As is often the case with travelling East you are still somewhat on European clock and so my body told me to wake up at 5am, it was already light outside, the sun shining through our window. Chris had the same problem, as he was already awake as well. Jerome was still fast asleep, which was good because he probably needed it much more than us. I am not sure I can recommend any cure for early wake up with jet lag except try and try to sleep.
Somehow we dozed until it was time to get up for breakfast. We had agreed to have breakfast at 8am having known from bitter experience before that the first morning in Japan would wake up very early. We were served a freshly cooked, traditional Japanese breakfast.
This always divided our opinions, as I absolutely love Japanese breakfast, Chris doesn’t mind eating it and Jerome just picks at his leaving more for me! Knowing this we always get him some more western style breakfast things like sweet bread or buns at one of the convenience stores, there was a 7Eleven around the corner from Bingoya so it was easy to pop out and get some plus some welcome local Mikan orange juice. During breakfast we discussed our plans for the rest of the day. We decided that we would go to see the castle and gardens in Okayama. I had a pretty good idea of the plans but it is always good to leave it a little flexible as you never know what each day might bring both in terms of nice surprises or weather.
The Okayama Korakuen itself draws crowds of visitors, as it is said to be one of the three most beautiful gardens in Japan and lies just opposite Okayama castle on an island in the river Asahi. We drove back into Okayama and parked our car in a car park right next to the castle. The friendly guard advised us, that if we let the parking ticket be stamped by the castle, we would get our parking cheaper. He also showed us the way to the garden on a map. We have always found the people so friendly in Japan especially those in the tourist industry, many like him, will go out of their way to help you.
We walked over the bridge across the moat towards the castle’s stonewalls and the keep or donjon towering on the hill behind. Once inside castle’s ground we walked up the hill through a big wooden gate to the main donjon. If you want to visit the donjon you need to pay a small entrance fee. We bought a combined ticket for the castle and the garden which is cheaper than if you buy them individually.
The main keep was destroyed in an air raid in World War II, then rebuilt and made into a museum. Therefore Okayama castle isn’t an authentic castle to visit but they did a good job at making it interesting for adults and children alike.
We got to sit in a Japanese palanquin, you could hold an old gun or for a fee dress up in a kimono and try for yourself the local Bizen pottery.
A feature of the castle worth mentioning is the impressive golden fish gargoyles, which one can also enjoy just by walking through the grounds.
After visiting the castle, we walked across another more modern bridge to Korakuen.
Korakuen is quite unusual for a Japanese garden as it has expansive lawns in he centre (on which one isn’t allowed to walk, obviously). The lawns are broken up by many small ponds and streams making for a pleasant stroll, there is also a tea house and other Edo-period buildings.
Depending on the season you can enjoy many different plants and in common with other Japanese gardens they have corners of interest at different times of the year.
Summer is probably one of the worst times in terms of flowering plants but the lotus were out and have always been one of my favourite flowers.
Jerome loved the hidden, narrow paths, which there are plenty off and we watched some people feed the kois in the big pond.
There were plenty of them, in many different colours and sizes opening their big mouths, gaping for food. We climbed Yuishinzan Hill where we were able to look over the pond and other parts of the garden imagining the original lords doing the same centuries before.
We stopped for a drink by the stream, where an old wooden water wheel was slowly turning. Korakuen really is a beautiful garden and I can understand why people come from afar for a visit at any time of year.
By now our tummies were grumbling and we chose to have lunch in one of the restaurants overlooking river Asahi. We chose Restaurant Hekisuien, the one closer to the bridge the other one closer to the garden entrance is closed on Mondays.
We got seats by the window overlooking the river Asahi and with views over to the castle. We had delicious cold soba and udon with ginger ale (one of our staple drinks in Japan) and cold tea. Jerome ate Omurice (rice omelette), which every child would enjoy.
With our stomachs filled and cooled off in the air conditioning we went back out into the afternoon heat.
We walked to end of the island where we saw the small statue of Momotaro, a naked boy holding a peach. Momotaro is a symbol of Okayama and can be seen all over town. Legend has it, that he came down to earth in a peach and floated down the river Asahi.