At first sight, KURASHIKI (倉敷), 26km west of Okayama, looks like just another bland identikit Japanese town. But ten minutes’ walk south of the station, the modern buildings and shops are replaced by a delightful enclave of black-and-white walled merchants’ homes (machiya) and storehouses (kura) dating from the town’s Edo-era heyday, when it was an important centre for trade in rice and rush reeds. The compact Bikan historical area (美観地区), cut through by a narrow, willow-fringed canal, in which swans drift and carp swim, is full of museums and galleries, the best of which is the excellent Ōhara Museum of Art, containing four separate halls for Western art, contemporary Japanese art and local crafts. Kurashiki is hugely popular with tourists and can get very busy during the day; to really appreciate the town’s charm it’s best to stay overnight and take an early-morning or evening stroll through the Bikan district.
Just off the coast of Okayama-ken lies the tiny island of INUJIMA (犬島), home to the Inujima Art Project “Refinery” (犬島アートプロジェクト精錬所), the latest in a series of projects by the Bennesse Art Corporation to encourage regional revitalization through architecture and contemporary art. Using local granite and waste products from the smelting process, architect Sambuichi Hiroshi has transformed the long-abandoned buildings and smokestacks of an old copper refinery into a strikingly beautiful eco-building and art space, where solar power and geothermal cooling create a naturally air-conditioned environment. Working closely with the architect, the artist Yanagi Yukinori has used the dismantled childhood home of the novelist Mishima Yukio as the basis for a site-specific artwork. Doors, windows and sliding screens are taken out of context and suspended from the ceiling in a dimly lit industrial space, while porcelain bathroom fittings are juxtaposed against a raked gravel surround, creating an installation that symbolizes the contradictions inherent in the modernization of Japan.