There is an old saying in the movies and in traditional folklore across the world that goes: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” However, in this case, clearly the good people of Okayama City didn’t get the memo!
Recently, more than 6 years after I moved away from the area, I had the pleasure of making a return visit to Okayama City. While living in the countryside, I frequently enjoyed visiting Okayama City on the weekends both for shopping and for entertainment.
Some familiar sights remain from my time there. The huge “Bic Camera” electronics store remains largely unaltered as does the eternally stunning Korakuen Gardens.
It is not hyperbolae when I say, truthfully, that this is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. These stunning gardens are rightfully acknowledged to be some of the most beautiful anywhere in Japan. Unfortunately a few places I remember well have also ceased to be.
I used to frequently visit a delightful little 1950’s American style diner that served outstanding Mexican tacos and delicious traditional American drinks like Cream Soda and Cola Float. Today, the diner has been replaced by a brightly colored, if somewhat generic, sushi restaurant.
Thankfully, the Spanish Tapas bar near Okayama Station remains a permanent fixture. It’s reassuring to know that I’ll still have somewhere to go for my regular fix of sangria and paella next time I’m in town!
The area directly around Okayama Station has definitely undergone a quite major refit. About 3 or 4 minutes walk from the north exit there is a new Aeon shopping mall.
This Aeon Mall is bigger than most of the similar malls I have encountered in Osaka though. Perhaps it’s because Okayama is a somewhat rural location and, as such, one would think that land should be considerably cheaper. Whatever the reason, this huge mall, spanning seven levels has some excellent facilities.
The food court runs over 2 floors and covers everything from conventional Japanese ramen, to high class French and Italian cuisine. In the end, somewhat predictably, my friend and I went for an Indian curry. As far as curries at Japanese Indian restaurants go this was certainly one of the better ones, with a well-rounded flavour and just the right level of spice.
Also, even had the curry been of mediocre quality, serving it alongside a naan bread the size of conventional coffee table goes a long way to improving one’s perception of the place and the food it offers!
The mall also boasted a first class cinema, and I have to say the picture quality and sound of the movie seemed a little better than what I have experienced in Osaka. Of course this may also have been down to the fact that the cinema was substantially less than half-full. Being able to stretch out in your seat without fear of bothering any other patrons, as well as the noticeable absence of any texting teens or screaming children, which all too frequently have an adverse effect on my movie viewing in Osaka, made for a much more pleasurable movie experience than I have recently become accustomed to.
The overall ambience of Okayama City seems to have become decidedly more cosmopolitan since I lived there. And this is absolutely a positive step forward for the city. As one of the perceived “less interesting” prefectures in Japan for foreign tourists, there was plenty of evidence on show of a clear and concerted effort by the City of Okayama to engage with tourists and found out what attracts them to the area.
Despite only being there for one day, I was approached on no less than 4 different occasions by English speaking representatives of the local tourism board to solicit my opinions and ideas on how to make Okayama more accessible and more appealing to tourists.
I hope that as we move closer to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics that other prefectures across Japan will follow Okayama’s lead and engage in a more informative and constructive way with their foreign visitors to find ways to maximize the positive exposure for their cities and their prefectures.
English signage has definitely improved considerably as well. Not only are there more signs on the streets directing you towards local landmarks such as Okayama Castle and the Korakuen Gardens, but additionally once you actually get inside these places there seems to be a lot more English guidance and signage on display than I remember from the last time I visited these places.
It’s also heartening to see a great deal more Korean and Putonghua signage on display too. In these turbulent times it is very encouraging to see cities like Okayama showing a progressive way forward as they make concerted efforts to better engage with their Korean and Chinese regional neighbors.
Overall, there’s been a lot of changes in the 6 years since I left Okayama Prefecture. However, the overwhelming majority of these changes, both aesthetic and social, have been for the better.
Okayama may not have the kind of profile that the likes of Kyoto and Himeji enjoy with tourists, but it is certainly a place worthy of a visit.
You can get to Okayama by the Shinkansen. It is about 45-50 minutes from Osaka and about 4 hours from Tokyo. There is also a local airport, Okayama Airport, which runs regular flights from Tokyo Haneda airport.