Sakaiminato.

Sakaiminato is a jumping off point to the Oki islands. We arrived in the evening and the whole town already seemed to be sleeping. After two hours of wandering around the dimly lit streets we finally found, and were permitted to stay, at a guesthouse that was closed for the low season.

The city’s main road at night.

Sakaiminato is situated in the centre of Western Japan, and thanks to its geographical position has long been active in trade with those countries on the opposite coast of the Sea of Japan – KoreaChina and Russia. In 1951 the port of Sakaiminato was deemed important enough to be fully developed to enable it to receive cargo ships.

Sakaiminato is also the hometown of Mizuki Shigeru, the recently deceased author of the yōkai (monsters and ghouls from Japanese folklore) manga series “GeGeGe no Kitaro”. After his death the local authorities launched a campaign involving the creation of hundreds of new statues and installations of the cartoon characters across the city. Local tourism sky rocketed and the town is now known as the birthplace of some of the country’s most popular cartoon monsters.

Taxis decorated with eyes; a comic book character called "Medama-Oyaji".
Cat girl character "Neko-Musume" on the pavement.

With local seafood combined with cartoon entertainment, it’s easy to see why Sakaiminato is a popular town for tourists. But for those who are indifferent to the cartoon characters and the local crab, Sakaiminato probably isn’t the place to go.

Bus stop timetables.

Okayama.

The Shinkansen (bullet trains) has been in operation in Japan for over 50 years and remains the best transport available in the country. Japan has a major issue with its growing population and limited space. Problems solved in some ways by introducing Kei cars. The bullet trains have also helped, reducing traffic congestion, as well as creating jobs. The growth in popularity of the high speed rail lines over transit by car, especially over longer distances, has seen a positive effect on the environment, with fewer cars on Japan’s narrow roads and so far less pollution emitted into the atmosphere. The high speed rail network also enables people to take jobs further away from their homes.

The reality is that it isn’t necessarily an accessible form of transport for everyone. In this case all tax payers contributed equally towards the building and maintenance of a railway that only those privileged enough citizens and travellers can afford to use.  It would be naive to think that all citizens could afford to use the high speed rail network, it’s too expensive. The network also feeds the demand from wealthy working citizens and visitors for goods and services. Many visitors come to Japan primarily for entertainment and shopping, which explains why most travellers only make it to Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka.

Poor transport links and low frequency of services in the west of the country are among the reasons why Sakaiminato and the Oki islands are less frequented by foreign visitors. Particularly compared to other popular cities which are connected to the speed rail network. The journey to Okayama took us almost a whole day, the 160km route from Sakaiminato takes 4 hours, with multiple interchanges.  You can cover the 650km distance from Okayama to Tokyo in the same amount of time via high-speed rail. The bullet train (Shinkansen) primarily runs across eastern Japan, with ticket fares some three times dearer than those of a standard train.

We stayed in Okayama as a stop gap on the way to Tokyo. Okayama Garden (Korakuen) is the only widely known attraction, located near the station, but there isn’t much on offer for visitors. However, since Okayama is now connected to the high-speed rail line and its demand for local economic growth, there is a secret key that unlocks a hidden part of the city — Momotaro (lit. Peach Boy). According to an old fairy tale, Peach Boy appeared on the earth inside a giant peach, floating down the river to an old spinster who was washing her clothes there. It follows a fairly predictable narrative: toddler’s brought up, saves the city, destroys monsters, obtains treasure and returns back home. The home of this tale is, of course, Okayama.

Forgive me if I sound dismissive, but I can see a pattern here; when a city has the need to drum up tourism they resort to this kind of thing. Like in Sakaiminato, I was curious to know, why was it only after the cartoonist’s death that the city began to gain popularity? Okayama, has, of course, named its main street Momotaro-odori in honour of Peach Boy. There are even statues relating to the fairy tale that people can spot along the way.

Night covered market.
Cigarette vending machine. It verifies the purchaser’s ID before dispensing the cigarettes.

Instead of going to see the city’s attractions we walked around the narrow streets of the city, had lunch and then took the train to Tokyo.