Field Report: Okayama Castle and Kōraku-en, Japan (20 November 2016)

I’m no stranger to Okayama, or its castle, or its magnificent garden. And there’s certainly a lot that one can say about all three … but as I’m itching to write about the Shikoku stage of this Japan adventure, let’s just pore over a few snapshots and be done with it.

Now I’ll say it again: Okayama’s a great place. I’d love to return there for a third visit (fourth? I’ve lost count) in order to explore it at a more leisurely pace, and I’d also like to give the city’s attractions the detailed blogging treatment they deserve. But for the moment, a quick peek and away we go.

First, the city itself. Okayama – capital of the eponymous prefecture, population not quite at three-quarters of a million, lots of history and culture and all that … and we’re done.

Well, one last bit. It’s one of western Japan’s key transport hubs and the main gateway for railway services linking the islands of Honshū and Shikoku. (In fact, that’s the main reason why I was spending the night here: I’d booked myself an early morning train down into Shikoku and this was the best place to set off from.)

Right, moving on. Due east of the main railway station stands what’s left of Okayama Castle (岡山城, Okayama-jō). No long-winded spiel on the castle’s history and architecture on this occasion – yes, I can hear the sighs of relief from the readership – so I’ll just throw in this link to the relevant Japan-Guide article, along with this link to Wikipedia, so that anyone desirous of undergoing death by information overload can gorge to their mind’s content.

Just a few pictures then. And I must say, I’ve seen this splendid example of Japanese martial architecture before but it never fails to impress. (Especially with that lovely ginkgo tree garbed in golden autumn glory.)

All right, moving on again. Just north of the castle, across the calm waters of the River Asahi, we find a tree-covered island…

…upon which sits Kōraku-en (後楽園), arguably one of the finest gardens anywhere in Japan. Like the city and the castle, this was a place I’d been to before – in fact I’ve written a post about my previous visit (at the height of sakura season some years ago) so I invite the readership to have a look over there. Add a link to Japan-Guide, and a link to Wikipedia, and we’re done.

Now for the pictures. Late afternoon on a cloudy day doesn’t make for very good photography, but these are some lovely scenes nonetheless.

This was meant to be a breathlessly speedy post, but there’s one feature of the garden that I’d like to dwell upon before we leave (mainly because I wasn’t even aware of its existence on my previous visit). It’s tucked away in a quiet corner near the riverbank, within a short walk of the southern entrance but well hidden behind a hedge and tall stands of bamboo.

Observe how the ground level dips down slightly in this area. A small inlet existed here centuries ago, screened from the river by a tongue of earth with an opening wide enough for small boats in its eastern flank.

These stone steps – excavated just a few years ago – once rose from the water’s edge to a small gate that led directly into Kōraku-en. A nice little private harbour and entrance for the castle lord and his guests, conveniently situated almost directly across the river from Okayama Castle.

The boat entrance was in use until the 1800s, by which time the river was no longer feeding the inlet with sufficient water to allow vessels to dock. A new gate was erected right on the riverbank, not far from where the garden’s present-day southern entrance now stands. Over time, the dried-up inlet and the disused steps were buried under earth and vegetation.

And that’s all for the moment. Over the next few posts, I’ll be zipping around Shikoku in pursuit of even more castles.

Till then, cheerio.

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