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Trip Report: Mid-November, 1 night Okayama, 2 nights Naoshima

Trip Report: Mid-November, 1 night Okayama, 2 nights Naoshima

Nov 25th, 2017, 02:51 AM
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Trip Report: Mid-November, 1 night Okayama, 2 nights Naoshima

Hope this isn't double post- thought I'd submitted it but it hasn't appeared so trying again...

Original impetus for this trip was desire to visit Korakuen, the garden in Okayama ranked one of the top three landscape gardens in the country. Although a keen gardener and knowledgeable about Japanese gardens, I’d never call myself a fan. But we were so impressed by Kenrokuen in Kanazawa (also one of the three greats) that we thought we should check this one out.

We arranged shinkansen and hotel through JTB which always offers a good package deal. The JTB agent suggested we extend the trip to Shodoshima, the ‘olive island’ in the inland sea which boasts a famous ryokan (Mari). Shodoshima didn’t appeal this time round but the suggestion reminded us that Okayama is a jumping off point for the ‘art islands’ and we decided to add two nights on Naoshima.
We were surprised by our Japanese friends’ reactions to our plans. Those in their thirties were enthusiastic about Noashima – though none had visited and described it as ‘the place foreigners like.’ In contrast, the older generation seemed never to have heard of it. One very well travelled, educated friend was so disconcerted that she wasn’t familiar with it that she went away and researched, telling me later ‘I understand where you are going now. It is the ‘rubbish island’ transformed into a place for foreign tourists!”

One of the challenges of visiting the art islands is scarcity of accommodation. We definitely wanted to stay on Naoshima rather than taking day trips from Uno or Honmura. But the choice comes down to the very expensive Bennesse House or guesthouses and hostels – really nothing in between. In September most places were already fully booked for the two nights we wanted in mid November. BH had availability for one of the dates so I booked that as free cancellation was possible up until a week before check-in. I kept checking the website for cancellations but the only rooms that came up were the top end suites. While the BH room rates could be justified as the unique chance to stay in the Ando-designed museum, adding in breakfast and dinner pushed the final figure sky high. It wasn’t clear at all what the options were for eating elsewhere and while skipping breakfast was no hardship, dinner was another matter. The Japanese restaurant was fully booked for the night we would be there, leaving only the French restaurant which was not our first choice.

We considered having one night at BH and then transferring to other accommodation but decided we would rather stay put for the two nights. I booked the ‘apartment’ at the Guest House Omiyake in Honmura, via Booking.com and Google translate. In the week before we travelled, I emailed the owner twice and he responded promptly. His English turned out to be near fluent – though he said his French was even better. The experience if we’d stayed at BH would have been totally different but the guesthouse turned out to be the right decision for us.

Okayama: We arrived midday Sunday and went directly to the Information Centre. Although I’d pieced together as much information as possible online and via JNTO and JTB offices in Tokyo, I was anxious to confirm the bus and boat schedules for getting to Inujima and then Naoshima the following day. This turned out to be a good move as the direct bus which I’d counted on getting us from Okayama to Honmura (embarkation port for Inujuma) on Monday turned out to run weekends only. But the handout showing the necessary train to bus to boat connections was all we needed to reschedule.

We then dropped our bags at the ANA Crowne Plaza (attached to the station and chosen purely for convenience and the JTB rate) and headed out to Korakuen. We took the tram there, direct but requiring a short walk to the actual garden. Before entering we stopped at one of the little restaurants with verandas built out over the river facing the castle and enjoyed the seasonal speciality: oyster udon. Korakuen, while not on the same scale as Kenrokuen in Kanazawa, beautifully exemplifies the ‘borrowed’ landscape technique. In contrast to Tokyo gardens where most gardens are set against a backdrop of skyscrapers, the only manmade structure visible from this garden is the castle. Korakuen reminded me of Capability Brown’s work in that great artifice has created what appears a simple natural landscape.

Returning, we took the bus from Korakuen’s main exit/entrance which winds a bit before arriving at the station. Our Pasmo cards worked on the tram, bus and almost all trains in the area. This proved a great convenience when we found the station mobbed with crowds returning from the Okayama marathon which had just ended. Most were queuing to buy tickets so we were able to sail past and board the train to Kurashiki where we were headed for the ‘historic district’ based around a small canal. We were there at dusk to enjoy the illuminations – as a result most of the museums/houses were closing but the area was very atmospheric. Probably most interesting was a photographic exhibit in Ivy Square, a complex based in an old textile mill. Although good for a pleasant hour or two, Kurashiki didn’t really strike us a ‘must see.’ That night we had a Japanese dinner in the restaurant on top of the hotel – an easy option between two major travel days. Next morning we were off to Inujima by train, bus and boat, and then on to Naoshima. To be continued.
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