Kibi Plain, Okayama

I was in Okayama on a Monday when all the museums are closed, so I took a 10 minute train ride to Bizen-Ichinomiya Station and rented a bicycle to go exploring the Kibi Plain. This was the site of the Kibi Kingdom which was very powerful in 4th century Japan, with its strategic position between different tribes in Japan and its connections with kingdoms in Korea.  It was a really nice cycle through rice fields, passing temples, historic sites, and sites connected to the legend of Prince Kibitsuhiko, who was the basis of the even more legendary Momotaro, a hero born of a peach who battled ogres and enjoyed kibi dango, sweet millet dumplings.IMG_7505IMG_7506IMG_7509IMG_7510My first stop was Kibitsuhiko Shrine where the prince prayed before going to fight the ogres.  The omikuji fortunes at this shrine are in the form of peaches, in honour of Momotaro, the Peach Boy.IMG_7513It started out as a dull day, and the rice fields looked very desolate with their burnt stalks.IMG_7516

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Kibitsu Shrine is where the prince battled the ogre, and it has really long covered corridors which look out on lovely little gardens where the plum trees were blossoming.IMG_7522IMG_7525What I was really excited to see on this trip were the kofun, keyhole-shaped burial mounds dating from between the 3rd and the 7th centuries A.D. that gave their name to that period.  I don’t know much about them but they remind me of the megalithic monuments in Ireland, although of course, the ones in Ireland are thousands of years older.  The mounds were build to house tombs of the Kibi royalty, who were interred in stone coffins in the round part of the mound, with swords, mirrors and other accessories.

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These mounds are really noticeable in Japan because of the lack of hills.  It’s either flatland or mountains.  I liked Tsukuriyama because of its rural setting, dividing a tiny hamlet from rice fields.  The only tourist facility was a box where you could take a photocopied map of the mound.  There was a shrine built over where the grave would be on the circular part, and then two rows of trees going down to the squared-off end.  The sun came out and cast a golden light over the rest of the afternoon.

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After Tsukuriyama Kofun, I went to Komori Kofun where a tunnel had been excavated into the burial chamber so you could see the stone coffin through a gate.

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The last notable place on the trail was the Bitchu-Kokubunji Temple with its five-storey pagoda, and the yellow fields of rapeseed made a nice change from the burnt rice paddies. It being a Monday in February, I was the only tourist exploring the plains, the only other people I saw were working in the fields or walking their dogs.  My pink rental mama-chari bicycle served me well and I dropped it off at another bicycle rental shop at Soja, from where I got the train back to Okayama city.

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Okayama + Kurashiki

At the end of February I had been feeling cabin-feverish because winter showed no sign of easing off, so I decided to take a trip down south for a few days during the school’s exam period when I had no lessons. I wanted to revisit Naoshima on the off-season, and I decided to take in Okayama as well while I was down there. It just so happened that the Saturday I arrived in Okayama, was the day of the famed Naked Man’s Festival in Saidaiji, and because of that, an Irish friend of mine from Nagasaki was there to support some of her friends who were taking part. Around the temple were rows and rows of food stalls, and when we arrived, the fireworks display was just ending. It was very strange to have such a summer festival atmosphere on a chilly, drizzly February night. Although, it wasn’t as strange as the sight of hundreds of almost-naked men running around a temple.IMG_7459

The men were dressed in loincloths and tabi socks, and seemed to be in various groups or teams, some might have been coworkers and I think there were a few school sports teams there as well. They ranged from very young, maybe 14 or so, to very old, and there were some foreigners taking part too. In their groups they ran up the stairs to the temple where they were splashed with cold water by a priest in the rafters, then they ran around the grounds, visiting the shrine, chanting “wa-shoi!” and jumping to keep warm. At 10 o’clock, all the men gathered under the porch of the temple, spilling out onto the steep stone steps. This is the main event – a priest throws down three holy wooden sticks, and the men have to fight to get them.  It was pretty violent, but it was over in about 20 minutes.

IMG_7471IMG_7474The next day my friend and I went to Kurashiki, a quaint little Edo-period merchant town with canals and great museums.IMG_7496IMG_7489

The wealth of Kurashiki came from the spinning company that was founded in 1888 by Koushiro Ohara. Textiles were always an important part of Japanese industry, but it was revolutionized in the Meiji period with the introduction of Western technology. Kurabo was the first modern cotton mill, and the original site is now a memorial hall to the history of the company. The building itself was very impressive, and the artefacts were really interesting – from examples of original machinery and models of workers’ homes, to displays of the company’s role during the war and its development after. I really wished I was able to read the Japanese explanations because there wasn’t much English.

IMG_7490The Ohara Museum was founded in 1930 by Magosaburo Ohara who owned the Kurabo Textile Company, in honour of Torajiro Kojima, a Japanese artist who had died the year before. Kojima had been sent to Europe by Ohara to study art there and to collect Western artworks.  The work of Kojima is kept in the Kojima Museum beside the Kurabo Museum, but the Main Gallery has a really impressive range of works by artists from El Greco to Picasso and is well worth a look for anyone interested in the canon of art history.  Not only that, but in the Annex there is an interesting collection of contemporary Japanese painting and sculpture, and in the Craft and Asiatic Art Gallery, which was remodeled from an old granary, there are examples of ancient Chinese, Middle-Eastern and Egyptian artefacts, and Japanese ceramics, woodblock prints and stencil dyes, so there’s something for everyone.IMG_7484In Okayama city, I went to the Orient Museum which has an amazing collection of ancient to medieval ceramics, stone carvings, metalwork and glassware from the Middle East.  Normally I don’t get very excited over those kinds of crafts, but they were really well displayed in a really cool building and there was an English audio-guide that explained a lot about the history of the artefacts and the civilizations that produced them.  I also visited the Yumeji Art Museum, dedicated to Takehisa Yumeji, a prominent painter and print-maker in the Taisho era (1912-1926) and I might write more about him another time, when I visit his museum in Kanazawa.

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March 3 was Girl’s Day or Doll’s Festival, and we saw a lot of displays of dolls representing the Emperor, Empress and court from the Heian period, which is the traditional decoration for this festival.IMG_7502

Before I left Okayama, I visited the castle which is known as Crow Castle due to the fact that its exterior wooden walls are stained black.  Except for one ‘moon-viewing’ turret that dates from 1620, this castle is a reconstruction from 1966, after it was destroyed during World War II.  It sits right across the river from Korakuen Garden, one of Japan’s top three landscape gardens, of which Kanazawa’s Kenrokuen is one.

IMG_7552IMG_7555IMG_7560It wasn’t the most beautiful time of year to visit the garden because the lawns had recently been burned, but I did enjoy some kibi dango, sweet millet dumplings, with tea and admired the plum blossoms, for which its famous.IMG_7557IMG_7558