Okayama Delights

57 comments
Asia, East, Japan

Downtown Okayama

Moving on from something good can sometimes be very difficult. And that was exactly what happened to me after my first trip to Japan last year. It was not the country itself that had me utterly captivated, although many things I observed and experienced there left very deep and positive impressions. Rather, it was the grapes from Okayama in the Chugoku region that makes me now think that to travel great distances to taste something so good doesn’t sound so crazy anymore.

It all began with James‘s suggestion to include Okayama in the itinerary of our trip to Japan. It has a black castle, a beautiful garden, and it’s not too far from Osaka, the city where we flew in. He also mentioned about the grapes being very sweet. Sure, I had had sweet grapes before, but the castle and the garden were what I was looking forward to seeing the most in the city.

Conveniently located near Okayama’s main train station, our hotel presented me the first surprise of our stay. Breakfast was not only a feast for the eyes, but also for the taste buds. The tofu was so soft and smooth, the ebimeshi (shrimp fried rice) delicious, and the scrambled eggs perfectly done. However, it was a local Japanese curry that stole my attention. The addition of locally grown tomatoes to the dish gave it an unexpectedly fresh and sweet taste. I’d never thought tomatoes could taste that good.

On full stomachs, we left our hotel and hopped aboard a tram to reach Okayama Castle, also known as the “Crow Castle” thanks to its dark-painted exterior. Completed in the late 16th century, the main tower of the castle was destroyed by firebombing during World War II. Fortunately more than two decades later, a concrete replica was finished, faithful in appearance to the original wooden structure. Our visit to Okayama turned out to coincide with a long weekend in Japan, which meant there was a big crowd going in the same direction we did. It looked daunting at first, but as we merged into the hordes of people, I realized that there was no pushing, jostling, not even loud talking. I don’t usually enjoy being surrounded by too many people, but in Okayama it wasn’t something that bothered me much as everyone was so polite and considerate.

In Japan Cuteness is the Norm

Walking toward Okayama Castle

The Black Castle of Okayama

Nicknamed the Crow Castle for the Color of Its Facade

Tsukimi-yagura, A Corner Tower within the Castle Compound

Overlooking the Asahi River

Across the Asahi River, a beautiful garden designed with quintessentially Japanese aesthetics was hidden behind trees along the riverbank. Korakuen, as the garden is called, was created in the late 17th century. Taking 14 years to finish, it survived the air raid during World War II and is now considered among the greatest traditional gardens in Japan. We walked down a pathway that led to vast manicured lawns and clear ponds, dotted with pavilions, teahouses and a small temple. The bucolic scene was unmistakably peaceful and calming – an ideal place to either rest the mind or get inspiration.

At a small restaurant outside the southern gateway to Korakuen, we settled on a late lunch. James decided to have tenobe udon served with onsen egg – egg cooked at a temperature low enough to keep the yolk runny. Meanwhile, my curiosity toward fruits from Okayama made me opt for a dish that consisted of organic rice and chicken in a peach and grape curry. Its savory and sweet taste further piqued my interest in sampling the grapes James had raved about even before the trip.

Back at the train station, we saw three types of grapes on display at the supermarket. All packed in small boxes, we decided to buy the one with the green Muscat of Alexandria and Aurora Black grapes in it. These grapes didn’t come cheap – with the same amount of money you can get four or five lunch meals in Japan. They’d better be good! In the hotel room, I washed my first batches of the green grapes, each of them so firm and plump, then … sweet, refreshing flavors burst in my mouth as I slowly chewed on them. They were so sweet they actually tasted very much like Japanese grape candies, but with no added sugar at all. Never had I tried grapes so juicy, fragrant, sweet and addictive like these Muscats. On the other hand, the black grapes yielded a deep, rich flavor which reminded me of red wine, minus the alcohol and tannic aftertaste. This grape tasting really was a revelation for me.

