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Kurashiki: The Bruges of Japan

I am always looking for interesting new places in Japan - off the beaten track with relatively few tourists but lots of culture and plenty to do. The town of Kurashiki in Okayama Prefecture totally fit the bill.

I am always looking for interesting new places in Japan – off the beaten track with relatively few tourists but lots of culture and plenty to do. The town of Kurashiki in Okayama Prefecture halfway between Kyoto and Hiroshima is one of those little-known-by-outsiders places that totally fit the bill.

Ritsuko Nakamura and me
Catherine Heald with Ritsuko Nakamura from Kurashiki Ryokan

Old Kurashiki is incredibly charming with tiny narrow winding streets and a lovely canal which runs though the middle of town, with occasional little pedestrian bridges crossing over the canal.  Small shops, cafes, bars, a sake brewery, galleries, museums, textile makers and other artisan workshops line the meandering alleyways.

Typical narrow winding street of Old Kurashiki, with Ritsuko in her traditional Kimono

Amongst the museums, first and foremost is the world-class Ohara museum with paintings by Picassso, Matisse, Degas, Monet, Gaugin, Rothko, Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns and Jackson Pollock, as well as one of the great El Grecos. Built in 1930 by a Japanese art collector who loved western as well as Asian art, the Ohara was first collection of Western art to be permanently exhibited in Japan.  Ohara brought this astounding collection to this relatively small town and also built a stunning Greek revival building in which to house it.  There is also an adjacent Asian Art museum filled with fantastic treasures, as well as a Toy museum, a Folk Art Museum, and numerous important shrines and gardens in Kurashiki.

Ohara Museum
Main entrance to the Ohara Museum

Kurashiki exudes character and authenticity.  It feels like Gion in Kyoto and Old Nara, which are filled with sweet little pedestrian walkways, but Kurashiki has relatively few people and almost zero western tourists.  The law in the relatively large historic district, which could easily take a full day to explore if you take your time, requires that only traditional buildings be built so all the structures are only a few stories tall which of course retains the old world feeling.

Food Shop
Typical food shop, where all the goods are exquisitely arranged with neat little signs describing each item

Kurashiki was built as a central distribution center in the Edo period between 1603 and 1868 – a peaceful time that stabilized Japan and when many social ranks became fixed. Edo is the original name of Tokyo which is where the Tokugawa government was based, named after the Tokugawa family who were originally from Nagoya. The headquarters of the Shogunate (ruled by the top Samurai warriors) during this time was Tokyo, although the Emperor lived in Kyoto until 1868. In the Meiji Restoration in 1868 the Emperor’s power was restored on paper but in reality he had no real power.  The history of Kurashiki (and Japan!) is a long story and needs many more blogs which I will not go into here.  Today the greater Kurashiki area has a population of around 400,000, although the charming little Old Kurishiki is just a fraction of that.

Sake Shop
Sake brewery cum sake shop

I mentioned to my guide that Kurashiki feels like the Japanese equivalent of Bruges.  What a coincidence because the mayor of Bruges had just visited Kurashiki and they are trying to make it a sister city!  (BTW if you haven’t seen the hilarious movie In Bruges it is about two gangsters who have to hide out in Bruges, and one of them is constantly blown away by the gorgeous architecture and thus distracted from their criminal activities – and it is all highly amusing).

The impeccable service at Kurashiki ryokan
The impeccable service at Kurashiki Ryokan

Kurashiki is in central Japan on the main island of Honshu, and is very convenient for people travelling from Kyoto, Nara or Osaka to Naoshima Island, Hiroshima or the southern islands of Kyushu and Shikoku. I highly recommend a stop of 1-2 nights in Kurashiki along the way.   I stayed in a wonderful little ryokan – the best in town – called Kurashiki Ryokan. It is a very traditional, authentic ryokan which usually means that you must sleep on the floor on a futon. However, Kurashiki Ryokan does have some rooms with real beds. I had one of those rooms (a suite actually) which was very comfortable, with 2 full bathrooms, a bedroom looking out on a private garden and a sizeable dining/living room.

My Kingsize Bed at Kurashiki Ryokan
My kingsize bed at Kurashiki Ryokan – no need to sleep on a futon on the floor

For dinner I had the choice of dining privately in my suite or in the regular dining room with the lovely Ritsuko Nakamura who is part the management team. Ritsuko and I had an incredible Kaiseki dinner with a few dozen courses, each exquisitely presented and a work of art.  The restaurant is very popular with the locals for lunch and dinner and also looks out on a  lovely Japanese garden. Unfortunately, like many ryokans which tend to be very delicate and extremely respectful of adult guests, they accept only children ages 12 and up.

Dinner Course 1
Every course of a kaiseki dinner is a work of art on the plate

I had a lavish Japanese breakfast with at least 20 different dishes of various vegetables, fish, tofu, radish and other delicacies.

My beautiful breakfast
My beautiful breakfast of grilled fish, vegetables, tofu, rice, eggs, pickles and sushi

I stayed in Kurashiki on my way to the art island of Naoshima (which I cannot recommend highly enough, so please read my blog on Naoshima and Benesse House).  The drive from Kurashiki to the Okayama outskirts to Uno Port is only 50 minutes, and then the ferry tide to Naoshima is 20 minutes.   Like Kyoto, Kurashiki is lovely all year round, but it is particularly beautiful in April when the cherry blossoms are out, and in November with the colorful fall foliage.  In order to gain a deeper understanding of Japan, I highly recommend that travelers go off the beaten tourist path and explore authentic old Japan in charming towns like Kurashiki.