Eye-Catching Designs in Picturesque Townscape—Kurashiki Bikan Historical Quarter—


Eye-Catching Designs in Picturesque Townscape
—Kurashiki Bikan Historical Quarter—
(Okayama Prefecture)

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The beautiful white-walled townscape of the Bikan (Picturesque) Historical Quarter in the city of Kurashiki in Okayama Prefecture fills sightseers with feelings of nostalgia. Kurashiki flourished as a mercantile town from the Edo period (1603–1868), and thanks to the enormous efforts of its forefathers, who were quick to realize the cultural value of the townscape, and of local citizens who have cherished their community, the townscape survives to this day just as it was in the past. The historical quarter of Kurashiki is highly revered both in Japan and overseas and charms visitors with picture-postcard scenes wherever you point your camera.
  This article focuses on creative designs that really should not be missed in a tour around the many attractions of the Kurashiki Bikan Historical Quarter. The designs were introduced by a sightseeing guide.



From Cotton Production on Reclaimed Land and Commerce to Spinning Industry

Kurashiki’s prosperity was built on reclaimed tideland. From the 1580s the construction of a seawall made headway, and the town and farms expanded outward. The foundation for Kurashiki’s development lay in the fact that beyond the levee stretched the Seto Inland Sea, making it a convenient location for marine transportation. Also, thanks to the ebb and flow of the tide, ships were able to easily navigate their way up the Kurashiki River. The river was dredged like a canal and the riverbanks reinforced so that more ships could pass. As a result, Kurashiki became a thriving mercantile town.
  The soil on the reclaimed land remained salty and was not suitable for growing agricultural products. Instead, the planting of cotton, which is highly salt-resistant, was recommended, and the Kurashiki area became a thriving cotton production center. Warehouses appeared to purchase the cotton from farmers and ship it as a commodity, and subsequently the number of merchants dealing in not only cotton but also rice and marine products increased. Eventually Kurashiki emerged as a flourishing commercial center.
  Kurashiki is not a castle town. In the Edo period it was under the direct control of the Tokugawa shogunate and administered by a dispatched magistrate. Nevertheless, the autonomy of the merchants was recognized, and they were given favorable treatment. Kurashiki therefore developed as an autonomous town with merchants mainly steering the local administration.
  The Kurashiki Spinning Mill was founded in 1889 to process raw cotton and produce yarn. The mill played a major role as a driving force behind the industrial growth of Okayama Prefecture in the Meiji period (1868–1912), it alone accounting for 8.9% of the prefecture’s whole industrial production value. In addition to being a mercantile town, Kurashiki became a manufacturing town as well.

Some Buildings 300 Years Old, Others 100 Years Old

The scenery of Kurashiki’s historical quarter is an exquisite blend of the picturesque townscape featuring the namako-kabe walls of the white warehouses and lattice windows of the machiya (merchant’s houses combining stores and town residences) and the willow trees lining the Kurashiki River. While the buildings give a sense of uniformity to the townscape as a whole, finer parts of the warehouses and residences display various unique designs.
  The buildings do not date only from the Edo period. There are also buildings from the Meiji and Taisho (1912–26) eras. The characteristic of the Kurashiki Bikan Historical Quarter is that while these buildings display the architectural styles of the times, they also blend into the surrounding scenery. Some of the buildings are close to 300 years old, others are just 100 years old. Together they give a lasting impression of the profound depth of history.

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