Okayama has historically a strategic point, because it lies in the center of 本州 Honshuu (the main island of Japan) and also because it is very close to the island of 四国 Shikoku and a train bridge leads to it from here.
It combines the flavor of a metropolis with the charm of the countryside and is quite unique in Japan. The people are really friendly and sometimes overdo it even a bit, as I got to know when I arrived there.
I was looking for a place to sleep and my first waypoint was an internet cafe to do some research about sleeping facilities in Okayama. I eventually found a cafe and found that there is a Youth Hostel with curfew 10:00 o'clock. It was already later than 10, but I decided to give it a try. Sleeping in the internet cafe was another option open to me, but it cost around the same than the hostel and instead of a bed, you only have a chair.
So I called the hostel without success and then tried to find it by foot, also without success. So eventually I gave up on that and returned to the internet cafe, when I was short before entering, a man stepped in front of my and screamed in his best English?
"Can I help you sir!"
"Uhn... Maybe, I was just going to try the internet cafe here for sleep, do you know a better place?"
"YES! there are many hotels here!", he screamed.
"Uhn... Yes, but I can't afford hotels, I don't have very much money, you know...", I replied.
"HAH! I know the perfect place for you! A friend visited me last year, and I let him sleep in the same place! Hah! Follow me!", screamed he and took my hand.
He was a bit drunk and over energetic, but I sensed that he was sincere and really wanted to help me, so I followed him for 15 minutes.
"HERE YOU GO!", he pointed at a sign on a building wall, it read:
Ahh, I got it, he brought me to one of those infamous Capsule Hotels, which we jokingly call Coffin Hotel in Germany. Well being a fan of Cyber Punk and dark future scenarios, I always wanted to try one of those. So we got in!
He entered with me and explained the woman, that I am looking for a place to sleep and that I am from Germany and that she please should give me a place to sleep, because I am very tired (he went on like this for 2 more minutes) and the woman looked really confused. But it wasn't hard to guess what we came for so I paid here 3000 Yen (1000 Yen more than the internet cafe) and she gave me a key for a locker.
My friend explained me that since the actual capsule is so tiny, there is no way you and your luggage would both fit in there, so I should put it in a locker first, for what I got the key. The number on the key corresponds both to my locker's as well as my coffin's number.
We talked some more and he told me that he is a freight train driver for JR, he is from Okayama and likes the town really much. Then he told me, he hopes I have a pleasant stay in his country and have a lot of good experience. Finally he gave me 1000 Yen as a token of Japanese Foreigner hospitality. I tried to decline, but he wouldn't let me and so I accepted. It is really heart warming how Japanese treat foreign visitors :)
So I tried to put my backpack in the tall but narrow locker, but failed. I had to remove everything inside the backpack so that it would fit inside, and then place it on top of the backpack building a tower.
Then I explored the Inn and found a marvelous お風呂 Ofuro (Japanese Style Public Bathorm), a whirlpool, a Sauna, a foot massage area, a massage chair and a recreation meeting room. Even a star hotel could not offer better facilities, I was really surprised. What the Capsule Hotels save in rooms, they put into facilities, which makes the stay really pleasant.
After enjoying myself in the Ofuro and getting clean after sleeping in the forest and sweating two days through, I looked for my coffin and found it. I barely could hide my excitement, cause it resembled the space shuttles from Star Trek, especially from the inside. All is made with this whitish Star Trek plastic and inside you have a monitor and operation console that makes the space shuttle feeling complete.
I tried fumbling with the console and found a button for light, television, porn, radio and some other functions. There was also a set of earplugs ready for me and I really needed them. Because the coffins are really close to each other and more than that stacked over each other. And some guy in my vicinity snored really really loud.
Anyway it was a great experience, and I recommend you to try it once, when you have the chance!
Well the actual name is 岡山城 Okayama Castle, but it is commonly referred to as The Crow Castle. The reason is that in contrast to the heavenly white Himeji Castle, Okayama Castle is pitch black. There are many legends to it why lord Ukita choose to make his castle black and evil, the most common one says, that he was annoyed with all the fame Himeji Castle was getting, so that he said, well I can as well make my castle pitch black and make it the nemesis of Himeji Castle. So now the two neighboring castles fight an eternal struggle of light angainst shadow, of the famous against the ones living in shadows...
