Why I Decided to Move to Okayama

Japan’s secret gem is hiding in the land of sunshine

Joe Honton
Japonica Publication


Just another midsummer day in the bucolic Land of Sunshine. (Photo: JH)

Recently, I’ve been looking for a good place in Japan to call home. Someplace away from the urban crowds, while not being isolated. Someplace that’s not too disaster-prone. Someplace rooted in the simpler life of the country’s traditional culture. Okayama prefecture is looking like a pretty good fit.

Several people have already asked me why I’m excited about Okayama over all the other great locations in Japan. After all, I’ve traveled the world extensively, been to Japan more than a dozen times, and visited 31 of Japan’s 47 prefectures.

The short answer is that I’m looking at it from a geographer’s perspective. Allow me to elaborate.

Chūgoku is the region west of Japan’s main population centers. The name Chūgoku 中国 means “middle country” because, in its early history, it was midway between Edo to the east and Kyushu to the west. At that time, the northern Tōhoku region (comprising the former provinces of Dewa and Mutsu) was not part of the Yamato dynasty.

But in modern times, Chūgoku is no longer the middle of anything, and is easily overlooked.

Geographically, a mountain range partitions Chūgoku into yin and yang subregions. The northern Sea of Japan side, is called San’in 山陰 (“mountain + shade/yin”). The southern Seto Inland Sea side is called San’yō 山陽 (“mountain + sunshine/yang”).

Okayama is part of the San’yō. It is blessed with the calm waters of the Seto Inland Sea, and as its name asserts, plenty of sunshine.

Okayama is somehow off the radar for most visitors, even though it has two stations on the San’yō Shinkansen, and an international airport with service to Seoul, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Taipei.

Easy access to the rest of Japan is an important consideration for me, so proximity to the main bridge that connects the islands of Honshū and Shikoku is part of the area’s draw. For those unfamiliar with it, the Seto Ohashi 瀬戸大橋 — a 13km long double-decker bridge — is an engineering marvel. From Okayama’s southernmost village of Shimotsui, the view of the islands that dot the Inland Sea and the bridge that hops across them is stunning.

In terms of population, the prefecture’s namesake capital city, Okayama, is medium sized (720,000). It has all the usual hub-bub of commerce, underground malls and department stores that similar-sized cities have. Its smaller neighbor Kurashiki (480,000) is less cosmopolitan, and places a greater emphasis on the arts, culture and history.

But the other thirteen towns (each home to 30,000 to 60,000 souls) are what interest me most. Some are coastal towns that follow the ebb and flow of the Inland Sea, some are farming towns tucked along the base of the foothills, and some are forestry towns clinging to the river valleys that carve their way through the mountains. I’ve briefly visited almost half of these over the past month, and been favorably impressed.

Okayama’s sunshine, gorgeous scenery, convenient access, and moderate population density are all big attractions for me. But like any romance, the true test is whether my love affair will be able to withstand adversity.

It is often said that Japan is a disaster-prone country. Printed hazard maps for Kurashiki and Okayama are available through the city government for use by emergency personnel, planners, home owners, real estate agents, and interested residents. They are detailed enough to see every road, building and house in the area. Even better is Jiban online which maps all of the potential problems and their hazard ratings in fine detail. I’ll describe these next.

So how does Okayama prefecture compare to the rest of the country? Let’s take a sober look at some of the obvious risks.

Flooding has always been a problem in Japan where heavy rains are just part of the equation. Everywhere you go, rivers and their major tributaries have been tamed by levees to prevent flooding. Sadly, the hydrological engineering behind these was designed based on historical rainfall patterns that are being broken at an alarming rate.

The town of Mabi, along the Oda River, was devastated by flooding in 2018 during a major storm event when the Oda River discharge gates were intentionally closed in order to prevent the Takahashi River from being overwhelmed.¹ With intense short storms becoming more frequent everywhere, this type of disaster could happen in many places. It somehow seems unfair to suggest Okayama be given demerits for that event.

Landslides are caused when people get carried away with the bulldozer while working in the mountains. There always seems to be an irresistible urge to scrape away just one more toehold of the mountain’s base in order to get just a bit more usable land. This type of disaster in the making is ubiquitous in Japan and Okayama’s foothill region is no exception. Nevertheless, this type of potential hazard has been well mapped, and can be easily spotted and avoided when house hunting.

The more serious problem for Okayama is related to tectonics and the risk of liquefaction. This is what happens after an earthquake, when unconsolidated sediment becomes oversaturated with liquid and everything turns to mush. The southern part of the prefecture, where rice is farmed, is all former marshland. Over the past several centuries, that marshland has been systematically drained and leveled to create: first, cotton fields; then rice paddies; then industrial assembly centers; and most recently solar power facilities. All of those are likely to be impacted to some extent by liquefaction.

I don’t know what to think about forest fires — so many other places in the world have been caught unprepared over the past couple of years. My own hometown in California experienced a devastating wildfire five years ago, and we still haven’t fully recovered. At least in Japan, no one has forgotten the lessons of the 1923 Great Kantō Earthquake: building codes and fire safety is taken seriously. The risk isn’t zero, but it seems intuitive that log cabins deep in the forest are at greater risk than concrete houses in an urban environment.

