Timing, as they say, is everything. With a bad habit of turning up to places and appointments too early, I often find myself wandering through train stations and pocket parks, and past the shuttered doorways of shops.
I’ve done it again — 7 a.m. is clearly the wrong time to arrive in historic Kurashiki, a city just beginning to wake up. The station area at this hour is bleak, the shabby contemporary city replicating 1,000 other randomly cobbled together urban melees.
One place that never closes, and has managed to avoid the design lapses that still disfigure many Japanese cities, is Achi Shrine. The site, accessed after passing through a stone torii gate, is located at the top of a long flight of steps. The view from the edge of the well-appointed grounds — which stand like an aerial terrace above Kurashiki — is of a town planner’s draft, a cultural geographer’s map of urban growth; from the postwar sprawl typified by the compression of buildings contiguous with highways and railroad tracks, to the painted walls and turrets of Kurashiki Tivoli Park, a children’s storybook theme park, replete with artificial lakes, palaces and a Ferris wheel, to the well-ordered Edo Period (1603-1868) grid of Bikan, the original town.
Immediately below the terrace, many of the tiled roofs of private homes and shops are meticulously interlocked, their surfaces resembling an expanse of gray fish scales.
For those interested in Japan’s pre-Shinto spirit world and the putative origins of its early stone gardens, Achi Shrine is home to a number of large granite boulders known as iwakura. Also called “seats of the gods,” they appealed to the early Japanese, who possessed nothing comparable to shrines or religious reliquaries — to them the stones were natural force fields, attracting the presence of deities. Found in forest clearings and other natural settings, iwakura were cordoned off with rice-fiber ropes, and the ground around them strewn with pebbles, in what could well be a seminal model of the dry landscape garden. After staring for some time into the dark mirror of the stones, which are older than everything here, even the historic district of Bikan seemed less aged.
Descending to the old merchant town, the sense of slow time prevails through its main forms of transport: the canal boat and rickshaw. Disengaged from their original, utilitarian functions, they are now the vehicular mode of choice for tourists, who pay a great deal more for them than the original passengers would have for a ride — the pleasure of experiencing the deceleration of time doesn’t come cheap.
Bikan is a return to an age when entire districts were designed for specific purposes, the resulting architecture displaying a good deal more unity and coordination than contemporary urban zones. In astonishing contrast to today’s homes, which the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism accords a lifespan of roughly 27-37 years, the district’s 17th- and 18th-century stores, merchant houses, granaries and spacious villas were built to last.
It’s worth viewing the interior of at least one of the residencies open to the public. It takes some seeking out, but Ohashi House, a little west of busy Chuo-dori, is a fine example of how the affluent merchant class were beginning to subvert many of the Edo Period’s prohibitions on displays of wealth by members of the lower orders. Built in 1796, during the more liberal, or administratively relaxed, Genroku Era, the sober merchant exterior of Ohashi House belies a series of inner rooms that bear a strong, transgressive resemblance to the interiors of samurai villas.
Besides architecture, there are other good reasons for visiting Kurashiki, not least the canals themselves, used originally to ferry cargo and grain, but now exclusively set aside for the conveyance of visitors. In the summer, tourists boarding flat-bottomed boats are issued with conical shaped sedge hats, the type still worn by some Japanese farmers; in winter, passengers snuggle under blankets. Only short sections of the canals are accessible, but the sense of floating backward along the currents of history is pleasant. The banks of the canals, luxuriant with willows and bush clover, could almost be mistaken for sections of English waterways, such as the River Cam or Avon.
Then there are Kurashiki’s first-rate galleries and museums. Having become wealthy through commerce, the city’s merchants and business people sought a cultural outlet in their daily lives, and perhaps, a higher footing on the social ladder, by investing in art. The textile tycoon Magosaburo Ohara established what is, without question, the foremost exhibition space in Bikan, the Ohara Museum of Art. The museum’s neoclassical building — housing works by the likes of El Greco, Auguste Rodin and Picasso — somehow manages to square quite well with the older wooden residences and white plaster storehouses of the district. The paintings being shown were selected by the artist Torajiro Kojima, a friend of Ohara’s, while he was traveling and working in Europe in the 1920s.
The first exhibition at the museum took place in 1930, a few short years before Japan’s political climate changed and certain aspects of Western culture found themselves out of favor.
The works of British sculptor Henry Moore seem to be everywhere in Japan — it seems no modern garden or landscaped park with an art site can do without a Moore. Accordingly, I spotted a large, lumpy bronze figure, suitably oxidized in the humid air, outside a modern art gallery tucked into one of the blocks behind the main canal. For purely Japanese content, though, the Kurashiki Museum of Folk Crafts, sited along the main canal, is the place to go for quality textiles, woodblock prints and ceramic ware. The building is a converted storehouse, whose fine crossbeams and stone floors provide the ideal ambience for craft items that border on art. Bikan has dozens of souvenir shops, but the gifts here are quality items.
Replica toys, of the older type — consistent with the nostalgia that pervades Bikan — are sold nearby at the Japan Rural Toy Museum. Its doll, puppet, kite and spinning top displays are a nice relief from the high art and craft exhibits at Kurashiki’s top-drawer museums.
Bikan can be like a strong shot of culture in the arm, and as its effects wear off, other interests assert themselves. In my case, Kurashiki beer — a brew well worth sampling. There’s nothing quite like a certain level of beer consumption to sharpen the faculties. After a few bottles of this fine craft beverage — on an empty stomach — I was beginning to cast a more critical gaze over the town. Like many of these preservation zones, Kurashiki began to seem a tad too picturesque, its boatmen dressed up too much like Edo Period stevedores, decorative touches on the homes a little too typical, while its canal swans looked as though they might have been groomed to glide into just the right choreographed spots for the droves of photographers who descend on the town at the weekends. Designed for the circulation of hundreds rather than thousands of people, Bikan can indeed get very crowded with visitors on these days. The guidebook I was carrying warned darkly of the area being “marked by the inevitable cluster of shops and dawdling tourists,” as if its own readers were somehow a different breed from the ordinary sightseer.
In contrast to the architectural dystopia of the newer parts of Kurashiki, Bikan is an exercise in that rarest of things: the combination of wealth and good taste. The contemporary sections of the city will likely continue experimenting with the half-baked architectural hybrids and implants that characterize many cities in Japan, which eventually become — architecturally speaking — neither Japanese nor Western. Bikan, however, is a well-grounded quarter, one that, importantly from the preservation perspective, pays its way. As long as it continues to draw in the well-heeled visitor, the old town will survive and prosper.
Implausibly for a country fixated on the here and now, it is Kurashiki’s past that has triumphed over its present. These are, after all, the streets of a different era, an age when there were no mechanized forms of transport, where nights in the cities and small, huddled towns of Japan were as dark as pitch.
Wandering the lanes and alleyways of Bikan, it is almost possible to forget that the ground beneath your feet is not made of earth and flint, but unlovely asphalt.
Getting there: Kurashiki Station is a 15-minute train trip from Okayama Station on the Sanyo Line. The Kodama shinkansen stops at Shin-Kurashiki Station, where travelers can change to a local train. There are also regular buses from Okayama.