President Dwight Eisenhower established the sister city program in 1956 to foster global awareness and peaceful relations. A design team from Okayama, Japan, one of San Jose’s sister cities, presents their view of their hometown.
Often called the “Gateway to West Japan,” Okayama is a quiet, modern city that serves as a transportation hub for travelers moving from eastern and central Japan into the further reaches of western Honshu, Shikoku Island, and Kyushu Island. The central area of the city is easy to get around via the well-developed transportation system that features local and high-speed trains, streetcars, buses, taxis, and rent-a-cycles. Incorporated as a city in 1889, when Japan moved from a feudal system to a centralized government system, the city actually has a much longer history which extends back to the Sengoku Period (1467-1603).
Although the surrounding area was and is farmland, the city has played an important part in history and boasts a castle that attracted important political figures in the past, such as the Ikeda clan, who developed the economic and cultural status of the city under their rule between the 17th and 19th centuries. Currently, Okayama Castle attracts only tourists, but it’s considered one of the top castles in the country. The main tower (and most of Okayama city, for that matter) was damaged during WWII when the city was largely destroyed after having been bombed by the US Armed Forces. However, two of the watchtowers survived and have been designated as Important Cultural Properties by the government’s Agency for Cultural Affairs, and the damaged sections have been restored.
Geographically, Okayama falls in the humid subtropical zone: although it does get chilly in the winter months, the summer months can get hot and very humid. Okayama enjoys relatively low rainfall year round and is known as hare-no-kuni, which means “Sun Country.”
While the municipal and the prefectural governments have been working diligently to post multilingual signage around the city, Japanese is the only language spoken and understood by most of the population.
Although there are pockets of history sprinkled throughout the city in neighborhoods that were not damaged by bombing, visitors will want to head to the suburbs to enjoy the city’s best historical features.
Points of Interest
Okayama has many historical points of interest, with Saidaiji Kannon-in being one of the most intriguing. This small, quiet temple dedicated to the Buddhist deity of Kannon is also home to the oldest and largest Naked Man Festival. The 500-year-old festival, in which nearly 10,000 men dressed only in loincloths participate, is held late at night on the third Saturday in February of every year. The men compete for two lucky sticks that also carry a large cash reward for the winners.
The Saijo Inari shrine and temple complex is a great location to visit any time of the year, and boasts the largest torii gate in West Japan. Visible for miles around, the giant torii gate beckons to visitors. The shrine is dedicated to the Shinto fox god Inari, the patron deity of business, which is appropriately ironic as the souvenir shops leading up to the shrine are fantastic in number and variety.
Visitors would also do well to stop in at Kibitsu Shrine, which is located near Saijo Inari. Folklore sets Kibitsu Shrine apart from other shrines: legend holds that a demon’s head buried under the temple causes a cauldron to ring out during fortune-telling ceremonies. The shrine dates from the ninth century and exhibits many unique architectural features, several of which are registered as Important Cultural Properties.
For a taste of fresh, local seafood, stop in at Tontonme in the southern part of the city. This seafood restaurant is known for its sashimi and sushi made from fish harvested from the nearby Seto Inland Sea.
For another healthy option, Okabe in central Okayama is a long-standing tofu shop with attached home-style restaurant. The restaurant has counter seating only and there are only three main menu selections, but you can bet the food will be fresh, delicious, and surprisingly filling.
For secret hideaway dining, Balloom is the place. This elegant and cozy little cafe/restaurant/bar serves up fresh and healthy meals made with ordinary but fine-quality ingredients. Guests can enjoy a selection of fine wines, draft beer, cocktails, drip coffees, herbal teas, and imported sodas. Lunch and dinner are served. Tapas and pinchos are available in the evening.
For shopping, AEON Mall Okayama is a must-visit. Newly completed in December 2014, this shopping mall is one of the largest and top ranking in the country. Visitors can find an array of boutiques, interior shops, restaurants and food courts, a movie theater, and many other shopping options. The wine shop on the first level includes a winetasting vending machine.
Okayama has a number of covered shopping arcades, and Hokancho is one of the older ones. However, a recent influx of young, hip shop owners have breathed new life into this arcade, making it a great place to explore. Check out the eclectic mix of cafes, green grocers, boutiques, book and toy stores, dish supplies, bakeries, etc.
For a relaxing end to the day, stop in at Padang Padang to unwind. This chic little bar in the heart of the city also serves up European-style fusion cuisine selections made from top-quality local and imported ingredients.
Any itinerary should certainly include Korakuen. With a history of over 300 years, it is one of the top three traditional gardens in the country, and is well known for its use of “borrowed scenery”: in this case, Okayama Castle becomes part of the garden scenery despite the fact that it is a separate property. The garden is spacious enough to accommodate large groups while still imparting serenity.
Off the beaten track, the beautiful Sogenji Temple pleases the senses at any time of the year. Surrounded by tall trees and Maruyama mountain, this Zen temple of the Rinzai sect is near the city but feels secluded. Zazen sessions are open to the public on Sundays.
Written by Kaigai Connection
Places to Visit in Okayama
We are a small branding company specializing in helping local businesses get their product overseas. We help customers with foreign language support, out-of-country PR, homepage and business document design, and nonnative staffing. We also work with a large, local tourist agency to bring visitors to Okayama and the surrounding prefectures.
Article originally appeared in Issue 7.3 Style.