A quick search into Okayama’s attractions reveals few clues about the true nature of the prefecture. Tucked away at the bottom end of the island of Honshu, Okayama appears to be a relatively quiet corner of the country that’s best known for its ties to the legend of peach boy Momotaro.
It is also home to the reconstruction of the black-walled Okayama Castle but, apart from this, little jumps from the page. The main brochures for things to do in the region involve two-day package tours of Hiroshima, a city that is not even in Okayama Prefecture.
With a bit of digging, however, it becomes clear that the prefecture does offer up a few other gems. I find much promise in a small town called Yakage that was a prominent waypoint on the old Edo road that connected Edo (now Tokyo) with western Japan. The Shukuba Festival that is held in the town in November each year is all the catalyst I need to turn my research into reality.
My journey to Yakage is pleasantly uneventful. A shinkansen whisks me along the southern coast of Honshu in no time and the main excitement of the trip comes from the platform change at Fukuyama Station. The station is built next to (read: on top of) Fukuyama Castle. It’s a barbaric act of town planning that would see most conservationists break out in a cold sweat but, in reality, it creates a surreal juxtaposition that offers plenty of eye candy.
The subsequent bus ride to Yakage is one that is sure to make the hairs stand up on the arms of city dwellers, as houses quite suddenly disappear only to be replaced with endless fields of rice. The bus driver jokingly delivers a “this is the last convenience store” quip and the quantity of farm machinery that soon rolls by — rototillers, tractors and combine harvesters — is the very definition of abundance.
Yakage occupies a commanding position on the banks of the Oda River, a position that has given the town authority over the surrounding area for the last half millennia. For hundreds of years, Yakage was a trading post connecting inland traffic with boats from the coast, and the town claimed a healthy commission from the trade of salt and rice. It became wealthy, benefiting from both its local trade and its position along the Edo road.
During a brief walk around the town, however, it becomes clear that Yakage’s current situation is rather more precarious. Like many small towns in Japan, Yakage is suffering a crisis of population, with a precipitous decline in the number of its citizens. Although not as afflicted as some parts of Japan — the main boulevard still seems in good nick — it’s a shared concern of those living there. Also shared is a sense of grit and determination, and a drive that seeks to capitalize upon the town’s history in order to draw visitors from across Japan and the world. The very embodiment of this spirit is my guide for the weekend, the lithe and gentlemanly Harry Kaneko, who bounces around the town with a Grandpa Joe-esque spring in his step.
“During its heyday, this entire stretch was devoted to the accommodation of the daimyo feudal lords and their attendants,” says Kaneko as he describes Yakage’s main boulevard, an 800-meter road that lies at the center of village life. The buildings along it alternate between those steeped in history, and the more quotidian: an izakaya (Japanese pub), an onsen (hot spring) and a calligraphy studio.
I spend my afternoon exploring the boulevard and Kaneko soon ushers me into the excellently restored Honjin, the historic residence of the daimyo and senior government officials who stopped at the town on their journey along the Edo road. The building is a contrast of color and smell, the light, grassy scent of the tatami contrasting with the rich, dark hues of the ceiling beams. The large estate gives an impression of the grandeur in which these feudal lords traveled, though I am assured that Honjin is a relatively small example of such a building.
More modern institutions along the boulevard include Shin Bi Midori, a mint shop that sells a boutique selection of mint oils and mint-flavored delicacies. Several restaurants serve the town speciality, black udon noodles, which are made from black rice so that the appearance is closer to that of squid ink-dyed pasta than the typical egg-white of regular udon.
After an exceptionally quiet night’s sleep at the recently restored Yakageya, I wake to find the town transformed. The cool morning air is alive with activity and stalls are being set up along the boulevard. It’s the day of the Daimyo Gyoretsu, a grand parade that reenacts the Edo Period (1603-1868) procession of daimyo entering the town. The festival will have to wait however, as my first appointment of the day is at Daitsu-ji temple.
Daitsu-ji occupies prime placement at the head of a valley on the outskirts of Yakage. Its crisp white outer walls contain a garden overflowing with maple trees that display a full regalia of autumn colors. At the back of the temple is a neat stone and water garden that contains koi carp as vivid in color as the leaves above. The temple’s shoji doors are decorated tastefully with sansuiga paintings, and a pair of a dragons coil across the doors either side of the main shrine.
I’m at the temple to experience zazen, a form of zen meditation. At Daitsu-ji this practice is open to the public every second Sunday of the month. Our ceremony is led by Naruhiro Shibaguchi, the former head priest of the temple who, aside from a slight cough synonymous with onset of winter, is sprightly for his age and wields his authority lightly. Together, we meditate for 40 minutes, during which Shibaguchi reads sutras and explains the temple’s mantra.
“Here we say ‘sōji (掃除), sōji (創寺), sōji (創自),'” he says. “To clean the garden is to keep the temple and to create a sense of self.”
Although I can’t claim the experience to be enlightening, it does confirm the quietness of Yakage, with little to distract from the meditation other than the distant call of crows and the sharp crack of Shibaguchi’s keisaku across the back of drowsy participants.
Returning to the center of town, the road is blocked by the festivities and there’s no choice but to proceed on foot. What had been a relatively quiet street is transformed into a hive of activity that caters to the 40,000 festival-goers that have descended upon the town.
The Shukuba Festival was started in 1976 by Yakage’s chamber of commerce following a flood in the same year that caused significant damage to the town. The parade has evolved from its humble origins to a become a prefecture-wide affair. More than 80 participants — university students, local ALTs and the heads of several local businesses — are dressed in period costume and parade through the streets in a procession known as the Daimyo Gyoretsu. The procession begins at just after midday and the air is filled with the incessant refrain “Shita ni, shita” that blares across the town’s speakers. The refrain tells the lowly to turn their eyes downward as the daimyo enters the town and is accurate to history. The members of the parade are resplendent in their costumes, with the daimyo’s daughter and wife wearing kimono to match the season and his retainers in elegant costumes of subtler hues. The parade moves as one: A jester performs for the children, pole bearers artfully throw decorated spears through the air to gasps of the crowd and the daimyo, central to it all, walks purposefully — magnificently — along the historic boulevard.
The festival is fluid, and spectators flux in and out of the main crowd as they hunt for other entertainment. Away from the main procession, men dressed in samurai armor fire Edo Period guns with ear-splitting blasts and a recoil that seems to cripple some of the older members of the group.
A van selling crepes is particularly popular and a number of shops from across Okayama Prefecture have stalls selling local crafts: handcrafted plates, chopsticks and small paintings. The atmosphere is one of a town thriving — busy, loud and exciting. And through this reenactment, a greater story emerges — one of a troubled town attempting to revive a history only recently lost. A story in which bustling Yakage thrives, with a growing population and prosperous trade.
In opening itself up to visitors, Yakage may once again assert its position as an important stopping point in Okayama Prefecture, no longer for feudal processions but for those seeking to explore the history of old Japan.
Getting there: From Okayama Station, take the Hakubi Line to Kiyone Station, and then head to Yakage Station via the Ibara Railway. The trip takes about 50 minutes. The author visited Yakage courtesy of the Yakage Contents Laboratory.