Kōrakuen Garden in Okayama

Okayama is a small city on the Shinkansen line between Himeji and Hiroshima. We first visited 11 years ago following the Rough Guide’s recommendation to use it as a base for visiting off-the-beaten track gems such as Takamatsu. Himeji is under 25 minutes away by train—an easy day trip—and its good value business hotels make it a better overnight stop for the sort of Rough Guide/Lonely Planet-reading budget conscious travellers we are. At the time it struck us as being a welcome opportunity to experience a more “real” Japan than the glitz of Tokyo and the foreigner-friendly tourist attractions.

Returning for the first time 11 years later, it was still as lovely as before but decidedly more aware of its potential as a tourist destination in its own right. It is the main gateway to the new and popular island-hopping bicycle tours and its Kōrakuen Garden is one of the great gardens of Japan and definitely worth a visit. It provided us with several hours of happy and peaceful diversion and, in contrast to Himeji Castle, there are multiple cafés and tearooms inside to keep you refreshed while you explore. Leaving the garden towards the castle there are some casual riverside restaurants with lovely views over the river. Okayama Castle’s commanding position completes the vista but is a modern concrete reconstruction following the original’s destruction in World War 2 so we did not venture inside.

Himeji Castle

Himeji is the most famous of Japan’s 12 original castles, and a popular stopover on the tourist route from Tokyo to Hiroshima. During our previous trip to Japan it was part-way through a five year programme of renovation and preservation so this was our first opportunity to fully appreciate its majestic beauty.

In addition to surviving wars and earthquakes, the castle’s domineering position on the skyline has been sympathetically preserved. Visitors arriving by train are left in no doubt as to why they should leave the train here with a grand vista from the Shinkansen platform. Reaching the castle is a 20 minute walk from the train station, not easy going in the July heat, but there are a good selection of ice-cream shops and bakeries to sustain you. No food or drink (other than water) is allowed to be consumed inside the ticketed part of the castle grounds, so it is important to time your visit around meal times.

The castle grounds are interesting to explore, and the West Bailey has informative displays about some of the former inhabitants, and how they lived. The main keep is unfortunately a little anti-climatic after such a grand build up. The upper floors of the keep are nearly empty so it becomes mostly about climbing flight-after-flight of very steep steps until you reach the top, where you can enjoy fresh breezes from the windows and the view out over Himeji city, except that Himeji is not the most pretty or interesting of cities to look at—you are already inside its best bit!