As Japan accelerates into a neon-drenched, technology-driven future, there are fewer and fewer places to immerse yourself in the country’s past.
Its cities are teeming hives of human endeavour, their skylines spiked by towering modern structures and their streets filled by pedestrian traffic.
This ceaseless energy and cutting-edge environment has become Japan’s calling card and is a major reason why so many Australian tourists visit the country each year.
However, one of the wonderful attributes of North-East Asia as a travel destination is the opportunity to counterbalance hyper-modern metropolitan experiences with explorations of ancient cultures.
Japan, South Korea and China have some of the largest, most futuristic cities in the world, while also boasting quaint villages and towns that transport you back in time. Few places in the region are as charming and picturesque as Japan’s historic canal town of Bikan.
Located in the Okayama Prefecture, 200 kilometres West of Osaka, this wonderfully well-preserved hamlet was established almost 400 years ago during Japan’s Edo period (1603-1868).
In the early 1900s, a city began to spring up around Bikan, growing into Kurashiki, which is now home to almost 500,000 people.
By Japanese standards, this is a very small city, and thankfully Bikan has been heavily protected due to the declaration by the Japanese Government that it is an “Important Traditional Structures Conservation Area”. Less than two hours by train south of Osaka, it makes for a relaxing and engrossing day trip from that giant city.
Walk just five minutes south from Kurashiki station and then turn left down a narrow street to uncover this gorgeous precinct. A canal cuts through the middle of Bikan, flanked by trees that turn a beautifully vibrant range of colours in Autumn, which is the best season to visit Kurashiki.
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Rowboats operated by men wearing traditional conical hats float gently up and down this narrow waterway, offering a unique vantage point for the tourists they ferry.
The network of stone streets that surround this canal are embellished by elegant white-and-black former storehouses and colonial mansions.
As light fades in the evenings, Bikan is bathed in gentle illumination from timeworn copper-and-glass street lamps. This all makes for an enchanting setting, one which seems far removed from the busy, skyscraper-strewn environment of Japan’s cities.
Its storehouses are in fantastic condition considering many were built in the 17th century, when Bikan became an important transportation hub. There are also beautiful Western-style buildings constructed in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when Europe started to influence Japan.
Rice harvested in the farms of Okayama Prefecture was kept in Bikan’s storehouses and then moved along the canals to the nearby port, from where it was shipped East along Japan’s coast to metropolises like Osaka and Tokyo.
It is a different form of commerce that now reigns in Kurashiki, which has become a prime tourist attraction.
All of the old storehouses have been renovated and now accommodate boutiques, cafes, bars, restaurants, art galleries and small museums.
Great care has been taken in maintaining the authenticity of Bikan – the buildings are stonewashed just like they were in the Edo Period, with black roof tiles modelled on that era and period features replicated throughout the village.
Tourists who want to see how local families lived in the 18th century can visit Ohashi House, which is a preserved home typical of Bikan residences from that era.
Bikan also offers a range of unique cultural institutions, from the Japanese Folk Toy Museum to the Kurashiki Museum of Folkcraft, and Kurashiki Archaeological Museum.
But it is the peaceful moments spent treading Bikan’s stone streets, between heritage buildings and colourful trees, which are the highlight.