Many travelers to Japan take trips to popular destinations like Tokyo and Kyoto, and not without reason – these areas boast some of the most beautiful and easily accessed locations in the country. Some feel that popular places are not worth visiting and photographing since they’ve already been photographed repeatedly, but I would not agree with that sentiment. Popular locations become popular for a reason, and every photographer is going to offer a unique take on the location during their visit, if for not other reason than differing conditions. At the same time, Japan boasts a number of spectacular hidden gems that relatively few visitors will experience. While these may be off the beaten path a bit, they are just as much worth the visit if the itinerary allows for it.
One such place is the Kurashiki Bikan Historic Quarter in Okayama Prefecture, Japan. What the area lacks in size, it makes up for in beauty and history. Hundreds of years ago, the Bikan Quarter was an area used for storage of important commodities such as rice. In fact, these storage buildings were so central to the area that the city’s name – Kurashiki – contains the word for them in Japanese (kura). The canal which exists there today was originally built to allow for the easy passage of supplies.
Today many of these old storehouses are maintained in the Kurashiki Bikan Historical Quarter, though they now contain shops, restaurants, or museums rather than commodities. The canal, which once was important for transport, is now maintained as a way to take a short tour through the area on an old style boat. Both sides of the canal are lined with weeping willows and other beautiful plants, which make a boat ride down it all the more pleasant.
One of my favorite parts of this historical quarter is that all the power lines have been put underground or otherwise hidden from view, so that the area maintains the feel of old Japan. Buildings are often very close to one another in Japan by necessity, so there are typically power lines zigzagging in all directions wherever you go, but the good folks who maintain this area wanted to give it a greater ambiance by avoiding this visual distraction. Along with the old style lanterns around the canal, a visit to the Bikan District is like taking a trip back in time.
Some of Japan’s hidden gems can be difficult to access if you don’t have a vehicle or read Japanese, but that is thankfully not the case with the Kurashiki Bikan Historical Quarter. Okayama Station is situated along the main shinkansen (bullet train) line connected to Tokyo, and it is only a short train ride from there to Kurashiki Station. From this station, it’s a fairly brief and straightforward stroll to the district.
If you’re planning a visit to Japan and want to get off the beaten path a bit, I highly recommend paying a visit to the Bikan District. It’s the perfect opportunity to learn some of Japan’s history and experience the past at the same time. And you’ll probably pick up some great souvenirs along the way!
Travel Tip: stay around until dusk and blue hour. Although the crowds are typically light anyway, they thin out almost entirely at this time of day. As the lights and lanterns come on for the evening, the atmosphere in the district becomes all the more stunning.
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