kurashiki’s bikan historical quarter

04Apr06

Lea and I spent the rest of the day walking around Kurashiki‘s historic Bikan Quarter, lined with Edo-period storehouses and merchant homes associated with the cotton and rice trades. The stone streets that run alongside the Kurashiki River define the most beautiful area of the Bikan Quarter, with boats and swans gliding along the surface of the river while carp swim lazily back and forth in the level below. The river area is lined with the kind of tourist-oriented stores that you might find in Sonoma, but it manages to (mostly) avoid the kind of bric-a-brac that litters the storefronts of most tourist towns. In fact, a large portion of the shops in Kurashiki concentrate on beautiful Bizen ware pottery that’s clearly directed toward the connoisseur and not the casual collector (I don’t think, for example, that even the wealthiest tourist is going to casually drop 600,000 yen on a tea-ceremony bowl).

The town is also home to several museums, including an archaeological museum, the Rural Toy Museum, and the Museum of Folkcraft, which Lea and I spent some time in. While the displays at the Museum of Folkcraft were nice, the real draw was the chance to walk around inside one of the original buildings lining the canal. Walking around inside a building that is itself a work of craft — you can see the marks of hand carving that line the ceiling beams — is really something special. While contemporary buildings tend to erase the hands that are responsible for their existence, the buildings in Kurashiki’s Bikan bear the fingerprints of their makers as particularizing marks that make you distinctly aware of the labor at work in this place, the labor that has developed out of itself the very environment that you are busy walking in, inside. The crafts movement in Japan emphasizes those objects for everyday use that were made by people who remain anonymous. These objects, called mingei, began to be collected during the 1920s and were thought of as repositories of a kind of aesthetic that was in danger of disappearing under the weight of modernism (clearly related to the motivations behind The Arts and Crafts Movement in Europe and the Americas). The Kurashiki Mingeikan was the second museum in Japan devoted to the display of folk art and mingei crafts, and apparently the collection includes more than 10,000 items. My favorite items were the ceramic burial urns shaped like palaces and intended as the final palace for the body’s ashes.

It’s true. Kurashiki is so scenic that you can even see swans swimming under willow trees.

A view of a typical sequence of buildings that have been converted into storefronts.

This is the Nakabashi bridge, which “was built in 1877 and made from a single stone slab.” (Taken from the Walking Map of Kurashiki)

Another view of the Nakabashi bridge.

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