Japan is beloved by travelers around the world for its rich cultural history seamlessly blended with the modern era. With so many historical landmarks and cities to visit, it’s easy to overlook some of the country’s hidden gems. One such case is the charming city of Kurashiki, Okayama located on Japan’s Seto Inland Sea. The Bikan district, which translates to the “aesthetic look” district, rightfully earned its name. The old merchant town’s wonderfully preserved Edo Period storehouses transport visitors back in time as they stroll along the scenic Kurashiki Canal shaded beneath the gently flowing willow trees. The charming, western-influenced architecture and a constant stream of gondola tours gliding through the canal brings Venice to mind. However, Kurashiki is a very modest city and promotes a calm and quiet atmosphere comparing to other tourist hotspots.
By Air: Major airlines such as ANA and JAL operate frequent flights from Haneda Airport in Tokyo to Okayama airport every day. Regular ticket fares are typically 30,000 yen depending on when you book your flight, however, discount tickets can easily be found in the 10,000 to 20,000 yen range. After a short 75 minute flight, you can then take a 45-minute shuttle bus ride from Okayama airport to Kurashiki for only 1,000 yen.
By Train: Though I prefer a relaxing train ride, this is usually not the most economical option. Shinkansen tickets from Tokyo to Okayama are about 17,000 yen. Kurashiki does have its own Shinkansen station, but it is generally recommended to transfer at Okayama and take a local train to Kurashiki Station. The trip takes 3.5 to 4 hours, so it is also not the most efficient use of time. However, the route is very scenic, and the smooth experience of riding on Japan’s bullet train is worth considering.
The travel to Kurashiki by Shinkansen is included in the JR Pass.
I believe the best way to experience Kurashiki is to arrive before sunset when the city begins to calm down. Visitors can enjoy the area’s stunning illuminations along the canal before turning in for the night. In the cool morning air, early-risers can enjoy the city and its attractions before the rush of tourists arrive around noon. Fortunately, there are many great places to stay in Kurashiki, so it is easy to appreciate the historical city at its best.
Shared rooms are popular for small tour groups of close friends or travelers who love meeting and interacting with new people along the way. The guesthouse YUURIN-AN is a great option for young travelers on a budget. The beautiful, traditional style building maintains the atmosphere of the Bikan district where it is conveniently located.
Since YUURIN-AN doubles as a cafe, it’s a great place to have some fresh, hot coffee and a nice meal before starting the day’s journey. One night at the hostel will only cost guests 3780 yen. Most information is available in English making it easy for international travelers to plan their trip around staying at this cozy accommodation.
Book it here: YUURIN-AN
Ryokans offer a more traditional experience for those who have a strong interest in Japanese culture. Ryori Ryokan Tsurugata, also located in the heart of the Bikan district, is highly recommended by guests who visit Kurashiki. The beautiful traditional Japanese style rooms and architecture are warm and welcoming.
Guests are provided with the typical amenities found at Japanese ryokans including a futon bedding, TV, toothbrushes, Japanese yukata, and delicious Japanese meals served in the room. The rate for a two-bed room is around 37,000 yen per night. As this ryokan is usually in high demand, it is advised to book tickets well in advance.
Book it here: Ryori Ryokan Tsurugata
At night, guests are free to take a peaceful walk around the area in their comfortable yukata and appreciate the illuminations in the canal. Kurashiki prioritizes conserving its Edo-era atmosphere even in the late evening. Many accommodations provide visitors traditional style Japanese paper lanterns to carry with them as they explore the area at night in their comfortable Japanese yukatas.
The reflections of the white-walled, traditional Japanese buildings and vibrant, green willow trees glowing the calm water of the canal paint the old city in a new light. The illuminations start after sunset and continue until 10:00 PM.
Address: Hommachi, Kurashiki, Okayama, JAPAN 710-0054
Hours: Sunset – 10:00 PM
Ivy Square is one of the city’s main attractions. This ivy-covered, former textile mill now hosts a number of luxurious restaurants, shops, cafes, and a western-style hotel. The classic red brick walls covered in brilliant green vegetation are a symbol of the towns beautiful aesthetic. Even without spending any extra money, visitors can simply soak in the lively atmosphere while walking around and appreciating the architecture. At night locals and sightseers can enjoy eating and drinking in the center until 11:00 PM.
Address: 7-2 Honmachi Kurashiki-City Okayama, JAPAN 710-0054
Hours: 10:00 AM – 11:00 PM
More info: Ivy Square
As you would expect from such a historical and culturally rich city like Kurashiki, there are many museums housed in its vintage buildings. The best example is the Ohara Museum of Art, the first museum of western art in Japan. The Grecian-style building, complete with stone columns, emphasizes its appreciation for western culture.
The Ohara Museum of Art originally hosted mostly French paintings and sculptures when it opened in 1930. The gallery now hosts famous paintings such as El Greco’s The Annunciation and Claude Monet’s Water Lilies as well as pieces by Japanese and other artists around the world.
Address: 1-1-15 Chuo, Kurashiki, Okayama, JAPAN 710-8575
Hours: 9:00 AM – 5:00 PM (Closed on Monday)
Price: 1,300 yen
More info: Ohara Museum of Art
A peaceful gondola ride through the Kurashiki canal provides a view of the theBikan district through a different perspective. It is also just a lot of fun. Traditional hats are provided for passengers as they float through the city taking photos and waving to other tourists. The rides are quick and cheap, but it is definitely worth trying. Looking on from one of the canal’s many bridges, it is difficult to resist the urge to get a spot in line for the next boat.
Address: Hommachi, Kurashiki, Okayama, JAPAN 710-0054
Hours: 9:30 AM – 5:00 PM
Price: 500 yen
Kurashiki is a town that rewards wanderers who have patience and enjoy the simpler things. The cities calm atmosphere promotes a relaxed pace. Travelers rushing through the city only to hit all of the main hotspots as quickly and efficiently as possible are really missing out on all that Kurashiki has to offer. Instead of just running around and photographing the outside of all the elegant, traditional buildings, why not actually spend some time inside them.
Along the narrow streets of Kurashiki, there are many cozy cafes to pause and have a drink. Kurashiki Coffee Kan is a delightful cafe with excellent service and atmosphere. Of course, the coffee and sweets are also fantastic. Behind the walls of the white painted buildings typical of the area is a small hidden Japanese garden that compliments the cafe quite nicely. It is a great way to start the day or slow quiet goodbye before you leave Kurashiki.
Address: Address: 4 – 1 Hommachi, Kurashiki, Okayama, JAPAN 710-0054
Hours: 10:00 AM – 5:00 PM
More info: CoffeKan
Kurashiki is a lovely town to visit that highlights a historic period in Japan and inspires quiet exploration. Especially for wanderers who would prefer an unstructured tour, it is a quaint and relaxing alternative to other famous traditional cities in Japan. For more information on places to visit while you are there, the beautiful Kurashiki visitor center in the Bikan district has plenty of recommendations and helpful tips.
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Andrew Smith is an American writer living in Tokyo. In his free time, he enjoys, photography, live music, and exploring Japan. His goal is to visit and write about every prefecture in Japan someday.