Travel | G20 host cities special

Okayama, Okayama Prefecture

Fruit meets fiction in classic tale's birthplace

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Okayama Prefecture in the Chugoku region is a transport hub of western Japan that enjoys a yearlong mild climate thanks to its location on the Seto Inland Sea.

The city of Okayama, the venue of the Health Ministers’ Meeting on Oct. 19 and 20, is about a 70-minute flight from Tokyo and about 45 minutes from Osaka via shinkansen.

“Okayama is neither a big city nor a small town. It’s not a top tourist destination like Osaka, Tokyo or Kyoto, but there’s a lot of rich history and culture here,” said Alexandra Sebastiano, an assistant language teacher at Okayama city schools who has lived in the city for a year.

Originally from the U.S., Sebastiano says she finds Okayama a comfortable place, as there aren’t “massive crowds like in other metropolitan areas.”

In terms of attractions, Okayama Castle is an iconic landmark. It was built by Ukita Hideie, lord of the Okayama area, in 1597. Many merchants and craftsmen were attracted to the castle thanks to its secure location protected by the redirected Asahi River; this paved the way for the development of present-day Okayama.

Under new owners, the castle continued to grow with buildings expanding in each era, making it one of Japan’s greatest castles. The outer walls of Okayama Castle’s keep are made of boards coated with a black lacquer as a preservative. The black color is why the castle was nicknamed Ujo (Crow Castle).

Although the tower was designated a national treasure before World War II, the keep was destroyed during the war and rebuilt in 1966. The only original buildings still standing today are the Tsukimi Yagura and the Nishinomaru Nishite Yagura towers.

Okayama is especially known for peaches and grapes. With nearly 3,000 years of grape cultivation, grape producers and researchers consider Okayama as a world-class grape producing area. Many people visit Okayama to learn fruit cultivation techniques. Recently, new pione grapes are known to be seedless, but it was in Okayama where seedless techniques were first developed.

The city is known for its fruit parfaits (ice cream, often served in a tall, narrow glass, topped with a generous amount of sliced or whole fruit) and visitors can enjoy delicious parfaits made with fresh, local fruit on the Okayama Castle grounds as well as other locations.

Sebastiano added that Okayama is also known among Japanese people for kibidango (small, sweet mochi rice cakes), which make for excellent gifts.

Kibidango appear in the tale of Momotaro, one of Japan’s most famous classic tales from Okayama. The well-known story tells of an elderly couple raising a boy born from a large peach the wife brought home after plucking it from a river. Momotaro, which translates to “peach boy,” later befriends three animals and shares kibidango with them before venturing off to fight demons plaguing the land.

Many shrines and other locations around Kibitsu Shrine are named after Kibitsuhiko-no-Mikoto, the legendary prince who rid the area of the demon Ura. This figure is considered the model for Momotaro.

Additionally, the city is home to Kibitsuhiko Shrine, which is believed to have been the prince’s mansion at one point. These two shrines are popular destinations for locals as well as tourists.

Behind this rich historical and cultural background, “Okayama, the Birthplace of the Legend of Momotaro — Ancient Kibi Heritage Conveying Tales of Demon Slaying” was recognized in May last year as a Japan Heritage site by the Agency for Cultural Affairs.

Okayama Korakuen Garden is also highly recommended, and is considered one of the Three Great Gardens of Japan along with Kenrokuen in Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture, and Kairakuen in Mito, Ibaraki Prefecture. The garden was completed about 300 years ago after 14 years of construction by the daimyo Ikeda Tsunamasa — the feudal lord of the Okayama clan at that time — as a place of peace. Covering some 14 hectares, Korakuen Garden includes wide lawns and Enyo-tei House (built as living quarters), as well as hills, flowers, trees, rice fields and a teahouse. Beautiful trees and flowers can be found throughout the park, offering visitors unique scenes that change with the seasons, from cherry blossoms in spring to the brilliant colors of autumn foliage.

“Korakuen is beautiful year-round and hosts interesting, seasonal events,” said Sebastiano. She added that she enjoys Korakuen so much that she purchased a yearly pass.

With such an elegant expanse of nature and cultural elements, the garden and Okayama overall are enriching stops for any visitor.

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