By Sim ee Waun
DAY trips around Japan are a breeze, and with the pretty bento boxes sold in train stations and the ready availability of chilled beer, they make for a lovely breakfast on board the Shinkansen high-speed rail or the ordinary trains.
On one such trip, we disembarked at Kurashiki station and were welcomed by a dreary prospect - a place seemingly fraying at the edges and falling asleep.
But this had been hailed as the Pearl of Japanese tourist attractions, a treasure chest of Japanese and international arts and culture.
|Dried mamakari fish sold in the stores.
And that kept us walking past the multi-storey bicycle park, the gaudy buildings and musty shops in a sheltered arcade, and eventually emerging at a historical quarter where the people and action were.
Seemingly forgotten but certainly not to be missed, Kurashiki - a textile producing city in Okayama Prefecture - hides a beautiful historical quarter that is like Christchurch in New Zealand or York in the United Kingdom.
Elegant, ancient and civilised, it is a place for walkers. It comprises 300- year-old warehouses, Meiji era factories and homes of samurai and other wealthy families, all perfectly preserved and converted into quaint craft shops, museums, restaurants and galleries.
Through this historical quarter runs a shallow willow-lined canal filled with carp, a few swans and punters dressed in traditional garb.
Adding to the gracious atmosphere are artists stationed under the trees drawing sketches of the town. They are always keen to strike up a conversation with you about their work.
Look out for the watch tower near the public toilets and keep an eye out for little decorative elements like a carved dragon here, a little wall mural there, as well as wedding couples getting their photos taken in this scenic town. It's a lovely place to spend a leisurely day - all you need, really, to see most of the sights.
You can take a break by the canal to feed the carp (look out for the bags of fish feed sold on unmanned stands near the canal) or to admire the lovely Kurashiki glass and local paper mâché crafts.
|The artists here are happy to chat with tourists about their work.
Near Ivy Square, all red-brick and American in design and an oddity in the quintessentially Japanese landscape, stop by the little shops and buy rice crackers or pick up souvenirs of dried fish, crunchy snacks and pickles.
When lunching in Kurashiki, head towards any of the tiny restaurants just beyond the canal and try their local speciality, mamakari fish, a little bream cooked in myriad ways.
According to legend, the fish was so delicious that people ate too much rice with it and had to borrow rice from their neighbours, hence the word "mama", a local slang for rice, and "kari", to borrow.
The main attraction is the Ohara Museum of Art, where you'll be surprised to find works by Monet, Matisse, Renoir, Gaugain and Picasso. Next to the main gallery are Japanese folk art and some ancient Chinese art.
Further down - you'll have to look carefully for the signage - is the very quaint Japanese Rural Toy Museum, which kids will love.
Set in a cluster of old little houses centred around a tiny garden courtyard, it's filled with traditional Japanese toys, daruma dolls (armless and legless good luck charms), an amazing kite collection, delightful animal figurines and a fantastically detailed diorama.
If the doors to the adjacent buildings are locked, look for the caretaker to open it for you. Cramped and with low ceilings, this quirky museum also gives you an idea of how living in a more humble abode is like.
Before you leave, pop into the café for a coffee and factor in some time for the gift shop. It is full of traditional crafts, toys and textiles.
To get to Kurashiki, take the Shinkansen from Okayama or Osaka to Shin-Kurashiki, then change to the ordinary train and disembark at Kurashiki station.
This article was first published in The Straits Times Special. It is produced by the Special Projects Unit, Marketing Division, SPH.