Sunday, August 4, 2013

Saisho no Bokken (The First Adventure)

The Japanese calender is positively littered with holidays.  Almost ever month has at least one or two national holidays, plus the three (yes, three) week long holidays of O-shogatsu, Golden Week, and O-bon.  In fact, the only month that has no special days of any sort is June. Technically, August also has no official holiday, but almost every company gives its workers the 13th, 14th and 15th at least for the O-bon festivities, and most companies will extend that a few days before and after, leaving poor little June all alone.  I have even heard rumors that the government is trying to decide about adding a holiday, so that there is at least one day a month that workers will have off.  I, of course, am all for this idea.

About two weeks after my arrival in Japan came the first of these holidays for me.  I had no idea what I was going to do with myself, but luckily for me Merissa, a fellow ECS teacher, knowing that I hadn't been around long enough to make plans invited me to join her and a friend of hers, Janessa from Australia, on a little adventure to a neighboring prefecture.  Janessa worked for a cram school (known as a juku) not too far away from ECS, teaching English as well.  I'm not too sure how the two of them met, but Merissa was a social butterfly, and seemed to know ... well, pretty much everyone!  Now, traveling is one of my most favorite things to do.  It was one of the biggest reasons that I decided to come to Japan in the first place!  Gratefully I accepted, and off we went.

Our destination was a fairly large town called Kurashiki.  It's the second largest city in Okayama Prefecture, only about 45 minutes by train.  As it was my first train ride in Japan that wasn't in the dark of night, I spent most of the time watching out the windows as Janessa and Merissa chatted about work.  I was amazed at how beautiful the scenery was, small towns, rice fields, rivers and mountains flashing past, and all of it different from the view I was used to in Oregon.  However, I was one of the only ones in the entire train that was enjoying the view.  Everyone else was busy, mostly with their cell phones, textbooks, or sleeping.  Nowadays, I also join the crowd and take the free time to read, but at the time, I felt like I would never get tired of watching the scenery go by.

Our goal in Kurashiki was the Bikan Jiku, or the Beautiful Quarter. 
                                                                  Kurashiki's Bikan Jiku
 This is a small portion of the city that still retains it's traditional look.  Kurashiki is well known for a particular white and black pattern on its buildings that resemble old fashioned warehouses, or "kura."  Our guide books said that it wasn't far from the train station, and the weather was beautiful, so we decided to walk.  Of course, we lost our way, but I had also brought along a phrase book, and finding a kind passerby, we managed to make out way to the Bikan Jiku without too much fuss.
                                                             Three adventurers!
Like it's name, it really is a beautiful area.  Basically, it's the area on either side of a small river that winds its way through town.  In the summer, they have little boats that will punt you up the river and back for a small fee.  
                                                                  Kurashikigawa, that runs through the quarter
It was even recently filmed for part of a set in a historical movie.  For those of you who have seen the recent Rurouni Kenshin movie, they use the river and it's bridges as the location for outside the Akebeko.  Rurouni Kenshin is my all time favorite manga, so I spent the first day of my maternity leave last fall going to see it at the theater.  As the fight scene spilled out of the Akebeko and into the streets, suddenly I realized that I had seen that place (I've been back to the Bikan Jiku several times since that first trip).  I waited to see the credits, and sure enough, they had filmed in Kurashiki! 
                                                                                           Fall at the Bikan Jiku

Our first stop was the Japan Rural Toy Museum (Nihon Kyoudo Gangukan), one of the most famous toy museums in Japan.  The bottom floor is a small toy shop, selling kaleidascopes, tops, paper balloons, and so on.  Behind the shop is a small corridor that winds up stairs and around display cases, displaying all sorts of toys from different areas of Japan and different eras, plus a small display of foreign toys as well.  It was pretty interesting, but a little narrow.  When the three of us going up ran into a couple coming back down, it took a little maneuvering to get out of each others way.
                                                                   A little bridge over the Kurashikigawa

Our next stop was the Ivy Square, a little off the main way.  A large, ivy covered brick complex, it began as a weaving mill, and still holds a textile museum, as well as a few small boutiques, a small art museum with Japanese and western art, and the Ivy Gakkan (academic hall).  They were setting up for a wedding in the courtyard as we visited.  Merissa and Janessa took photos with the ladies in kimono that were gathering, and then off we went.  On the way back to the Kurashiki-gawa, the little river, we stopped at a small shop to buy senbe, rice crackers. 
                                                                              A wedding at Ivy Square

Our last stop in Bikan Jiku was a run past the I Love Candy Museum, a large pink building emitting a delicious smell across the street.  
                                                      The I Love Candy Museum, Kurashiki
Sadly, we were 10 minutes too late to take the tour around the museum!  Oh noes!  We took a few pictures instead, and headed back to the train station, where a fabulous lunch at McDonalds awaited us.  

As we headed out the opposite exit from the train station that had led us to the Bikan Jiku, a giant ferris wheel loomed ahead of us.  There was a theme park just across from the train station!  Trivoli Park, it was a Dutch themed amusement park, mostly dealing with Hans Christian Anderson and his collection of fairy tales.  Merissa and I were all for going in.  The prices dropped significantly after 5 PM, and it was just 4:30.  Perfect!  
"I can't," Jenessa said, sadly.  "I have to be back in Fukuyama by 6."
Too bad, but it had already been a long, full day, so in the end we decided to all head back together.  There would be other chances to go to Trivoli.i
                                               Trivoli Park, as seen from Kurashiki Station
                                       *                                *                               *

Flash forward 7 years... I now live in Okayama City, as close to Kurashiki as you can get.  I have been to the Bikan Jiku several times, in every season (though fall is the best by far).  I did manage to make it to Trivoli Park several times as well, once for their Christmas illumination, which was beautiful!  Sadly, the park is now gone, and in its place is a large shopping mall.  Almost once a week, my husband and I bundle up the baby and head for Aeon Kurashiki, another large mall about 20 minutes from our apartment.  It's easy for us to get dinner there even with the baby, and we always need to pick up something for our son, diapers or clothes and so on.  Aeon had the movie theater I went to to see Rurouni Kenshin and discover the Bikan Jiku on the big screen.  A lot has changed since my first visit, but Kurashiki has always held a special place in my heart.  It's a good place with lots of parks, museums, friendly people, and is a very convenient location with a shinkansen stop, a port, and access not only east-west, but also north-south (for those wanting to go up to the Nihon Kai (Japan Sea).  If you have some extra time while exploring western Japan, I highly recommend it!

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