Okayama’s Korakuen, One of the Most Beautiful Gardens in Japan

An Example of A Japanese Traditional House

Japanese Garden Aesthetics

A Small Shrine in the Garden

Another Shrine Hidden amid the Trees

A Remnant from the Past

Sharing is Caring

Faces of Okayama

The Well-Manicured Korakuen

The Sweetest and Juiciest Grapes in My Life

For dinner we headed to a sushi bar, also at the train station, to sample some of the local delicacies. Fish, usually caught from the nearby Inland Sea, were present in all the dishes we tried. First we had mamakari-zushi, pickled sardinella sushi with a thin layer of translucent kombu (edible kelp) on the fish. Then came bara-zushi, an eye-catching platter of assorted sashimi, cooked seafood, and lotus root beautifully laid on top of rice and shredded egg. This dish dates back to the Edo era, some 400 years ago. At that time the local feudal lord, Ikeda Mitsumasa, banned his people from living a luxurious life, including eating expensive dishes. To deceive the authorities, some people came up with the idea of putting many toppings on the bottom of a bowl, then covering them with rice. When nobody was watching, they turned the bowl upside down and voilà! Bara-zushi was served. Comical history aside, our favorite dish that night was in fact sawara-don, a rice bowl topped with slices of raw Spanish mackerel, alfalfa, pine nuts, spring onion, and pickled ginger. If only I could have had a second serving!

The next morning we were slightly disappointed with the absence of the tomato rice at the hotel’s restaurant. But later that day we decided to buy another type of local grape to make up for it. Momotaro grape – named after the popular boy hero character who descended to earth inside a giant peach – was another specialty of Okayama with a shape that reminded me of a bell pepper, only smaller, smoother, and with less edges. Sure, it was juicy and sweet, but if I had to choose among the three varieties of grapes, I would go for the Muscat of Alexandria for its irresistible sweetness.

Peach, as the Momotaro story suggests, is another fruit Okayama is famous for. Unfortunately it was not in season when we were there. However, this short stay convinced me that going all the way to Japan only to try its high quality fruits is not as irrational as it might have sounded. Next time maybe white strawberries and muskmelons along with peaches?

Bara-zushi, A Local Delicacy Dating Back to 400 Years Ago

Mamakari-zushi, A Type of Sushi from Okayama

A Bowl of Sawara-don, My Favorite Dish in Okayama

A Manhole Cover in Okayama, Depicting Momotaro (A Character in Japanese Folklore)

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Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.

57 thoughts on “Okayama Delights”

    • The garden was so immaculate I made sure I didn’t do anything silly there. I haven’t been to that many gardens in Japan, but it was clear why Korakuen is regarded as one of the most beautiful in the country. Glad you enjoyed this post, Quiet!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. What a beautiful place. Know the feeling of going to a place especially for the food; it’s why I’ve returned to Singapore so many times, just to eat in my favourite restaurant.

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    • With clean streets, delicious meals, super sweet and juicy fruits, a beautiful castle and a well-manicured garden, Okayama really was a nice place. I will be tempted to have those grapes again when I return to Japan one day, just like how much you love coming back to your favorite restaurant in Singapore. Speaking of Singapore, their laksa is by far among my favorite dishes there.

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  2. Munikrishne Gowda says:

    Beautiful landscape and portrait of Okayama, hats off to Harinda Bama

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  3. It is the bowls of beautifully prepared food that catch my eye and my fancy here. Ooh I love the unique and creative dishes there are to be had. They look mouthwatering in your photos, and the grapes sound absolutely divine. Yes, we will travel many miles for great food too!

    That said, I love your photo of the couple in traditional dress? and the garden shrines.

    Peta

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    • Among the things I love the most about the Japanese is the amount of attention they put into details. They seem to know how to effortlessly create beautiful things, including how to plate their dishes to please the eyes. As for fruits, oh my! That very moment I chewed the grapes really was a revelation! A few weeks later I read about the Japanese muskmelons. The article gave me a better understanding about how the Japanese value their crops. They strive to produce fruits and vegetables of superior quality they in fact intentionally eliminate the ones with less potential, allowing all the sugar and nutrients to accumulate in the plumpest, roundest, and biggest fruits.

      I believe that couple was actually wearing Shinto wedding dresses. Thanks for reading, Peta!

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  4. Traveling Warrior.leegunnblog says:

    Hey, loved this blog post & would love to go there. Thanks

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    • Hi Lee. Thanks for reading! Glad you enjoyed this post. Hopefully you’ll get the chance to visit Okayama sooner than later.

