In the heart of Japan, Okayama Prefecture offers a captivating blend of rich history, stunning landscapes, and cultural wonders. During our trip to Matsue, we had a couple of hours free to explore the city of Okayama, known for its deep-rooted connection with the legendary folklore hero, Momotaro.
Okayama and Momotaro
Okayama’s cultural identity is intricately linked with Momotaro, a popular figure in Japanese folklore. Momotaro, meaning “Peach Boy”, is a heroic character who embarks on a journey to defeat ogres plaguing the region. Legend has it that Momotaro was found inside a giant peach floating down the river by an elderly couple. As he grows up, Momotaro sets out on a quest with animal companions—a dog, a monkey, and a pheasant—to vanquish the ogres.
The Momotaro tale has become a symbol of courage and triumph over adversity, and Okayama proudly embraces this legend. Visitors can explore Momotaro-related attractions, from shrines and statues, like the one in front of Okayama station (on the article cover), to themed events that celebrate the hero’s legacy, as the ones in Momotaro Karakuri Museum, which will also offer related goods.
Okayama Castle and Korakuen Garden
One of Okayama’s most iconic landmarks is Okayama Castle, whose grounds offer a glimpse into Japan’s feudal past, with well-preserved structures and artifacts.
In the vicinity of the current Okayama Castle along the Asahi River, three hills named Okayama, Ishiyama, and Tenjinyama once stood. Ukita Naoie, seizing control of Ishiyama Castle, strategically positioned himself, elevating the prominence of the Okayama region during the tumultuous Warring States period. His son, Hideie, envisioned the main enclosure and keep, known as Honmaru, atop the Okayama hill, leading to the construction of Okayama Castle—a structure that endures to this day. Historical records suggest that the Tenshu (castle tower) reached completion in 1597 under the guidance of Toyotomi Hideyoshi during the Edo era.
To safeguard the castle’s north and east sides, the ingenious design of the branching channels of the Asahi River, as seen today, was implemented. These waterways were strategically transformed into moats, enveloping the castle. A thriving castle town unfolded, stretching expansively in a north-south direction between these moats. This meticulous urban planning laid the groundwork for the establishment of the contemporary city center of Okayama. Subsequent castle lords, including Kobayakawa Hideaki and the Ikeda Clan, further expanded both the castle and its surrounding town, shaping the foundations that persist to the present day.
Adjacent to the castle is Korakuen Garden, with its meticulously designed paths offering a serene experience that transports you to a bygone era. Approximately three centuries ago, the esteemed Japanese garden known as Okayama Korakuen was crafted under the auspices of the region’s lord. Serving as an emblem of samurai influence, this garden is acclaimed as one of Japan’s three great gardens, standing alongside Kanazawa City’s Kenroku-en and Mito City’s Kairakuen.
Enveloping a vast 13 hectares, the garden revolves around the Enyo-tei House, originally constructed as living quarters. It boasts diverse elements, including a Noh Stage, ponds, hills, plum groves, and a tea plantation. Unlike traditional Japanese gardens, Okayama Korakuen features expansive lawns, fostering an open-minded ambiance. Designed in a circuit-style layout, the garden allows visitors to meander amidst its beauty, offering picturesque views from Yuishinzan Hill and along nearby waterways.
From the vantage point of Enyo-tei House near the main gate, spectators are treated to a breathtaking panorama of Okayama Castle and the encompassing mountains just beyond the park boundaries. At the heart of the park, Ryuten Rest House, with a stream coursing through it, invites contemplation as visitors revel in the soothing flow of water passing beneath the structure. The park is home to the breeding of Japanese cranes and showcases attractions like a plum grove with 100 trees, as well as seasonal blooms such as cherry blossoms, azaleas, irises, and lotuses. The autumn foliage provides an enchanting spectacle.
Okayama’s renown for its peaches is deeply rooted in the Japanese folk tale of Momotaro”, while the symbolism of peach blossoms designates it as Okayama’s official “Prefectural Flower.”
The inception of full-scale peach cultivation dates back to 1875 during the Meiji Period, marked by the introduction of peaches from China to Okayama. The convergence of favorable environmental conditions and the dedicated efforts of pioneering individuals armed with ingenious techniques catapulted Okayama into one of Japan’s leading peach-producing regions.
Exemplary care is devoted to cultivating white peaches, wherein each fruit is meticulously shielded with a small bag to safeguard its delicate, soft white skin and nurture it to flawless ripeness. This labor-intensive process stands as a pivotal technique in producing top-tier peaches. Diverse varieties of white peaches exist, each exhibiting distinct ripening seasons and flavors. Among these, the Shimizu White Peach stands out as one of Okayama’s most celebrated peach varieties, leaving an indelible impression with its splendid flavor and rich juice. The Okayama Yume Hakuto, notable for its substantial size and remarkable sweetness, represents a unique and exclusive variety cultivated solely in Okayama. Beyond these, Okayama boasts an array of delectable white peaches. The excellence of these peaches isn’t solely attributed to the region’s natural endowments; rather, it is a testament to the relentless dedication and meticulous care bestowed upon the peaches by the diligent producers in Okayama.
Okayama, with its historical significance, cultural landmarks, and the enduring legacy of Momotaro, offers a captivating journey through Japan’s rich tapestry. Whether you’re exploring the majestic Okayama Castle, strolling through the serene Korakuen Garden, or delving into the artistic wonders of the Prefectural Museum of Art, Okayama promises an immersive and unforgettable travel experience. As you navigate the city’s diverse attractions, let the spirit of Momotaro guide you through a landscape where tradition and modernity harmonize, creating a unique and enriching adventure in the heart of Japan.