Visit Kurashiki's historical district and stroll down streets straight out of history books and enjoy the food from the Seto Inland Sea and the many crafts of Okayama. Kurashiki is famous for black and white warehouses of the merchant class from the Edo era. The area is the textile centre of Japan and you'll find many traditional and new ways to use denim.
BY Lori Ono
A visit to Kurashiki and its historical district allows you to experience some of the best that Okayama Prefecture and Japan have to offer. Known as the Kurashiki Bikan Historical Quarter, this place is considered one of Japan’s most scenic spots. Residents balance architectural and cultural preservation with modern life and tourism. In less than a 10-minute walk from the station, you can be strolling along picturesque streets lined with rows of black-tiled white buildings, interesting shops and museums.
Established on land reclaimed from salt marshes around 400 years ago, this town became a center for industry and trade. During the Edo era (1603 to 1868) Kurashiki was a Daikansho, the location of the shogun’s representative to the area, making it a place of commerce. The canal system on the Kurashiki River developed and the merchant class flourished.
Japan has many World Heritage sites and many old and fascinating buildings to explore. But Japan’s history and geography provides challenges for architectural conservation. Earthquake, fire, and war are just some of the issues faced when it comes to preserving many old buildings and neighbourhoods in Japan. Modernization and improvements put pressures on neighbourhoods to change. This part of Kurashiki escaped these pressures and focused on conservation. Rather than modern reconstructions of the past, the remodelled and renovated buildings illustrate how industry and architecture answered many of the challenges of climate and economic pressures for the merchant class.
Many of the buildings in the Bikan Historical Quarter were warehouses, called kura, for storing products. The warehouses evolved from wooden structures to the stronger and more moisture-resistant ones we see today. Many of them now function as kominka (traditional houses), hotels, and shops. The white mortar and black tiles are now Kurashiki’s signature. You can buy a little mascot of the kura and find many souvenirs embracing the design.
The signature black tile with white mortar is called namako kabe (sea cucumber wall) because the raised mortar is said to look like a sea cucumber. You will see two types of patterns. Older buildings have square patterns and newer buildings have diamond patterns. The diamond pattern represents an evolution in the design, as it allows water to drain faster.
During peak seasons, Japanese and inbound tourists alike fill the streets. If you hope to catch some quiet street scenes, sightsee before businesses open. Street lighting designed to make the most of the area’s charm makes a walk along the evening streets feel like traveling back in time.
In the Meiji Era (1868-1912), a cotton mill was built in the area that was the daikansho. The red brick factory of the Kurashiki Bosekijo (Kurashiki Spinning Mill) was based on English factories. That material proved problematic in Kurashiki’s strong summer sun and made working conditions difficult. The solution was to plant ivy which covered the building and kept it cool. The ivy and red-brick continues to this day.
After World War II, the factory became a hotel. Now the complex houses various shops and museums and public spaces. The ivy-draped square is open to the public. The square has a water feature with water lilies, a nod to the Monet painting in the Ohara Museum.
The Ohara is the first private museum of western art in Japan. Magosaburo Ohara founded the museum in 1930 to commemorate Torajiro Kojima who collected many works of art in Europe on Ohara’s behalf. The collection has work by artists such as El Greco, Monet as well as painting by Kojima himself. Ohara Museum keeps connected to the present with programs like Artist Meets Kurashiki. The museum invites young artists to create work inspired by the area and pieces in the collection. Each year features different artists.
If you are a fan of Japanese gardens you won’t want to miss Shinkei-en. Koshiro Ohara hired renowned garden designer Jihei Ogawa VII (1860 – 1933) to create Shinkei-en in 1893. Ogawa created Murin-an in Kyoto, considered one of the great gardens in Japan and an important cultural asset.
Kurashiki glass is hand-blown with signature colors of teal blue, clear, and opaque. It has a more organic, relaxed, feel compared to other traditional glass arts in Japan. This glass is available at a few shops in the Bikan Area. Tōrumingeiten (Folk Art Store) sells pottery as well as glass works by Shinzo Kotani, the first glass master in Kurashiki as well as the work of his descendants.
Another famous Kurashiki product brings joy and organization to stationery addicts everywhere. In Japan, this adhesive tape made from Japanese paper (washi) is MT for masking tape. Stationery fans around the world call it washi tape. The MT Company washi tape found success in making masking tape with patterns and designs. Most shops selling souvenirs also sell washi-tape, but two shops can fill your washi-tape dreams.
