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.

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