The Tōhoku Tsunami of 2011 was a horrifying event for everyone in Japan. Even though tsunamis are rare, they simply can’t be ignored. Okayama is not as protected from tsunamis as I once thought. While it’s true that Shikoku will bear the brunt of the major tsunami predicted to happen when the Nankai Trough next slips, Okayama isn’t fully in the clear. Historically, in the 18th, 19th, and 20th century, waves as high as three or four meters propagated into the Seto Inland Sea, through the eastern Kii Channel and western Bungo Channel.² Fortunately, when that next happens, there will be plenty of advance warning, as any tsunami that manages to squeeze through those channels is expected to take a couple of hours before reaching Okayama’s coastal villages.

Even though I’ve lived in earthquake-prone California for the last forty years, I’m still not thrilled when the earth starts to shake. The Loma Prieta Earthquake of 1989 was scary for those of us who lived through it, so naturally I want to live someplace where the phrase “rock solid” can be taken literally.

The good news is that central Okayama may be the safest place in Japan relative to earthquake risks. Recent research has revealed that the Kibi Plateau, a crustal plate 30km thick, has barely budged vertically or horizontally, even as Japan’s four major tectonic plates have swirled around it since the Eocene, 34 million years ago.³

Unfortunately, this safety zone does not protect the southern parts of the prefecture, where the main population centers of Kurashiki and Okayama are situated. Those places are still expected to get moderately shaken up during any major earthquake along Shikoku’s Median Tectonic Line.⁴

On one of my early trips to Japan, I visited Mount Aso, located in central Kyushu. Its huge caldera is an impressive sight. At that time, the caldera’s steam vents were used by vendors to roast corn-on-the-cob for tourists. But a week after my visit, that fun ended for good when the volcano burst into action, and a roiling river of lava smothered the nearby village. Japan has more than a hundred active volcanoes, but thankfully none of them are in the Chūgoku region.⁵

Finally, Okayama and its neighboring prefectures do not have actively operating nuclear power stations, so that’s one less thing to worry about. Instead, Okayama is home to two large renewable energy generators, the Setouchi Solar Power Plant and the Tsuyama Wind Farm. Okayama is doing its part to help the country meet its Kyoto Protocol climate obligations.

Realistically, risk assessment isn’t an all or nothing exercise. Overall, Okayama is on par with the rest of the country as far as the manageable problems of flooding, landslides, and liquefaction is concerned. And it’s better off than most other places with regard to tsunamis, earthquakes, and volcanoes.

OK Joe, that’s all a very nice geography lesson, but what’s so special about Okayama that it deserves to be called the Land of Sunshine?

Well, it’s the quality of life; the ineffable things that can’t be mapped; that can’t be quantified, digitized, or summarized —

Scenery that’s alive with comings and goings . . . Students riding bicycles through green fields of rice. Great blue herons stalking frogs. Black lacewings hovering over open waterways. White-topped root and shoots ready to be harvested. Watermelons chilling in irrigation canals. Sweet peaches just coming into season. Plump muscats for sale at every turn. Towering pines rising up from the farm’s edge.

And the distinctive art and architecture native to the area . . . Unglazed pottery with goma pockmarks. Bamboo souke baskets for everyday use. Criss-crossed namako kabe patterned walls. Traditional kominka standing proudly alongside stick-framed houses. Kirizuma yane gabled roofs held aloft with massive timbers.

And the ancient inhabitants who remind us of our fleeting time on Earth . . . Kibitsu Jinja, where the legendary princes and emperors of the 7th century are enshrined. The Kokubun-ji pagoda, rising out of the Kibi Plain. The 8th century provinces of Bitchū, Bizen, Bingo, and Mimasaka, whose names still identify towns and roads and train stations.

⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀Overseeing the land
⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀gracing the occupants
⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀blessing their activities,
⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀impermanent meets permanent.
⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀The gods are ever present.

And the warm reception of everyone . . . eager to invite newcomers to join them in building a future in harmony with place and time.

And the rain that gives rise to such a profusion of life . . . where open fields of green are kissed by bright summer light, revealing the true nature of the Land of Sunshine.

Where forest meets farm, where herons stalk frogs, where watermelons chill in the cool canals. (Photo: JH)


goma ごま (“sesame-seed”)
souke そうけ (“wood bamboo”)
namako kabe なまこ壁 (“sea cucumber walls”)
kominka 古民家 (“old folk house”)
kirizuma yane 切妻屋根 (“steep gabled roofs”)
kibi no kuni 吉備国 (“Kingdom of Kibi”)


1. Photos: Death Toll Reaches 200 in Devastating Japan Floods

2. Tsunami Behaviors in the Seto Inland Sea and Bungo Channel Caused by the Nankaido Earthquakes in 1707, 1854 and 1946

3. Kibi Plateau: A stable-coherent tectonic unit in the active Japanese Islands

4. What is the Nankai Trough Crisis?

5. List of volcanoes in Japan