A quiet, two car train painted in mustard yellow stops at Yoshinaga station in Bizen, Okayama prefecture. There are no ekiin and no place to prove that I paid for my train ticket here. On the side of the single hall station, a young grandparent holds his granddaughter along the fence’s ledge, watching the occasional local trains come by.
I walk across the parking lot to check the bus schedule, waiting in anticipation to see a large bus – like the ones in Tokyo – drive up at any minute. The time for my bus arrived with no sign; a man standing by a van ten meters away from me called my attention, and asked if I was waiting for the bus. This deep red van was the Bizen City Bus, not only utilized by curious tourists but by locals as a lifeline for the elderly who live out here in the inaka countryside. The man who was the driver, summoned me to hop in. A short and chatty ride as one of only two passengers on the cozy ride brought me to Shizutani School, a famous landmark in this peaceful valley by the sea.
Shizutani School, the oldest school in Japan, and the first designated Japan Heritage Site
Shizutani School is known as the first, and now oldest school in Japan that was built to educate the common people. Up until this point in the Edo period and before, only noblemen and samurai children could receive education. But the leader of the Okayama Clan, Mitsumasa Ikeda believed in educating farmers, craftsmen, and merchants alike to foster future leadership and intelligence. He picked the location for Shizutani School, as it means “peaceful and quiet valley,” for an ideal place for schooling. Since its opening in 1670, samurai children and commoner children aged 8 – 20 learned in the same facilities on these grounds.
The school closed with the end of the Edo period in 1870, but the citizens of Okayama reopened its doors three years later and operated it as a high school. Shizutani closed as a school nearly 20 years ago, but the grounds have since opened to the public as a landmark for Japan’s long history and its move toward a modern and educated country.
During its 200 year operation, the students’ main lessons included the teachings of Confucius, the founder of Confucianism in China. Unlike the typical Monday through Friday school days we’re used to nowadays, these teachings happened on specific dates of each month: 1st, 6th, 11th,16th, 21st, and the 26th. These lessons took place in the most famous building on the grounds, the Auditorium or Lecture Hall, known in Japanese as kodo. This building, completed in 1701, is now the famous symbol of Shizutani School and designated as one of the National Treasures of Japan. A hall that once was filled with dozens of studious young children now sits empty, with barefoot visitors gliding down the hallways and photography lovers hunched and waiting for the perfect lighting to hit the open air windows.
The school grounds are comprised with many other features aside from the large and mighty auditorium. There’s a Shinto shrine, a library, a tea house, and a newer school building now standing as the history museum. All across the fields, the roofs of the historic buildings glisten in brownish red; the color of Bizen pottery. The roof tiles are all made up of the famous Bizen ware, a famous traditional and local style craftwork. Ikeda believed in the importance of incorporating this local pottery style into the construction, that he even had a kiln built nearby and brought in potters from Imbe, where much of the Bizen pottery is still made today.
These rooftops aren’t the only features at the school that are brightly red. Shizutani School is also a famous spot for autumn foliage. Grand gingko and maple trees are spotted throughout the grounds. In the autumn evenings during the months of foliage, the grounds also light up with bright lights for a beautiful showcase of the colorful leaves at night. In other months, soft pink and white cherry blossoms and many other flowers can be spotted around the school.
Many organized tours and curious history lovers pass through Shizutani School to learn about the beginnings and foundations of the Japanese school system. There are friendly volunteers and free tour guides to show you around and explain to you in depth about each building and their fascinating facts. The entrance is also lined with some food stalls that sell snacks or local harvest. When I visited, famous sweet soy sauce soft serve ice cream, fresh grapes and fruit jams were available, just to name a few items. The open air grounds are a refreshing change from the city-life many of us lead, with the soft sounding stream and low hanging trees offering a place for a peace of mind. Take a tour or go at your own pace to enjoy a step back into time at the Shizutani School.
Shizutani School information
〒705-0036 784, Shizutani, Bizen-shi, Okayama, Japan
Hours: Open daily 9:00am ~ 17:00pm closed December 29th thru 31st
Entrance: ¥400 for adult
History museum: free entry with payment into the grounds
Visit the official website here.
How to get here
By public transportation – Take the Bizen City Bus (¥200) from Yoshinaga station. Make sure to carefully check the schedule as a bus only comes about once an hour.
By taxi – About a 4km ride from Yoshinaga station. Have a local taxi company’s number ready, or have a local person help you call one (everyone’s friendly here!).
By car – Large parking lot available right on the grounds.
Bonus – On the beautiful day I visited, there were groups of motorcyclists and mountain bikers at the attraction. Maybe you’re adventurous enough to try the same!
Nina is a professional and recreational writer currently exploring her motherland of Japan. When she's not busy working on her upcoming conversational English book, she can be spotted biking around Tokyo to indulge in delicious food and attempting to snuggle with kitties at cat cafés. She's an odd collector of free brochures from travel counters, always looking for the next exciting destination. Nina often likes to escape the Tokyo city life to go discover new trails on the outbacks of Japan, where she enjoys connecting with locals and wanderers alike.
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