Tsuyama: Wander Through a Thousand-Year-Old Castle Town Where Historical Marvels Meet Sustainability
Boasting 1,300 years of history, the city of Tsuyama in Okayama Prefecture is steeped in culture. Fascinating traces of the passing centuries can be admired in the white figure of Tsuyama Castle, standing atop a hill right in the heart of the city, as well as along its ancient routes where a sequence of perfectly preserved traditional buildings still retains the splendor of the city’s old scenery and atmosphere. Enriched by such heritage, Tsuyama felt already perfect as-is, but aiming to develop a new model of tourism, it also gifted me the rare chance to partake in the merging of thousand-year-old traditions and innovative takes on sustainability!
Immerse Yourself in Tsuyama’s 1,300 Years of History and Traditions
As the surrounding buildings became more and more dispersed, the figure of Tsuyama Castle revealed its majestic scale as I gradually got closer. Imbued with the allure of past Japan, the castle seemed to cast a time-stopping spell on its surroundings, as though the entire city had never really abandoned its ancient demeanor in favor of modernity.
Located in northern Okayama Prefecture, amidst the rich nature of the Chugoku Mountains to the north and Kibi Highlands to the south, Tsuyama is so deeply steeped in history that it is even mentioned in historical documents compiled during the Heian period (794 - 1185) attesting that the ancient city was chosen as the capital of the newly-established Mimasaka Domain in year 713.
Not only a political center, Tsuyama also prospered as an economic hub. Located in between two large cities, Yamato and Izumo, Tsuyama functioned as a major artery of transportation along the Yoshii River Canal. It was also located along one of the main Edo-period (1603 - 1867) highways, the Izumo Kaido, which connected present-day Himeji City in Hyogo Prefecture to present-day Shimane Prefecture.
Through time, Tsuyama also developed into a castle town. After Mori Tadamasa, the first lord of the Tsuyama Domain, started building the castle in 1604, the surrounding townscape further flourished into a spectacle of wooden buildings and traditional sights that have been preserved to the present day and warmed my heart throughout my visit.
This vibrant environment also favored studies and art, and during the course of the Edo and Meiji periods (1868 - 1912), Tsuyama gave birth to numerous excellent scholars of “rangaku” (Western learning) who helped the country build up its scientific base.
Tsuyama Castle: Climb Up to A Stunning Landmark Watching Over the City With Its 1,000 Cherry Trees
Rising right at the center of Tsuyama and visible from every corner of the city is Tsuyama Castle, the most evident symbol of the city’s glorious history and ideal spot to start my full immersion into the local wonders.
As I approached the main keep, a white gem mounted on invaluable remnants of stone permeated with centuries of history, I pictured the castle through the different eras while soaking in the multitude of marvelous sights encountered along the way up. Framed by gorgeous greenery and laid against the picture-perfect blue expanse of the sky, the castle's appearance changed at every twist and turn of the stairs, with the walls appearing even whiter and finally almost tinged with gold when caressed by the warm sunshine. This elevated position not only grants Tsuyama Castle a sense of solemnity, but it is also what makes the castle unique, as it is one of the only three castles in Japan built on a hilltop in the middle of a plain.
Although dismantled in 1873 when the Meiji government promulgated a law imposing the demolition of castles around the country in an attempt to modernize Japan, the cherished landmark was never forgotten by the locals, and the largest of its watchtowers was finally reconstructed and re-opened to the public in 2005 as part of a commemorative project to celebrate the 400th anniversary since the castle’s construction. Standing 45 meters above ground, the ruins and new keep exude such beauty that in 2006 they were selected as one of the “100 Fine Castles of Japan” by the Japan Castle Association.
But that's not the only recognition Tsuyama Castle was awarded, as it was also chosen as one of “Japan's Top 100 Cherry Blossom Viewing Spots.” The castle’s grounds, turned into the beloved Kakuzan Park, host about 1,000 cherry trees that bloom in profusion during the spring, offering visitors a spectacular display of pink contrasting with the massive stone walls as well as a dreamy light-up at night.
I happened to visit at the end of October, so the castle was not cocooned in its iconic cloud of flowers, but the colors of the changing leaves were almost as beautiful, giving me the chance to relish countless sights of blazing hues around the park!
Josai and Joto Districts: Stroll Around an Ancient Route Lined With Historical Buildings
After the castle, I continued my exploration into Tsuyama’s history by venturing around its most traditional neighborhoods: Josai and Joto, two Important Preservation Districts for Groups of Traditional Buildings located along the old Izumo Kaido.
The Joto District still retains the appearance of the Edo period while the Josai District preserves the townscape of the Meiji and Taisho periods, evoking a sense of antique magnificence as traces of the old days can be found everywhere in the townscape.
