This small town's Bikan historical quarter is just half a dozen preserved streets around a picturesque willow-lined canal, but is richly rewarding and well worth visiting en-route between Kyoto and Hiroshima. A welcome relief from bustling cities, it is the perfect size for a leisurely stroll alongside small wooden boats gliding downstream. The old black and white trading warehouses that line the canal are still intact in their original condition, and the boat passengers’ cone-shaped kasa straw hats add to the traditional Edo-period Japanese atmosphere. This rural haven feels like a pocket of living Japanese history, as rickshaws trundle around the narrow, cobbled streets and herons and koi fish dart about in the water.
The pretty buildings have now been converted into museums and gift shops, where all manner of uniquely Japanese crafts and fine confectionery can be found. At the heart of the Bikan quarter is the Ohara Museum opened in 1930, which houses a surprisingly inspired collection of western art curated by the owner, with the advice of painter Torajiro who studied in Europe. Rodin, Monet and Matisse, to name a few, are all featured here. Since then an equally impressive 20th century arts wing has been added, including works by Warhol, Lichtenstein and Pollock, as well as a wing showcasing Japanese pottery, woodcuts and other crafts.Scattered through the museum sit Henry Moore sculptures and a beautifully manicured garden, complete with trickling stream and classical stone bridges. One may catch glimpses of traditionally dressed geisha and newlywed couples here, for this particular spot is a popular backdrop for professional photographs.
The Museum of Folk Crafts, displaying quality textiles and ceramics, can also be found along the Bikan canal, as can the Japan Rural Toy Museum. This immense collection of Japanese toys is remarkably well-arranged and makes for an entertaining visit for all ages. Keep an eye out for charming coffee shops that serve traditional recipes as well as hidden-away local shrines and tiny temples. A cluster of modern artisan workshops have recently been added to bring about a fresh, lively atmosphere, offering an alternative to the traditional Edo-period preserved town. We highly recommend staying the night here at one of the traditional inns alongside the mercifully pylon-free canal-side which is even more beautiful by night. Spending an evening at a ryokan with your own kimono, slippers, wooden ofuro hot bath and a gourmet kaiseki dinner will provide an unforgettable stay.
Kurashiki truly exudes a charm to rival the prettiest streets of Kyoto, at a gentler pace without the crowds and makes the perfect pitstop to inject some tranquillity into an itinerary. For art lovers, Naoshima island and Matsue (which is home to Adachi Art Museum) can easily be reached from here. Otherwise, Okayama is a convenient next port of call with its multiple bullet train links around Japan.