 20 minutes, and costs around JPY 16,500. From Okayama to Kurashiki Station by the JR Sanyo Line takes about 15 minutes and costs about JPY 320.
Please refer to The Coming of Spring Bento.
Kurashiki Kokusai Hotel
1-1-44, Chuo, Kurashiki, Okayamaa-ken
Japanese wood prints made by Shiko Munakata at the entrance hall.