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      • Traveling Warrior.leegunnblog says:

        Thanks! Yeah hopefully I will & your welcome:)

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    • You really can’t go wrong with Japanese food in Japan. Even the dishes we bought from convenience stores were so good! Thanks for reading, John & Susan.

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  5. Japan’s culture is so aesthetically refined compared to the wild vibrant contrasts of other Asian nations. This doesn’t mean I prefer Japan, it is just a different world from Korea, Vietnam and China, whose temples and gardens are left more to nature than the human hand.

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    • That’s true. I read that Japanese aesthetics is heavily influenced by Zen Buddhism which emphasizes on beauty in simplicity. A few days ago I watched a documentary about ikebana and Japanese architecture, two aspects of Japanese cultural scenes that exemplify this philosophy. I’ve never been to Korea, but compared to the temples I saw in China and Vietnam, those in Japan do look more subtle.

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  6. The food sounds amazing and makes me want to go to Japan right now! And the castle and garden both look beautiful. Lovely photos Bama.
    Alison

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    • I wonder what you will think of Japanese grapes, Alison. I remember you once said that you love desserts, and those grapes are so naturally sweet. Thanks for reading!

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  7. I love the look of the black castle, and the landscapes are scenes I could stare at for hours. I am always entranced with the Japanese way of both simplifying and embellishing their environment. Your grape obsession was very fun to read about, and that box with the first two kinds of grapes looks like some kind of luxury treasure box! The grapes sound delicious; I’ll have to remember to try them if I ever get there! Do they make any wine with these grapes, or are they purely for eating enjoyment?

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    • Only the Japanese can make sand beautiful, as well as other often-overlooked things like moss-covered gardens. It’s no surprise that Japanese aesthetics was (and still is) the main inspiration for modernist architecture which focuses on showcasing beauty without shouting or being gaudy. As for the grapes, oh they really were treasures! I don’t think they make wines from those grapes, although Aurora Black would be perfect because naturally it does taste like an expensive wine.

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  8. This was such an interesting and nice read! I really love your photos and you really showed the true beauty of Japan. I love this!

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    • Thank you for reading and for your kind words, Thao Janet! Japan is so beautiful I don’t think I will ever get bored of visiting it.

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  9. Pingback: Okayama Delights – Victoria

    • Thanks! I think you will love Kyoto. Despite being a big city, it has some neihborhoods with countryside-like charm. I’m also curious with the country’s less touristy places though.

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      • post made me watch Memoirs of Geisha…again…for the nth time :)… I feel I have some kind of Japanese connection 🙂 Every city has its cousin, the countryside and every countryside has an unimaginable charm to it…

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      • I have to admit that I’ve never watched the movie even though a lot of people say it’s really good. Maybe I should, and maybe watching it will make me miss Japan so bad! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  10. Vina says:

    Fotonya keren-keren, baju pengantinnya lucu. cerita tentang anggurnya jd pgn nyobain. Pas kesana baru nyobain strawberrynya saja. Salah satu pengalaman istimewa pas ke jepang yaitu penduduk nya yang perhatian sm turis, tanpa kita nanya mereka sudah nanya duluan mau kemana.

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    • Terima kasih, Vina. Wah saya justru belum pernah nyobain stroberinya. Penasaran banget soalnya temen saya bilang stroberi di sana enak dan manis banget. Soal penduduk di sana yang sangat peduli terhadap turis ini saya alami sendiri. Pas lagi ke suatu minimarket di Kyoto, kasirnya mungkin liat tampang saya yang jelas-jelas bukan orang lokal. Terus dia berinisiatif kasih peta dan jelasin beberapa tempat menarik di daerah itu.

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  11. Lovely images! I am now curious about their grapes – lol. Grapes are my fave fruit but I guess I have to visit Japan for that!!

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    • You know, I can tell you all the good things about Japanese grapes. But you really should try them yourself. 🙂 Make sure you try Muscat of Alexandria. It’s my favorite grape ever! Thanks for dropping by, Indah.

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  12. As always your amazing ability to capture food has me drooling. I have long wanted to revisit Japan and have never been to Okayama so I loved reading your take on it.

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    • You’re too kind, but thanks! When you do return to Japan, it would be great if it coincides with the grape season. Make sure you try as many local fruits as you can! 🙂

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  13. What’s the translucent film on top of the mamakari-zushi? I wouldn’t blame you if you went back to Japan 100 times just for the grapes and the food! It’s one of the few places on earth that is culturally distinct and well worth a lifetime of visits to understand its deeply rooted history and traditions. Excellent post!

