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.