LOCATION: KANAZAWA, JAPAN
On the western seaboard of central Honshu, you’ll find the city of Kanazawa, which prides itself as Japan’s UNESCO Creative City. Spared from the wars and incursions of fighting classes, Kanazawa has managed to foster and retain a deep artisan mindset that has remained to this day. Unlike the bigger cities of Tokyo and Kyoto, Kanazawa has a character of its own that blends this artistic culture with a traditional Japanese lifestyle through it’s many preserved and open to the public homes, districts and gardens. Getting to Kanazawa is also very easy with many regular Shinkansen making the trip from Tokyo and Osaka in under three hours, and once you’re there you can get around using their public bike sharing system to see sights such as Kanazawa Castle; Kenroku-en Garden; the Samurai and Geisha districts; as well as the kitsch 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art. For a small city, Kanazawa packs a punch, and makes a great off the beaten track destination in addition to your Japan-Kyoto-Osaka itinerary.
To get to Kanazawa you can catch the JR Hokuriku Shinkansen (2h 28m) from Tokyo and the JR Special Express Thunderbird (2h 4m) from Osaka, and upon exiting the JR Kanazawa station you’ll pass through a large and grandiose gate into the city. The best way to navigate Kanazawa is to hire a bike, since the city is flat and compact. There is a public bike sharing scheme called ‘Machi Nori’, with many docks around the city and is worth trying out, or you can catch a loop bus which stops at all the major sights. One of the things I loved about Kanazawa were the canals, and cycling through neighborhoods reminded me of being in Amsterdam with these tiny and narrow canal houses; it’s definitely a great city to wander in!
What to see
Of all the castles I saw in Japan, this one was by far my favorite. Kanazawa Castle was originally built in 1583, with the castle layout as we see it today finalized in 1850. The castle and adjacent garden receives the most tourists in Kanazawa, and even on a weekday the area is full of tour buses and school children, however the castle is big enough that you can escape the crowds and wander the grounds at your leisure. There are a lot of displays at the castle which explain the methods and materials that were employed in its construction and surrounds (including the moat), and you can tour the inside of the castle as well – although I thought it looked nicer from the outside!
The star in the crown of Kanazawa is the incredible Kenroku-en Garden, which is ranked in the top three gardens of Japan. Once a private garden for the ruling clan family (who lived next door in Kanazawa Castle), is now one of the most visited gardens in Japan. Stepping into it’s boundaries was like being transported back to feudal Japan, and in any season there is always something going on in Kenroku-en; I visited in the summer and loved the greenery and the giant koi pond which made me feel cooler than I actually was in the intense summer heat. You also get expansive and unobstructed views of the mountains and surrounding area over the city.
Omi-cho Fish Market
Sure everyone thinks of the Tsukiji Fish Market of Tokyo, and people even get up at 4am to view the famous tuna auction, but I can’t really think of anything more touristy, tiring or boring to do with my time. In my opinion, you go to a fish market to eat! The seafood at Omi-cho is incredibly fresh and is sold continually through out the day, with most fishmongers selling seafood not only to be bought and taken away, but also to be prepared and eaten on the spot. Siu On and I ate some of the biggest oysters I’ve ever seen here, as well as one of the best seafood rice bowls (‘Oke-chirashi’ in Japanese) that I’ve ever had. We actually went back twice for lunch and tried some more of the local delicacies as the price was also a lot cheaper than in other cities.
Samurai and Geisha District
Follow your ‘bushido’ (or ‘way of the warrior’) in the Naga-muchi Samurai District. Here you can stroll down old cobblestone walkways along traditional mud walls, where the chief retainers of the Kaga Clan and their top samurai lived. There are a lot of museums and homes that you can pay to enter here, however I’d recommend entering the Nomura Samurai Family Residence for both the beautifully preserved home and relics, and the amazing garden with it’s own creek and 400 year old Japanese Bayberry tree.
Kazue-machi Chaya district is the old geisha district, and like the Naga-muchi samurai district, has preserved its buildings perfectly and really makes you feel lil you’ve stepped back in time by 200 years. There are a lot of traditional craft stores and tea houses, and unfortunately, I wasn’t able tour any of the houses due to the large volume of tourists, but there’s always next time.
I found this one a little strange, but I’m not much of a theatre person nor am I used to this type of theatre, but I was curious to see a traditional Japanese play. The costumes were amazing, and the live music was incredible, but I did have a hard time following the story. However, if you’re wanting to attend a noh-gaku I would recommend doing it here as opposed to a big city such as Kyoto, as it was cheaper and easier to get tickets.
21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art
If you’re looking for a break from traditional Japanese sights, then definitely make your way up to the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, and wander their exhibits and interactive art displays. The museum’s permanent collection is free to view, and the gardens outside of the museum are also fun to play around in. And I’ll be very jealous if you get to go under Leandro Erlich’s ‘The Swimming Pool’ because it was closed for maintenance when I was there!
Useful Kanazawa sites
Kanazawa Tourism : The official Kanazawa tourism site.
Eye on Kanazawa : I found this gem too late for my trip to Kanazawa, and will be using it the next time I go!
Kanazawa Craft Tourism : If you’re looking for a unique and personal souvenir to take away with you, check out this site for information on amazing artistic experiences including making your own Kinpaku (gold leaf art) gift!
Sound like a lot to cram in doesn’t it? And I bet at the start of this you were thinking ‘Kana-whaaaat??’ This is just a handful of the sights in Kanazawa that you can see and do in a few days. If you base yourself in Kanazawa for longer than two or three days, you can also make excursions out to the coast or even to the picture perfect Shirakawa-go village.
I cannot tell you enough how much I loved Kanazawa, it was by far a more memorable city than Tokyo was in my opinion! Once you get over the craziness and crowds that you find in the big cities, to come to a laid back city like Kanazawa, it was a breath of fresh air in an itinerary that was already too crazy. Highlights of my tim in Kanazawa include cycling around the city over canals and past cute canal houses, wandering through Kenroku-en and eating the best Japanese food out of both trips to Japan at the Omi-cho Fish Market. The people in Kanazawa were very warm and friendly, and more willing to go out of their way to help two lost foreigners. I can’t wait to return to Kanazawa and with how much I love Japan, I’m sure that I will!
Photography by Jelena Stipanicev.