The Josai District on the western side of the castle displays a townscape where ancient temples and shrines are interwoven with modern architecture. With the opening of the new railway line in the Meiji period, Josai became the gateway to Tsuyama and prospered as an area of trade and business, retaining the vestiges of its heyday in the many residences of wealthy merchant families and Taisho-period (1912 - 1926) buildings that can be spotted around its streets.
Among these, the Former Doi Bank, which today serves as the Sakushu Folk Craft Museum, and the Josai Romankan, which was opened as a retro-style gallery and cafe inside the Former Nakajima Hospital, allow visitors to fully take in the alluring atmosphere of modern prosperity exuded by the district. The area also boasts Hongenji Temple which is the family temple of the feudal lords of the Tsuyama Domain.
On the eastern side of the castle is the Joto District, where historical townhouses are lined up for 1.2 kilometers, preserving the feel of a castle town. The more I walked down these ancient streets the more I felt as though I was part of old Japan, each step more immersed in the extraordinary details showcased by the traditional buildings. Structures in Joto maintain distinctive traditional architecture, visible from the walls to the roofs and window, which were all fun to spot around as they gave me the chance to learn about how buildings were constructed centuries ago.
Many of these historic buildings are also open to the public, granting glimpses into old Joto’s daily life, including the Former Residence of Mitsukuri Genpo who was a noted scholar of Western learning, the Joto Mukashi Machiya, and the Sakushu Joto Residence which are centuries-old townhouses of great architectural beauty!
Bito Tsuyama An Hotel and L’Histoire Alley: Unwind in A Sustainable Traditional Accommodation Born From Tsuyama’s Historical Richness
In the Joto Preservation District, not only did I get to explore magnificent spots teeming with tradition, but I also had the precious chance to experience a night in one of its invaluable historical buildings at Bito Tsuyamaan Hotel, which is also part of a larger sustainable tourism project rooted in Tsuyama’s culture.
In 2020, the Research Institute for Sustainable Tourism was established in Tsuyama with the purpose of conducting research on sustainable tourism and providing consultation services on sustainable tourism planning and nationwide promotion.
As a first step towards the cultivation of new ways of tourism, a new tourist zone called "Tsuyama Bito District L’Histoire Alley” was inaugurated along Joto’s Fukudaya Alley. Although only 200 meters long, the alley connects two guest houses that are symbolic of the project: the "Bito Tsuyamaan Hotel" and the "L’Histoire Hotel Tsuyama." Standing as models for regional revitalization, both facilities let visitors soak in Tsuyama’s 1,300 years of history and culture, and also raise awareness about the value of the area with initiatives that highlight and utilize the unique heritage of the region.
As soon as I stepped into Bito Tsuyamaan Hotel, I was instantly charmed by the seamless mix of traditional and modern elements. The facility preserves the traditional wooden shell that is characteristic of the buildings in the area, but it is also enriched with trendy art pieces and designs from local business and craftspeople that allowed me to enjoy the culture of Tsuyama. Along with connecting with local artisans, the guest house uses materials produced in Okayama Prefecture as well as locally-crafted specialty products, such as “washi” Japanese paper colored with traditional “bengara” red pigment, as lavish decorations.
Even the bathroom of my room, the Deluxe Double Miya-gawa, boasted a special design, depicting a beautiful Mt. Fuji rising among traditional patterns, emitting the ambience of a public bathhouse. It is sure to make your bathing time feel even more luxurious!
Bito Tsuyamaan Hotel was also refurbished by local architects who decided to illustrate the charms of Tsuyama’s old scenery throughout the facility by borrowing precious vintage photographs from a local 140-year-old photography shop to use as decorative touches. In the Miya-gawa room, a mysterious bridge crosses the room’s vermilion wall, while in the Kakuzan room, the black and white silhouette of Tsuyama Castle is complemented by the golden “tatami” flooring and traditional style of the room. Fascinated by those scenes of bygone eras, with each room narrating different times and scenery, I felt pervaded by an inexplicable, profound sense of nostalgia that made me fully appreciate the time spent at Bito Tsuyamaan Hotel.
Bito Tsuyamaan Hotel celebrates the local culture even in its adjoining cozy coffee shop, L’Histoire Cafe. Tsuyama is also the place where the Japanese “kanji” character for "coffee" was first invented by Udagawa Yoan, one of the city’s outstanding Japanese scholars of Western studies. At the cafe, you can enjoy its original “Bito White Latte” prepared with delicious "Bito Tsuyama coffee" beans roasted in-house and premium "Hiruzen milk" from the untouched Hiruzen Plateau.
Partake in the Precious Blend of History and Sustainability in This 1,300 Year Old Castle Town
Enjoy the best of Japan’s historical charms and innovative initiatives cultivating sustainable tourism and its diffusion to the world in Tsuyama, a castle town brimming with culture and traditional townscapes that will be sure to enrich your travel!
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