At the age of 70, Hiroshi Tanegashima opened this store in the heart of the Bikan Historical Quarter in 2013. The walls of masking tape and the rusty car is part of the shop’s fun design aesthetic. Tane specializes in selling MT brand tape and they have small projects you can do in the shop.
On the outer edge of the Bikan Historical Quarter, near the foot of Tsurugatayama Hill you’ll find Nyochikudou. The vibe is quieter but the selection is good. You can use their free trial station for 10 minutes and decorate a small fan, bag or button with tape from the sample box.
Starting out as the drugstore and business of Hayashi Genjuro, in 2012 this complex became a collection of stores and restaurants. The main building Design Market Kurashiki houses cafes, sells jewellery, crafts, and stationery, local delicacies. The third floor balcony overlooks tiled rooftops. In a nod to the past, they also operate a pharmacy museum. The outbuildings consist of a cafe and two denim-clothing shops: Heart Made Base and denim-suit shop, In Blue.
Kurashiki maintains its textile roots and is now the number one textile-producing area of Japan. From tabi-socks, tatami ribbons, cords and denim, you can find it in Kurashiki.
The traditional woven igusa grass mats called tatami are a traditional flooring in Japan. The simple woven have elaborate ribbon edging called tatami-beri. Fewer homes use tatami mats, so producers are finding new uses for the tatami ribbons. The Kojima area of Kurashiki makes 80% of Japan’s tatami ribbons. You can find tatami-beri at many stores in the Bikan Historical Quarter.
When Japanese people think of Kurashiki, denim quickly comes to mind. The area may be the number one producer of school uniforms, but denim has made a name for itself here. Denim kimono, denim suits, denim bags, if you want it in denim, this is the place to shop.
Try Kurashiki Kimono Komachi’s modern take on the kimono made with denim. If you prefer something more traditional, they have those as well. You can rent a kimono for a day to get a taste of the history and rhythm of the town. Hair styling is extra. For extra special memories, choose the photo package where a photographer brings you to the best photo spots. Kurashiki Kimono Komachi has two locations: one near the station and the other in the Bikan Historical Quarter.
Locals will tell you that summers in Kurashiki are hot with harsh sunshine and less rain except for typhoons, but it’s an ideal place to grow fruit. To sample the tastes of Kurashiki try fruits like citrus, melons and especially their legendary peaches, fresh fish dishes from the Shimane ports, and B-Kyuu gurume (Japanese soul food) like bukkake udon. Seto Inland Sea lemons are famous throughout Japan. Peaches even play an important role in folktales such as the story of Momotaro, the peach boy. As you wander through the Bikan Historical Quarter, you’ll find many charming snacks, cafes and spots to rest.
Mainly serving baked treats made on location, their second floor is a great place to stretch out tired legs and recharge. They have cables if you forgot yours and free Wi-Fi. On a hot day try their soda with homemade syrups of ginger or orange citrus. Their jams made from local fruit make great souvenirs.
Tsuneki started in 1948 with their recipe for roasted green tea (houjicha). They now also distribute Uji green tea. They have 2 locations in Kurashiki, one in the Bikan Historical Quarter and the other near the station. Stop in for a cup of tea and a chat with your purchase of their fragrant, award-winning tea.
If you’re a fan of noodles, you probably already know about udon, the thick noodle made from wheat, served cold or hot. Bukkake, considered a classic B-kyu Gurume (or Japanese soul food), consists of udon served with a splash of broth, and various toppings. It’s a common dish now, but at Bukkake Furuichi, you can try the dish by the restaurant chain that invented it. Dishes range from classic flavors to complex combinations, Their menu has English translations.
When you come to Kurashiki, be sure to stop in at one of the tourist information centers. You’ll find one located on the south side of Kurashiki Station; the other is in the Bikan Historical Quarter. They have walking maps, brochures and coupons in several languages. You can arrange a free tour with one of the volunteer guides. Find out how to use Kurashiki Free Wi-Fi (VPN recommended). If you get tired of lugging your bag around, store it in a coin locker at a tourist center. A small locker costs JPY 300 yen, and 4 larger lockers that can fit a suitcase are JPY 500 yen. The building closes at 5:00 PM, so make sure you pick up your belongings before then.
The Tourist Information Centre in the Bikan Historical Quarter is located on the corner of the Kurashiki River, next to the Naka Bashi (Centre Bridge). When you need a free place to relax, go to the 2nd floor and take a seat by the window to enjoy the view and watch people creating their own Kurashiki experience.
I’m a Canadian writer and photographer based in Tokyo. I love helping people enjoy their time in Japan.