Alas during World War 2 Okayama Castle was bomb raided by the Americans and blasted to ashes. However still having the original plans, by which the castle was built, as soon as Okayama prospered again, the castle was rebuilt by the old plans, using the traditional building techniques. However apart from the castle and one gate, nothing else was rebuilt, and most of the area remains flat today.
markers on the ground tell which buildings stood here before the bomb raid
the main gate has been rebuilt
Inside you will find a really good museum dedicated to Castle and Court life in Japan. You can see many very well displayed recreations of rooms, traditional tools and toys and weapons and armory.
Although lord Ukita had the lion share of building the castle, other lords were also involved in upgrades and maintenance.
At the top you can again enjoy a nice view over Okayama and see the beautiful 後楽園 Koraku garden from above.
Almost to the top, there is a super interesting section with seven legends about Okayama Castle, which are alas only narrated in Japanese, but don't worry, I will narrate them for you:
Okayama Castle has become the nickname "The Crow Castle". The central castle tower and its outside are painted black; this black painted wood was also often referred to as crow wood. Also at the time lord Ukita built the castle, he decided to clad the roof in gold, so that a second name of the castle became "The Golden Crow Castle".
Starting from the keep, crossing the iron gate at the southern bridge, you can find a strange stone in the southern wall, which is referred to as the Lotus Stone. It is written in the books from the end of the Edo Period, that when people whose teeth hurt go to this stone and pray in front of it, their pain will immediately cease. The stone is called "Lotus Flower Stone", because by chance he resembles the rare Lotus Flower.
When the night clads the keep's meeting room in darkness, monsters like Kizune (moster fox) and Tanuki (monster raccoon) meet in here. All the people who lived in this room died quickly after such a meeting.
When the prince of the castle heard this story, he wanted to see the state of this room. When he entered many strange monsters appeared and started to dance. He, enjoying the dance very much, and started to add some music with his fan.
When the monsters were exhausted from dancing, they disappeared gave the room back to the prince and allowed again for people to live inside.
In the history books of Okayama Castle a horse racing track named Enoki is mentioned. From the time lord Ukita built Okayama Castle, a huge Enoki tree was located at the castle area (Enoki is a kind of Japanese tree). People say this tree was even there during the Edo period, when temples of a Bizen Buddhist sect were located at the place the castle is today. That is why the racing track is named after this ancient tree.
in November of the year 1634 the lord of the castle had to leave for a 参勤交代 Sankinkoutai (in this period all daimyo (landlords) had to annually visit the Shogun in Edo and therefore leave their estates at least once a year. This was a clever tactic of the Shogun to keep them both close at hand, and also to weaken their influence in their own provinces).
At the time the lord still resided in Edo a huge fire broke out in the keep and burned everything to the ground.Through incredible effort of the vassals the main tower remained partly after the fire was gone. But for the reconstruction of the entire castle many days of hardship were necessary. To prevent disasters like this from happening again, the most important parts like the big front gate were rebuilt fire resistant.
Also before the great fire broke out, an arrow with white feathers was found next to the entrance of the keep. People say it was shot by a person who predicated the outbreak of the fire and wanted to warn the people about it.
Before the outbreak of the great fire there was a fresh timber beam, which's bark had just been removed. The beam was colorful like a rainbow and was called rainbow timber. It has been the characteristic of Okayama Castle.
Many Japanese castles had secret passages into or out of the castle. In the case of Okayama Castle, the secret passage was hidden in the base floor of the keep. It was thus possible to leave the castle though the underground, through a secret passage leading under the 旭川 Asahi River to the 後楽園 Kourakuen garden.
The castle from the outside:
Kouraku Garden is said to be one of Japan's three most beautiful gardens. It is located right next to the Crow Castle, only separated by a river and a bridge. If there really is a secret passageway I could not verify, but I could verify that the garden is beautiful.
Now you cannot compare Japanese garden to European ones, because where European ones boast with rare flowers, fountains and marvelous statues, Japanese gardens stick to nature and simplicity and try to form and use the existing nature, rather than to create it. This is why Japanese gardens are always a place for contemplation and meditation and harmony. It is a pleasure to slowly walk through them and let the environment have its effect on you.
That was my trip to Okayama, I hope you enjoyed the stories.
There was one more thing I would have liked to see, which is Japan's oldest still standing school, which was open for nobles and commons alike already in the 18th century. Alas the school is actually quite far away from Okayama and you need a lot of time and money to visit it, so I forfeit and continued westwards to the next town: 倉敷 Kurashiki.