|From Hiroshima it was only 1.5 hours on the bullet train to Okayama. We stayed in this area for three nights however for the first night, we went out to Hattoji.
Hattoji is northwest of Okayama and is high up on a plateau. We went here as you can stay in one of Okayama district's international villas. They have five of these in the region and they are essentially villas that you can rent out for pretty good value- ours was only $60 US. Anyway, Hattoji villa is a well-preserved thatched roof farmhouse. In fact the whole of Hattoji village had thatched roofs so it was very picturesque. It was located in quite an agricultural area - by that we mean there were a lot of crops being grown. In fact there were paddy fields right up to our doorstep. Actually we have not seen any farm animals in Japan at all yet - every spare bit of space is taken up by rice.
We were very lucky that night as nobody else had booked into the villa - so we had the whole four bedroom place to ourselves which was fantastic. The villa had an irori (hearth fireplace) in the middle of the living area. In the old days they would cook on this but nowadays it is used as a fireplace to keep the cold out in the winter months. As it was 27 degrees we did not feel the need to use it! The villa also had a traditional bath which is heated up from below so you sit on a piece of wood at the bottom so you do not burn your bum! Actually the bath was a little small for the both of us - it basically looked like a big cauldron!
Once we arrived we wandered around the village (which is designated a conservation area) admiring all the thatched roofs. Hattoji is actually famous for being a huge religious centre for mountain buddhists and there are a number of temples in the area. There was a small shrine set in the forest just minutes walk away from us so we headed up there to take a peek. No sooner had we walked 10 steps up the stairway en-route, Shaun jumped 10 feet in the air and screamed like a girl. There was a rather large viper (which are venomous here) sliding up the staircase and he had almost stepped on it! Actually I have to say that I had exactly the same reaction as Shaun did so I should not laugh! Needless to say, following this incident we decided to spend the rest of the afternoon in our huge villa with a few drinks and bento boxes for dinner rather than doing any more venturing out into the snake infested landscape!
As a treat to ourselves we stayed in a Business Hotel in Okayama - the first one we have stayed in since being here. I think it was the free breakfast that swung it for us! Actually it was cheaper than staying in some of the hostels in the area!
After walking 1km to the hotel and dumping our bags, we walked off to find the biggest attraction in the city - Koraku-en. This is supposedly one of the three best gardens in all of Japan and it was built on an island in the middle of the river in 1700 by one of the lords of the time. It was rather large and had a mini tea plantation, a cherry tree grove, some rice paddies as well as several ponds and bridges. We were actually a little disappointed with the garden to be honest as it was nowhere as good as the one in Kagoshima. However it did have good views of Okayama-Jo - a huge black castle originally built in 1597 (rebuilt in 1966 after it was bombed by the Allies). The castles here, as you will see in the photo, are more what we would think of as large houses, however they are surrounded by moats and built on huge stone plinths. Quite impressive.
The next day we thought we would see a different side of Japan and decided to ride along the Kibi plain cycle route. This cycle route takes you along small roads between the paddy fields, past several temples as well as a huge key-hole shaped burial mound. Having stocked up on free food at breaky and sneaking it out in our pockets (typical kiwi style!), we even had a picnic along the way. The names of the temples etc we saw were: Kibitsuhiko-jinja, Kibitsu-jinja, Tsukuriyama-kofun burial mound at 350m long and Bitchu Kokbun-ji which had a five storey pagoda. The best part of the day however was just seeing rural Japan with locals cycling past us saying konnichiwa.
Having dropped the bikes off we caught the train on the way back to see Kurashiki. This town is famous for its old black tiled warehouses which front onto a canal. In the old days the warehouses were used to store rice which the surrounding villages would bring to them by boat up the canals. These warehouses have all been retained and done up and now house souvenir shops, galleries and Ryokans - very pricey ones at that! But the town is extremely pretty with willow trees lining the banks of the carp filled canals and ladies walking round in their kimonos!
Kurashiki also became rather large for producing textiles in the late 1800's. One of the old textile factories built in 1889 has also been retained and now houses a hotel and more museums. It is basically a huge red-brick building enclosing a courtyard and is covered in ivy - and called, Ivy Square! This has also been done up very well and is quite pretty.
Our afternoon stop in Kurashiki was a nice way to end our time in the area before heading towards Nikko and Tokyo the next day.