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  14. Sorry, Bama! Just went back and re-read about the kombu! I had been staring at the photo of the grapes and missed the paragraph underneath. I knew I had probably missed something because you never miss a detail! 🙂

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    • I adore the local people’s commitment to producing the juiciest and sweetest of fruits. And because of that, going back to Japan again and again (100 times as you mentioned!) totally makes sense. Plus, there are those impressive castles and temples to explore and marvel at.

      Yes, the translucent film was in fact a very thin kombu, which added a very nice texture to the dish. I chuckled at what you said, that I never miss a detail. Well, actually I do sometimes. But when it comes to taking photos I do realize that in general I take more detailed photos than most people would. Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts, Kelly!

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  15. What a beautiful place! That garden alone would be incentive enough for me. The grapes sound like additional bonus. Don’t remember tasting Kombu on my last trip. Looks intriguing. Fantastic photos Bama. Bookmarking for my next visit.

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    • I know the garden is a place you would love, Madhu! Okayama is easily accessed from Osaka. So the next time you come to Japan and happen to be around Osaka or even Kyoto, make sure to pay a visit to Okayama — and don’t forget to try the grapes! Thanks Madhu.

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  16. Suwandi says:

    Wonderful post! Japan’s Board of Tourism should make you their honorary ambassador!
    May we all live long enough to see our beloved nation’s collective sense of esthetics & public orderliness raises to that of Japan’s level: )

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    • Lol! I don’t know whether that’s a good thing for them or not since I eat a lot. 🙂 Speaking of collective sense of how people should behave, just a few hours ago I experienced another example of how far we’re behind. It’s a long way to go, but it has to start. Thanks for reading!

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  17. Everything looks so pristine Bama. A perfectly manicured country it seems.
    On another note we just booked tickets for our Asia trip. Flying into Bangkok on Jan 7th. At the end of our trip we are stopping for a few days in Tokyo. If you have any suggestions we would definitely welcome them.

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    • It was manicured but not in a sense that made me feel disconnected from nature. I don’t know how they do it, but the Japanese truly are masters in balancing what nature provides with what human’s creativity can do.

      Sue, it is happening! I’m so excited for your trip to Asia early next year. So, how long will you travel across the continent? Any chance to see you around in Jakarta? 🙂

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      • Bama I had so hoped to get to Indonesia but with Dave still working full time when the reality of the calendar lay before us it seemed impossible. We arrive the night of the Jan 7th in Bangkok. Our cycling tour is Jan 14-27. So likely some time in Krabi before cycling. We fly to Tokyo on the night of the 27th and will be back in Calgary on the 31st. Clearly Indonesia is now on our list for another trip in the future. Thank you so much for all of your efforts in helping us with our planning. I hope one day I can return the favour to you when you come to Canada.

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      • Well, there will always be another time. 🙂 It’s been a pleasure suggesting you places to see in Southeast Asia for your trip! And hopefully one day our paths cross, whether you’re in Asia, or me in Canada.

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  18. I think of all the places we visited on our recent trip to Japan, Okayama clearly had the best food. And that’s saying something when you consider how Osaka and Kyoto are well-known culinary destinations in their own right! We were so lucky to be there when the local grapes were in season – next time we’ll have to go back for the peaches. 😉

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    • I’m glad I took your suggestion and agreed with that two-night stay in Okayama. I would have missed so much had we skipped it altogether! I really admire the amount of attention and time the Japanese put into everything they do, including in farming, so the country produces so many good things others can only envy. Yes, we should go back for the peaches!

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  19. Great variety of images, beautiful. I remember visiting a Japanese garden with my Japanese friend long time ago in Kyoto. I forgot the name, but I remember it was quite difficult to get a ticket. I was blown away by the beauty. Everything was in balance, perfectly placed in harmony. I loved it.

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    • You’re so lucky to have spent a few months around Kyoto, Emiel. And I can totally relate with your fascination of the country and its culture. Japan really is a special place. The people are so considerate and polite, the culture so refined, and the heritage sites very impressive. And of course, the gardens! Who wouldn’t fall in love with Japanese gardens?

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