Okayama is located roughly halfway between Osaka and Hiroshima, near the Seto Sea which cuts Shikoku from Honshu. I went to Okayama from Takamatsu, precisely because the journey by train takes less than an hour and costs nothing, thanks to the Japan Rail Pass. The city itself may not be Japan's tourist mecca, but it has two very interesting visits which deserve to spend the day for them:
- U-jo, an impressive black castle which houses a small surprise inside
- Koraku-en, a stunning Japanese garden known as one of the most beautiful in all Japan
Advantage: the castle and garden are located around the Asahi River, each on one side.
Leaving Okayama station, you have to walk about twenty minutes through (not memorable) shopping arcades. But it's also possible to get on a small tram which takes you on the banks of Asahi in five minutes for ¥100. Considering the heat on our day of visit, this is the option we chose.
Upon arriving near the castle, you can walk around and through the walls to admire the scenery. The large building U-jo, in particular, is significant not only because of its characteristic black color. With its gilding, it's almost shining and for good reason: dating from the end of the sixteenth century, it was destroyed during World War II and rebuilt in 1966.
But its interior is even more surprising: you start the tour by taking the elevator (!) to climb almost directly to the sixth and last floor. The castle hides all modern comforts that surprised me. I'm naive, I know, but after Himeji I was not expecting that! In any case, the view of the city and the Japanese garden is really worth a look.
Koraku-en is considered one of the three most beautiful gardens in Japan. Dating from the seventeenth century, it is particularly extensive and airy. Built around a large water pond, it reveals huge grass areas, a forest of bamboo, minimalist constructions, a Torii, and even paddy fields!
The atmosphere is obviously extremely quiet as tourists and locals come here for the beauty and serenity it inspires. Note that a common ticket gives you access to both castle and Japanese garden visits for ¥560.
If you get a chance, don't hesitate to go to Okayama for a casual day trip.