Towards the end of World War Two, when US bombs rained over many Japanese cities, Kurashiki was spared, the story goes, thanks to the presence of the Ohara Museum.
A high-ranking US general with a passion for art prevented Kurashiki from being destroyed because he wanted to preserve the Ohara Museum and its collection of paintings by El Greco, Monet, Renoir and Gauguin, among others.
That, at least, is the story we were told by our guide and skipper on the Kurashiki canal, as he steered the wooden barge past weeping willow trees and traditional storage houses that give this city its distinctly 19th century ambience.
It is a story that is, apparently, not backed by official records, but has nonetheless taken on a life of its own, passed on matter-of-factly from village chronicler to boatman to gullible tourist.
What is beyond dispute is that a section of the old Kurashiki has been preserved to striking effect in the Bikan (beautiful sight) Historical Quarter, an easily walkable area along the canal, lined by old warehouses, merchants’ homes and other traditional buildings.
Back in the Edo period (1603-1867), Kurashiki was a thriving center for rice storage and distribution (the name means town of warehouses) and the canal system was built during the Edo period (1678 to 1890) to allow boats to transport goods stored in the city’s warehouses to the nearby port.
Ryokan Kurashiki (旅館倉敷) is located right smack in the middle of the Bikan district, across the canal from the tourist information center.
An old sugar merchant’s house, Ryokan Kurashiki comprises just five suites, a rather small communal bath, a lounge-like area, a restaurant and four private dining rooms.
However, the suites are spacious, particularly by Japanese standards, with one or two Japanese style rooms as well as a bedroom with twin beds. Two of the suites can comfortably accommodate up to 6 people.
We stayed in the Okuzashiki, the largest of the suites where Sophia Loren stayed a few years ago, when she visited the area at the urging of the city’s mayor, Kaori Ito.
Although it appeared quite small from the entrance, this suite turned out to be huge with two spacious Japanese tatami rooms, a bedroom with twin beds, two toilets, a bathroom and shower room and more than enough privacy for our group of four women.
The atmosphere throughout the ryokan is that of a bygone era, accentuated by a 270-year old white plaster and black beam wall in the lobby-like area, the sturdy mingei (folkcraft) furniture in the lounge-cum-dining room and the vintage bric-a-brac found throughout the rooms and public spaces.
Ryokan Kurashiki is also well known for its Japanese cuisine, which makes abundant use of local ingredients, particularly seafood from the Seto Inland Sea nearby.
A highlight of the meal we enjoyed was the tachiuo (scabbard fish) marinated in vinegar, which was both tender and firm and satisfyingly fatty.
Being in the Bikan area means Ryokan Kurashiki is just a stone’s throw away from major points of interest, such as the Museum of Folk Craft and the Ohara Museum, Japan’s very first museum of western art.
Unlike Kyoto, which offers a surfeit of historic points of interest, Kurashiki is a compact city and the Bikan area itself can be covered in a day or two, even including a leisurely visit to the two museums.
But there are other sights in the vicinity worth visiting, such as the Korakuen Garden in Okayama, the shinkansen gateway to Kurashiki, and Bizen, the world famous pottery town, which is also not so far away.
Address: 4-1 Honmachi, Kurashiki, Okayama, 710-0054
Tel : 086-422-0730
Website : http://www.ryokan-kurashiki.jp/
Rates: from about Y25,000 including dinner and breakfast, depending on the suite, number of guests staying in the suite and day of year. Discounted rates available through some online travel agents.
Okuzashiki rate : Y36,000 (per person with four people staying in the suite)
Access: Tokyo → Okayama on the Tokaido Sanyo Shinkansen (just over three hours to 3.5 hours depending on the train)
Okayama → Kurashiki on the Sanyo Honsen local train (17 mins)
Kurashiki Stn → Ryokan Kurashiki (15 minute walk)