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OKAYAMA CITY

Where past and present tracks cross

by Stephen Mansfield

Stepping off the shinkansen at Okayama Station and crossing over to the iron rails and worn stone of the city’s aged streetcar system, you experience an abrupt transition in time and space.

An aerial photo of almost any major Japanese city taken 40 or 50 years ago would have revealed streets thoroughly incised with streetcar lines. Their use rose considerably after the war, reaching a peak in the 1950s. Although most streetcars disappeared in a final wave of decommissioning in the ’60s and early ’70s, cities crisscrossed with tracks and overhead power cables are still found in some parts of Japan, especially western Honshu and Kyushu.

Called chin chin densha in Japanese — a euphonic rendering of the sound made by the starting bell — Okayama’s streetcar system is efficient and cheap.

Located just below the point where the streetcar tracks divide east and west to form a parallel loop around the center of town is Okayama-jo. This castle, nicknamed “Crow’s Castle” on account of its black walls, was once the center of a domain ruled by the lords of the feudal Ikeda family and is the most conspicuous sight in Okayama. The original structure of the castle was built in the 16th century. After being destroyed by bombs in World War II, the exterior of the castle was faithfully reconstructed in 1966. The interior holds a period collection of palanquins, samurai helmets, swords and other military paraphernalia. Beware, however, that Japan’s twin afflictions, convenience and kitsch, are in evidence here as well — there’s an elevator to the top of the four-story keep, and paddleboats in the form of swans and teacups are available for rent in the river below the castle.

More items owned by the Ikeda clan, notably armor, pottery, lacquerware and an excellent collection of Noh costumes, are on view at the Hayashibara Museum of Art, a five-minute walk south of the castle. But Hayashibara is just one of Okayama’s rich concentration of museums. Others include the Museum of Near Eastern Art, dedicated to showing how culture was transmitted to Japan via the Silk Road, and the Okayama Prefectural Museum of Art, boasting an interesting collection of mostly 20th-century Japanese paintings, as well as a small collection by older artists like the 15th-century master, Sesshu.

However, Okayama’s premier sight, unquestionably so, is the Korakuen, one of Japan’s most admired gardens. Unlike other gardens in Japan that are often spoiled by tape-recorded commentaries or the presence of modern high-rises on their fringes, the Korakuen is protected by a wall of trees and silence. Its isolation is completed by its location — on an island in the middle of the Asahi River, connected by two bridges to the river banks.

Work on the Korakuen, which was originally owned by the Ikeda family, began in 1686 but was not completed for another 14 years. The Korakuen accurately reflects the directives contained in the “Sakuteiki,” an 11th-century gardening manual that directs designers to “think of the finest natural landscapes you have seen, select those that you find most inspiring and adapt them to your plan.’

In formal stroll-gardens, it was customary to create miniature landscapes modeled after noted scenic spots or celebrated locations from literature. Among the Korakuen’s cleverly contrived effects is a thicket whose artificial valleys, mountains and waterfalls are said to reproduce points along central Japan’s Kiso Road. There are also objects of historical and cultural interest, including the Enyo-tei, a feudal villa once used as a hall for Confucian scholars, sets of yin and yang stones, a rebuilt noh stage and an aviary for the cranes that have been kept in the garden since it was first created. The garden’s horticultural effects are enhanced by generous areas of tea bushes, a rice paddy section and lotus ponds.

The transition from this green and verdant stroll-garden back to the town proper is, thankfully, a gentle one. There is the river to cross, the tram to carry you to your next destination. Despite their clanking noise, Okayama’s streetcars do not shatter the mood created by the Korakuen’s 11 hectares of greenery. A part of the city’s cultural geography, the cars move unobtrusively and seemingly instinctively through the urban system, interacting with their environment rather than disrupting it.