I wanted to put together this list of things to do in Okayama city, Japan, because there’s very little out there about it. When researching the city for my own visit this year, I managed to find loads about Okayama the prefecture, but hardly anything about where to eat, what to see or things to do in Okayama city itself. So here I am, filling a wee gap in the market now that I’ve been and know a bit about it.
Okayama is a quiet and small city compared with others across Japan, so it’s probably not that surprising I couldn’t find much on it. It’s not very well known and people visiting the general area tend to go straight to Hiroshima, Takamatsu or the incredible art island, Naoshima. But Okayama actually makes a good base for visiting these places and is a nice little city, worth spending a day in in itself. I wouldn’t go mad and say you must visit Okayama like your life depends on it, but there’s plenty to get up to in one or even two days there.
Here are some of the things to do in Okayama that I enjoyed and a few places to eat as well (because when is food not the priority in Japan?!). Pour yourself a glass of sake and have a read…
Things to do in Okayama, Japan
1. Wander round Okayama Castle
Okayama Castle is one of Japan’s ‘crow castles’ (along with Matsumoto Castle, which is, incidentally, a lovely one). They’re named so due to their dark, almost black exterior. Yes, you wouldn’t know it from my photos below due to the evening light, but just trust me on this one. It’s dark stuff.
Okayama Castle was built in 1597 but got absolutely destroyed in WW2. So the castle today is really a 1960s reconstruction, but it’s still worth seeing. You wouldn’t know how new it is TBH. It does have one of its original turrets remaining, from around 1620, but I couldn’t tell the difference between old and relatively new so it was lost on me.
It sits on the banks of the Asahi River (which the Japanese Asahi lager is named after). The river also served as a moat back in the day, but alas full of water, not beer. Oh and the famous Korakuen Garden is just across the river too (more on that further down this list).
The castle’s interior is absolutely barren (see also: Himeji Castle and any other castle in Japan). It’s not like an English castle where it’s crammed with stuff and fully made up beds and whatnot. But they do have a little pottery studio where you can have a pitiful attempt at making some Bizen-yaki, a type of pottery local to Okayama, if you’re into that kind of thing. I think you have to reserve a place to actually have a go, so check their website. There’s also a dressing-up area where you can try on a kimono and look like an idiot.
Getting to Okayama Castle
Okayama Castle is about a 25-minute waddle east of Okayama Station.
If you want to save your legs, you can get the tram. Take the Higashiyama Line to Shiroshita (5 minutes and costs about 100 yen). You can then walk to the castle in about 10 minutes.
2. Ride the cute cat tram
As you probably know, Japan absolutely nails public transport and anything to do with cutesy cartoon animals. So the fact that Okayama has a tram with cats all over it wearing tram-driver uniforms should come as no surprise.
The cat on the Okayama trams is Tamarun, a tabby who I think comes from a mobile game. I couldn’t quite work it out. But the tram also has cat ears, so if you need to get the tram then obviously you’re going to pick the one with actual ears aren’t you?
The trams run from 6 in the morning until 10 in the evening. A single fare is about 100 yen or a day pass is about 400. A bargain considering those ears.
3. Look out for Momotaro, the peach boy
Like every city in Japan, Okayama is known for a) a type of food and b) some kind of local legend. If you’ve been to Japan, you’ll be familiar with this running theme. If you’re planning your first trip, brace yourself for lots of towns famous for a very specific type of noodle AND for the story of an armadillo that once raided a shopping centre and is now the town mascot. Or something.
Okayama is known for peaches, specifically white peaches, and for the story of a boy being found inside one (no, not James and the Giant Peach) called Momotaro.
You can find Momotaro emblazoned on various things around Okayama but the main statue of him is just outside the east exit of Okayama station. It’s a meeting point and a bit of a photo opportunity, but not the most exciting statue. What’s far more interesting/amusing is the story behind the guy.
Settle down, I’ve definitely got to relay this one for you.
The inevitable story featuring a pheasant
Once upon a time, in an Okayama far far away, there was an old woman washing her clothes in the river. Suddenly she spots a giant peach floating down. This was before the time of Roald Dahl, so she didn’t make any James-based jokes. She just brought it home to her husband, presumably with a peach cobbler in mind. So far, so normal. Then when they cut the peach open, they found a boy inside it. You’d think baby boy possibly, given how big a giant peach might be that a woman could carry home on her own, but no. This was a full-on talking child boy. He told them he was sent from heaven to be their child. They seemed to take this in their stride and went on to name him Momotaro. (Momo meaning peach and taro meaning eldest son in the fam).
