Some places really do have the image thing sorted out. Mention of the name Kurashiki generally conjures up a warm picture of traditional Japan, a town where life trundles along at a gentler pace than elsewhere. What tends not to be conjured up is that Kurashiki is a city of 450,000 people living right next to the unlovely sprawl of one of the country’s biggest petrochemical complexes.
But of course the image thing works. Unless you possess an unbridled passion for chemical engineering plants, what brings you as a visitor to this part of Okayama Prefecture is that time-trap allure of a quainter Japan.
The small spot in Kurashiki that hogs the limelight is the area around its canal. Back in the 17th century, when local industry wore a pleasanter aspect, Kurashiki was a prosperous entrepo^t, its rich hinterland supplying the grain, sake, textiles and cotton that Kurashiki shipped off to Osaka and beyond. Before being transported, these commodities were kept in storehouses — the kura that forms part of the city’s name. And to provide better access to those kura, a canal was cut — the waterway that is preserved for the city’s tourism. With this canal, barges could reach the center of town from ships at anchor in the nearby Inland Sea.
Though in many parts of Japan, “the past” is often a reconstruction in ferroconcrete, there is no falsehood to Kurashiki. Bikan, the historical section of the city, has simply remained the way it was. A photo from the early 1930s shows that Bikan then was remarkably like Bikan now — except that back then the canal was thick with boats, while today the adjoining streets are thick with rubberneckers.
And Bikan really is an agreeable spot. The willow-lined canal is crossed by graceful stone bridges. Swans glide over its waters; trout dart within them. The kura and old townhouses are handsome structures, their white stucco walls distinctively finished in rectangular, dove-gray tiles. So proud is Kurashiki of its kura that they are practically the first thing you see when you step off the train, represented by crosshatch decorations to the station walls and tiny kura roofs over its notice boards.
For those wanting to appreciate historical Kurashiki while using the least amount of musculature, rickshaws let someone else do the legwork. Kurashiki’s rickshawmen congregate at the big dogleg the canal makes as it strikes through Bikan. They are an affable lot and were happy to stop hailing potential passengers and chat with me even though I clearly had no intention whatsoever of hopping on for a ride. The men related the bit parts they’d taken in TV dramas and commercials shot in Bikan. And they were as keen as any London taxi driver to let me know what celebrities they’d had in the back of their rickshaws.
The course along which those rickshaw runners take their fares includes the back streets of Bikan. Apart from the odd coffee shop or bookstore, these streets have done little to try and spruce themselves up for the tourist. Here, the old buildings are ordinary houses and businesses — a barber’s, a tatami-maker, a shoe store — that have simply been well preserved and have a comfortable, lived-in character. These streets would look even more attractive without their disfiguring utility poles and overhead cables, but then so would every other thoroughfare in this country.
A common sight on Bikan’s streets are sakabayashi, the balls of cedar needles that signify a brewery or supplier of sake. The old business of dealing in sake has certainly not died out in Kurashiki, and visitors with a soft spot for Japan’s national drink won’t leave disappointed. For the price of a conversation and a few tales about wicked Tokyo, the retailer at one place treated me to quite a sampling of his wares. I don’t know much about sake, except how to drink the stuff, but by the time I left he had me convinced about the quality of the local brews.
If Bikan is the center of Kurashiki’s traditional culture, the center of its faux culture is found on the other side of the station. Every evening, 80,000 light bulbs burst into life, illuminating the fantasy world of Kurashiki Tivoli Park, based on its famous namesake in Copenhagen. Appropriately enough for a fairytale kind of place, the cultural mentor of Kurashiki’s Tivoli is Hans Christian Andersen, an effete statue of whom, along with four butch-looking Vikings, stands near the main entrance.
In this theme park of a theme park, the planners have spectacularly exhausted every conceivable cultural facet connected with Denmark. You can take a whirl in Royal Copenhagen cups and saucers on a fairground ride, walk around an old Danish town, eat Scandinavian hot dogs, bump constantly into something or other connected with Andersen. Outside a restaurant, I spotted a plastic food model that looked like every dish of paella I’ve ever seen — only to find it was renamed “Viking Rice.” The only Danish thing missing I could think of was the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. And it struck me as rather a shame that no one had thought to put together some kind of Kierkegaard Existentialist Joyride.
Sated with all things Danish, I returned to the respite of Bikan. With its proximity to the Inland Sea, Kurashiki has long had a reputation for good seafood, prominent among which is the sardine-like mamakiri. The fish is prepared variously in Bikan’s restaurants, but perhaps the best way of enjoying it is simply as sushi — served on tiny fingers of rice together with a slice of lemon — and washed down with the fine local Doppo beer. I sat down to these at a restaurant beside the canal. And there, as the late-afternoon sunlight slanted across the pale-gray buildings and the willows stirred in the breeze, I must admit I did find the whole time trap rather beguiling.