Preserving the Past in Kurashiki

Searching for towns that have managed to fend off the ills of the modern age can be something of a challenge in Japan, if not most of the world. What a relief, then, Kurashiki. To be sure, most of the town looks like any other city in Japan, but its small historic core has been preserved so carefully that it stands out vividly in my mind among the 40 or so cities I've visited in Japan.

Kurashiki canal Located on the southern edge of Honshu Island, Kurashiki got its start as an administrative center back in the 17th century, when it blossomed as a prosperous marketing town for the rice, sake and cotton that was gathered from the surrounding region and stored here before being shipped off to Osaka and beyond. In those days, rice was as good as gold, and large granaries were constructed to house the mountains of precious granules passing through town. Canals were dug so barges could transport the goods to ships anchored in the nearby Seto Inland Sea.

Kurashiki Bikan Historic District "Kurashiki," in fact, means Warehouse Village, and it's these 200-year-old warehouses, made of black-tiled walls topped with white mortar and lining a willow-fringed canal, that give Kurashiki its distinctive charm: It's like a black-and-white print brought to life. Of course, Kurashiki's carefully preserved historic district, where granaries have been transformed into restaurants, Japanese-style inns, boutiques and museums, comes with a price: tourists. A resident tells me that the best time to explore Kurashiki is early in the morning before the shops open. And real lovers of Kurashiki, he adds, come on Mondays when most everything is closed.

Mansion of Ohara Magosaburo, founder of Ohara Museum of Art But then you'd miss one of Japan's finest small-town art museums, the Ohara Art Museum, located right beside the canal and filled with an amazing collection of European art, including the works of Picasso, Matisse, Chagall, Monet, Degas, Gauguin, Renoir, Kandinsky, Pollack, and Jasper Johns, as well as exhibits of Japanese artists and artisans like Hamada Shoji, Kawai Kanjiro and Munakata Shiko. You'd also miss the Kurashiki Museum of Folkcraft, which houses ceramics, glass, textiles, woodwork, baskets, and other items from around the world, the Japan Rural Toy Museum with its traditional toys from every prefecture in Japan, and the Ohashi House, a mansion built in 1796 by a wealthy rice merchant. And I have to admit it: I enjoy poking around the many shops offering hand-blown glass, women's ethnic clothing from Bali and India, and local crafts like Bizen pottery, papier-mache toys, and mats, handbags and other items made of igusa (rush grass).

Garden of Ryokan Kurashiki Still, I always make a point of wandering the narrow streets of old Kurashiki when it's under the magic spell of an early-morning glow or at dusk, when the historic buildings along the canal are illuminated and the lanes empty of tourists and fill instead with those who live here. White swans glide along the canal, children whiz by on their bicycles, and slopes leading uphill reward the peripatetic with peaceful panoramas and the comforting, muffled sounds of daily life being played out on the streets below. I appreciate Kurashiki's foresight long ago to preserve its architectural heritage, which otherwise might have vanished unsung, unseen and forgotten.

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