As Mo grew up, he left his ‘rents to fight the Oni (demons/ogres) who were rampaging the land. Yes, suddenly a boy fitting inside a peach doesn’t seem so far fetched. His mum gave him some dumplings to eat on his way to an island full of demons. Along the way, he made friends with a monkey, a dog and a pheasant (I genuinely LOL-ed at the pheasant) who promised to help him in defeat the demons in exchange for a portion of his dumplings. Now if this bit seems a stretch, you’ve obviously not had Japanese dumplings. It’s not hard to imagine punching a demon for one.
At the Demon Island, Momotaro and his animal army fought the demons and won. They returned to his village as heroes, presumably having demolished the dumplings en route. And they all lived peachily ever after.
4. Visit Korakuen Garden, one of Japan’s top 3 gardens
Korakuen is probably Okayama’s main attraction. Along with the gardens in Kanazawa and Mito, Okayama’s Korakuen is ranked as one of Japan’s top three gardens. Yes, they rank everything.
It’s just over the river from the castle, which can be seen from the garden as ‘borrowed scenery’. Borrowed scenery is a classic Japanese garden trick where the landscapers angle everything to include features from the landscape beyond, tricking the eye into thinking the garden stretches much further than it does. The garden in Takamatsu is another cracking example of this.
Korakuen ticks off all the typical features of a Japanese landscape garden: pond, streams, weirdly pale grass, a vantage point from a hill, borrowed scenery, loads of wide paths, and not a leaf out of place. What it does differently, however, are lawns. Japan isn’t really into lawns (much more hot on growing moss) but Korakuen has quite a lot of them – all made from the unique Japanese bleached-looking grass.
Getting to Korakuen gardens
Korakuen is about a 25-minute walk from Okayama Station. You can get the tram on the Higashiyama line to Shiroshita stop (5 minutes) and then walk to the south gate in 10 minutes.
5. Have lunch and do a bit of shopping at CCCSCD (no idea what that stands for but it was one of my favourite things to do in Okayama)
I loved this little industrial-style art space and café. It’s just by the river, where you can walk to the castle and gardens, so really easy to find for anyone who has ever got lost in Japan (i.e. everyone who has ever been).
We ended up having lunch here on our first day in Okayama and then went back before the end of our stay to make a few purchases in the shop. It’s kind of like a small, hipster/arty version of a museum café if that makes sense. They make jewellery and pots and little bits of art on site, which you can see being made and then buy in the shop. I got a really lovely rustic-looking mug for our friends. Lunch was really good, but when is food not good in Japan to be honest?
6. Wander down the twinkly river at night
I loved this area of Okayama, where the central river in the road gets LIT at night, as they say. The road is flanked by plenty of bars and eateries too, so it’s a good place for a stroll.
Our hotel was just on the corner here (see further down for details) so it was really nice walking back after a cosy evening in an izakaya, which leads me nicely onto number 7 of my list of things to do in Okayama…
7. Eat at Akari Delis izakaya
Located at 1 Chome-6-22 Nodayacho, Kita Ward, Okayama, 700-0815: Google Maps link
I can’t believe I’ve got to number 7 on this list before mentioning an izakaya. Normally most of my blog posts talk about little else other than eating. Anyway, this was one excellent and even had an English menu, which meant that we didn’t have the usual rigmarole of explaining pescatarianism with hand gestures.
It’s very central and if you stay at the hotel I massively recommend, a quick walk. That was a bonus in January when it was painfully cold on some nights.
We had mackerel to start, then some kind of delicious veggie miso skewers and a pot of tofu and mushroom shabu, which is a bit like a nabe (hotpot). Oh and sake, of course.
I don’t normally dabble in desserts in Japan because all of the incredible savoury food is damaging enough for the old waistline, but for some reason I became obsessed with wanting to try what everyone was having (top left picture in the collage below). It was a ‘wasanbon pudding’, a sort of crème brûlée in a pot that had the winning Japanese subtle no-too-sweet thing going on. Amazing stuff. Wasanbon is a Japanese sugar normally used to make expensive sweets, and I’ve never seen it used to make a cream dessert before. I then had to rein myself in from trying ALL the desserts for the rest of the trip.
8. Roam the many covered malls
As much as I love the big cities in Japan (especially Tokyo), the amount of stuff is overwhelming to the point I don’t even attempt to go shopping. I’ve done a lot better in slightly smaller cities like Kobe and Kochi, which both had warrens of covered malls. Okayama also has its fair share of these so I made good use of them on the cold evenings before we tucked into somewhere for food.
If you’ve no idea what I’m talking about here, Japan’s covered malls are streets with a roof that also have an upstairs. Does this make sense? It’s essentially exactly what you need to go shopping in any weather, at almost any time of day. Japan is all about convenience for the workers: whatever food you want, whenever you want (so that you can work into the night, unfortunately), and whatever you want to buy, without getting rained on.
