New Year Feature (Part 3) – Kurashiki Canals, Japan’s Miniature Venice

Leaving the depressing gardens, we went in search of shabu shabu (しゃぶしゃぶ), because my friend was craving it. It didn’t seem such a bad idea at all. Nothing like some steaming hot broth to warm up freezing bodies, I thought.

A light rain accompanied us en-route to the shabu shabu restaurant, as we navigated through some winding (and partially hidden) alleys in search of the hotpot paradise, aided by Google Maps.

Suddenly, the heavens decided to throw a tantrum, and it started pouring buckets!!

Just then, we spotted the shabu shabu place from across the street and dashed for it, only to be greeted by a wooden sign hanging on its door that read “定休日” (meaning “designated rest day”).

We collapsed on the bench next to the entrance of the restaurant, exhausted and convinced that our day must have been cursed from the start.

There’s nowhere to go for now, because of the rain. So while waiting it out, I browsed Tripadvisor in search of the nearest place that might interest us.

I suggested this authentic (presumably) Indian/Nepalese diner that had some pretty good reviews (Besides, naan and curry were a slice of home for us). If we couldn’t have soup, something spicy could do the trick.dsc04833_blogSo there we checked in (after about half an hour of waiting), when the torrential rains slowed to a drizzle. The restaurant’s interiors are surprisingly simple, sparse even. No ornate paintings of Hindu gods hanging on the walls or wooden sculptures of Krishna or elephants.dsc04832_blogMy friend couldn’t help ogling (yes, shamelessly ogling) at the young dashing Indian waiter who served us, so much so she decided to ask for a selfie with him after we had finished our meal. The naan and curry we had were superbly done, crispy around the edges while not losing its chewy texture. And the curry was deliciously spicy – nothing too overwhelming but enough to give you that kick.

Many Indian restaurants in Japan would give you a scale of spiciness from 0 to 10 to choose from to cater to the generally low spice tolerance of Japanese.  I went with a 5 while my friend opted for a 4.

Sufficiently (and satisfyingly) fueled, we ventured out onto the streets again.

We made our way back to Okayama Station, with the smell of rain (and curry) lingering  on our noses.

Our next stop was Kurashiki (倉敷), a mandatory visit if you are in Okayama.

Only 15 minutes from Okayama Station on the JR Sanyo Line, followed by a 10-minute walk down south from Kurashiki Station along Motomachi-dori (元町道り) or via a sheltered shopping arcade that runs parallel to it, you will be instantly transported back in time to the Edo Period (1603-1867) at Kurashiki Canals (倉敷美観地区).dsc04839_blogNot quite Venice-beautiful, but nonetheless picturesque, Kurashiki Canals (倉敷美観地区) used to be an important rice distribution centre during its halcyon days.

Populated by rice storehouses, built round a network of narrow canals to facilitate transportation, these storehouses, painstakingly preserved, have been converted to museums, cafes, boutique hotels and shops selling local sweets or Japanese handicrafts.dsc04835_blogdsc04841_blogThere’s even a specialty store that sells all things sesame – you have to check it out!! We went omiyage (お土産) window-shopping, tasting the different Japanese sweets but not buying any of them. Very cheeky of us I know (and perhaps not very nice) but hey, Japanese omiyage can be very expensive!!!dsc04847_blogThere’s also the incongruously Western-looking/Romanesque Ohara Museum of Art (大原美術館), apparently Japan’s first museum of Western art, featuring works by Picasso, El Greco, Gauguin, Modigliani, Rodin, Klee, Pollock and Kandinsky among others.

We decided to skip the museum, since neither of us was into art.

My friend wanted to go on a gondola ride but it seemed like New Year’s Eve was not a day for gondola business.

One tip for visitors is to come early, because we noticed that all the shops started to close for the day at around six in the evening.

So if you arrive after sundown, there’s really nothing to see or do except to stroll along the eerily quiet canals.

But if photography (or taking selfies) is your thing, Kurashiki Canals is most alluring in the soft evening glow.        LS

Any images published in this article, unless otherwise stated, are owned by the author. Any unauthorised reproduction or use of these images in any form is strictly prohibited. Please kindly write to me for permission to use any of the images. Thank you very much. 😊dsc04856_blog

 

New Year Feature (Part 2) – Okayama’s Black Beauty

Exhausted from our pre-dawn excursions, including a two-hour maroon at a train station, we decided to sleep in on New Year’s Day, and woke up for lunch. It had been an eventful New Year’s Eve for us, having started the day as early as 8 a.m. The original plan that day had been to visit Okayama Castle (岡山城), bright and early so we could avoid the crowds.dsc04775_blogStanding majestically over the Asahi River (旭川), Okayama Castle (like many castles in Japan) is a reconstruction, the original structure having been almost totally destroyed during the Second World War. Only the Tsukimi Yagura (月見櫓), which translates literally as the “moon viewing turret”, remains from the original 1620 construction. However, what separates Okayama Castle from the others is that it is one of only two jet-black castles ever constructed in Japan, the other being Matsumoto Castle in Nagano. Their black facades have earned them the moniker “Crow Castle”.dsc04781_blogAs luck would have it, Okayama Castle was closed on New Year’s Eve. We consoled ourselves that the inside of the castle probably looked more or less like the dozen or so other castles we have already visited before, and left after taking a few selfies with the castle as backdrop.

