Anyone who has explored big cities in Japan might notice the endless rows of incongruous concrete buildings dominating their skylines. Despite the elegance and restrained beauty the Japanese are famous for, I wondered why they built those ugly boxes of uninspiring edifices. Japan’s ambition to control much of Asia in the 20th century – pushing away the British, the French, and the Dutch from their colonial possessions in the continent – as well as their alliance with the Germans during the Second World War resulted in severe reprisals from the Allies. In the final months of the war, incendiary bombs were dropped all over Japan, targeting military facilities, factories, and pretty much everything else.
Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya and Kobe, among other cities, were heavily damaged. The air raids not only managed to reduce Japan’s strategic facilities to rubble, but also the country’s invaluable heritage sites. Following Japan’s defeat in the war, and supported by U.S. aid, the country’s economy experienced a decades-long boom which successfully propelled Japan to become the world’s second biggest economy. To provide housing for the workforce, as well as a part of the country’s reconstruction from the ashes of war, many multi-story buildings were constructed, taking a rather spartan form focusing on functionality rather than beauty.
However, not all was destroyed during the war. Apart from Himeji Castle which miraculously escaped destruction, a small city called Kurashiki managed to stay unscathed amid the Allies’ intense air raids. I had never heard of the name before, and if it wasn’t for the advice from a Tokyo businessman whom James and I met over dinner at a sushi bar in Okayama station, we would have skipped this city altogether. In the middle of a conversation about food and regional identity in Japan, he mentioned Bikan, Kurashiki’s old merchant quarter which he really recommended. Less than 20 km away to the southwest of Okayama, Kurashiki was easily reached from where we stayed, and less than 24 hours after the dinner we were already on our way to Kurashiki, heeding the businessman’s advice.
When we left Kurashiki station, the typical modern Japanese environs welcomed us. However, 20 minutes later as we turned at a street corner, we arrived in a completely different place. No tall concrete buildings in sight, only 17th- and 18th-century warehouses as far as we could see. Timber panels, black tiles, and fan-shaped roof ends were certainly a stark contrast to the dull facades of post-war buildings. In the heart of the historical district, a green-tinged canal ran through the scenic neighborhood, overlooked by beautiful structures along its banks. Perhaps Bikan’s peaceful ambiance contributed to the establishment of Japan’s first museum for Western art in 1930, housing the works of Monet, Gauguin and Renoir among other renowned painters.
Declassified documents show that Kurashiki was among the targets of aerial bombings aimed at taking full control of Japan. But the country’s surrender on August 15, 1945 spared Kurashiki from the same fate suffered by other places across Japan, hence saving the city’s invaluable cultural treasures. A walk down the atmospheric streets and alleys in Bikan was very sobering as we could imagine how different Japan would have looked had no one instigated the war in the first place.