Okayama’s malls followed the usual Japanese tick list of options: terrifyingly expensive clothing shops, inexplicable electronics shops full of beeping noises, local fruit shops specialising in fruit with bows on, and multiple shops selling only those socks that have toes on them that I can’t ever imagine being comfortable. Oh and a ridiculous amount of tiny restaurants.
All of this, of course, peppered with Japan’s ubiquitous vending machines.
9. Eat at Izogami Tomako
Located in Okayama Ichibangai shopping mall underneath the train station: Google Maps link.
If you’ve got a train to catch, you’ve just arrived, or you’re staying near Okayama station, look this bad boy up.
It’s in the mall underneath the station, in the food court part (unsurprisingly), and it’s a gyoza and ramen restaurant specialising in local tomatoes. Yes apparently tomatoes are a thing as well as peaches (although they didn’t crop up anywhere else).
So this means you get the absolute madness that is the very un-Japanese-sounding tomato ramen. I was skeptical at first but gave it a go purely because it was 100% vegetarian and when you find something clearly veggie in a trickier city to avoid meat in, you go for it. As is standard for our Japanese eating, we ordered one main (tomato ramen) and some bits to share (gyoza and something else I’ve forgotten).
Suffice to say, the ramen was so good that we ended up ordering a second bowl.
10. Visit the Okayama Prefectural Museum of Art
I’m including this art museum because it was #1 on my list of things to do in Okayama when I was planning our visit and I promise it looks really good. The building is contemporary, it’s dead central, and they even do an English language leaflet. I’d love to tell you what it’s like in reality for a visit, but for the entire duration of our visit it was resoundingly closed. Naturally, on the morning we had to leave it opened up again but we didn’t have time. Such is the way of life.
It’s 350 yen to get in and it’s open until 16:30 daily, apart from being closed on Mondays… Or for several days for renovations when I’m there apparently.
If any of my readers have been, feel free to let me know if it’s any good in the comments below. Just don’t be too smug now. Ta.
Because I don’t have a photo of whatever wonders lie within the art museum, here’s a nice shot of the Asahi river from Okayama Castle to end on.
Things to do in Okayama, Japan – useful information for your trip
Where to stay
Western-style hotels in Japan are often either not great or really expensive. Obviously I’m writing from a UK perspective on what’s expensive: we’re lucky here to be able to book Premier Inns and the like for <£80 a night for a clean, decent room in most UK cities (not including stupid London). This kind of budget-but-nice hotel isn’t really a thing in Japan. Read more about the ins and outs of Japanese hotels here.
Anyway, I struck gold with the hotel I found in, Okayama Koraku Hotel. You got a Western-sized bed in an amazingly big room by Japan standards (I’m sure American tourists on TripAdvisor would still moan). There was a really good shower IN A PROPER BATHROOM (i.e. not a pre-fab like in most Japanese hotels). Oh and to top it all, they even did a glasses-cleaning service! The staff were lovely too. It was around £78 a night when I was there (January) so an absolute bargain. Honestly, I’m proper chuffed when we stay somewhere that isn’t crap in Japan so I make no apologies for this gushing little review.
How to get around
Japan’s public transport is, of course, unbeatable. However, the city centre of Okayama is really walkable so you probably won’t need to use much (apart from the cat tram, of course).
When to go
This isn’t unique to Okayama but here are my general thoughts on when to visit Japan as a whole:
Spring in Japan is very popular because the cherry blossom is a big deal and the weather is mostly beautiful. But everyone else knows this too, so it can be very busy and more expensive due to this, coupled with the fact it’s Golden Week in Japan (when everyone gets time off work). So do weigh up how much cherry blossom and flawless Instagram shots matter to you. My favourite time to go to Japan in general is January. Don’t be afraid of the winter months. The weather is bright and crisp but there are far fewer tourists than other months. Our friends who live in Tokyo say autumn is also lovely but we’ve not done that ourselves… yet. Basically, avoid summer if you can, because HUMIDITY.
Further reading Japan in general
I’ve got an absolutely bloody HUGE post called:
You’ll probably need an entire pot of green tea if you’re going to read that one. Or something stronger. And you may also like my other Japan blog posts:
- How to spend 3 days in Tokyo: an itinerary
- 20 unique things to do in Tokyo
- Discover off-the-beaten-track Tokyo
- 2 weeks in Japan: itinerary options
- Discover Himeji Castle
- How to spend one day in Takamatsu
- How to spend a weekend on the magical Naoshima art island
- Kobe – how to spend one day in Japan’s floral city
- Tokyo quirky train-themed things to do
- How to watch sumo in Tokyo, Japan
- Nara – discover the home of Japan’s tame deer.
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