Crossing the ugly steel bridge which connects to the castle, we arrived at Korakuen (後楽園), ranked as one of the top three most beautiful landscape gardens in Japan (the other two being Kenrokuen (兼六園) in Kanazawa (金沢) and Kairakuen (偕楽園) in Mito City (水戸市), Ibaraki Prefecture. Korakuen (後楽園) was actually one of my bucket lists of places to check off for Japan.

Except, as I stood on top of a tiny knoll (with Okayama Castle behind me) surveying the monochromatic landscape before me, I couldn’t figure out how the gardens earned its three stars in the Michelin Green Guide. In fact, I felt as if I’ve just been transported back in time to a period when all photos carry a sepia tinge.dsc04817_blogdsc04797_blogI’ve definitely seen more beautiful gardens in Kyoto and Tokyo!

Granted, the expansive lawns, ponds, intimate walking paths make for a relaxing amble. But beauty is not a description that comes first to mind. I decided to blame it on the season. After all, it’s a frigid winter morning. I’m sure a visit during summer or autumn would have done the gardens more justice.

What I did enjoy though, was sitting at one of the wooden benches littered along the banks of the Asahi River and admiring the imposingly majestic black beauty, that is Okayama Castle.dsc04826_blogI’m sure if my fingers weren’t threatening to dislodge themselves or that my belly people weren’t threatening a revolt, I would have liked to linger around longer, possibly with a cuppa in one hand and a book in the other. Summer time, perhaps.

Just then, the heavens poured.

Fat drops of rainfall on a freezing winter’s day. You couldn’t have planned this day better (sarcasm fully intended).

We took refuge at the entrance of a public restroom, looking cold, sheepish and hungry.

Our not-so-happening happening New Year’s Eve had just begun.    LS

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New Year Feature (Part 1) – Ringing in the New Year at Chayamachi Station

I promised to get out of Japan in my previous (and last post of the year) in 2018 but seems like there are still a few stories left in my shelf that I haven’t been able to pull out. In the words of the great Italian-American actor Al Pacino “Just when I thought I was out…they pull me back in.”

And so I present to you this post, which was inspired by a fellow blogger’s comment (Do check out her travel exploits in Japan. Jennifer has probably covered more places in the Land of the Rising Sun than me, and her photos are so gorgeous your eyeballs will be glued to her blog).

But first things first…

HAPPY NEW YEAR EVERYONE!!!

Here’s wishing all my readers a Prosperous Year of the Pig in 2019!!! (Excuse my Chinese-ness. Chinese people love prosperity above all things). *sings* Money, money, money… Must be funny… In the rich man’s world…

Of course, prosperity is not restricted to money and fortunes. So here’s wishing you prosperity in all areas of your life, be it health, family and career!!

I spent my New Year in 2018 at Chayamachi Station (茶屋町駅).

The reason?

My friend and I had intended to catch a train from Okayama Station (岡山駅) to visit the celebrated Kibitsu Shrine (吉備津神社) of Momotaro fame for hatsumode (初詣, a tradition observed by my Japanese on the first day of the new year to pray for safety, peace or well-being in the new year).

But… we ended up taking the wrong direction.

A quick check with the few commuters on board after our gut told us that something was not quite right about confirmed our initial suspicions.

We had taken the wrong train!!

Instead of taking the Momotaro Line (桃太郎線), we had hopped onto the Seto-Ohashi Line (瀬戸大橋線) bound for Shikoku (四国).

So we hastily got off at the next random station, and found ourselves at Chayamachi Station (茶屋町駅).

When the clock struck twelve, we could hear temple bells ringing from different directions (each temple bell is supposed to ring 108 times by the way, to symbolise the cleansing of the 108 worldly desires of the flesh according to Japanese Buddhism) at the station, creating a discordant symphony of sorts.

It was a surreal experience, given our original intention was to catch the ringing of the bells live at the temple itself.

Midnight at a deserted train station, just my friend and I. We didn’t kiss in the New Year, unfortunately.

When the return train to Okayama Station came, after having waited for almost 2 hours, we were so excited (and relieved) that we jumped for joy on the platform.

When we finally got off at our desired station, which shares the same name as our destination temple (吉備津駅), it was almost half past three in the morning.

However, to our pleasant surprise, we found ourselves in good company. No need for Google Maps as all we had to do was to join in the steady stream of Japanese making their way to the temple from the station.

There was still quite a queue up to the main hall of the temple but it could have been worse.

I offered to buy us some snacks (piping hot sweet potatoes) from one of the food stalls that have been doing brisk business next to the temple’s car park.

We soon found ourselves moving at a steady speed up the stone steps, and soon we were standing before the main altar.

We clapped twice, whispered our prayers, and bowed.

I prayed that I won’t take the wrong train again in 2018.     LS

P.S.: This post is dedicated to Alicia Loh, who counted down 2018 with me at Chayamachi Station, and also braved the freezing morning chill to queue for our first omikuji of the year.