Four reasons to love Kanazawa
Samurai, geisha, contemporary art, beautiful gardens and excellent cuisine. Kanazawa is worth a visit.
Kanazawa, less than three hours by train from Kyoto and Tokyo, is one of the most beautiful places I have seen in Japan. Not only Kanazawa boasts one of the most beautiful gardens of Japan (which means it’s also one of the most beautiful in the world), but also well-preserved samurai houses, and old tea houses where geisha and maiko still work for a selected audience.
The city also hosts a famous museum of contemporary art with a striking architecture, a lively fish market, and sake that is among the best in Japan.
Kanazawa, unlike other Japanese cities rebuilt without grace, still looks a city with a soul. You will like it if you stay one day, but I recommend staying at least one night.
1. Kenrokuen, the garden of the six virtues
What to do in Kanazawa? Many start here, and for a reason: this garden is not to be missed. It dates back to 1620, and today the Kenroku-en is known as one of the most beautiful gardens of Japan. It can be incredibly beautiful in spring, but in winter can be fascinating too. Even if the trees, bound by thick ropes to resist the weight of snow, look a bit strange. This technique is called yukitsuri.
The garden owes its name to the six attributes of a perfect landscape: spaciousness, tranquility, artifice, antiquity, waterways and views (it is on top of an artificial hill). You can judge for yourself.
2) The old Kanazawa (geisha and samurai)
The neighborhood of the samurai houses and the areas that host the old tea houses (the most famous of which is Higashi Chaya) are distant from each other. They are scattered in the vast urban mass of Kanazawa. But as soon as you set foot inside them, the grey buildings of the new city seem distant. It looked magic to me in winter, when the icy wind sweeps away any human being from the streets. When it happens, it suddenly seems possible that at any time Toshiro Mifune could come out of a door with his katana.
Like in Kyoto, geisha and maiko continue to perform for a selected audience in these houses.
A small note for shopping-lovers: Higashi Chaya is full of very nice shops, souvenirs, jewelry (Kanazawa is famous for its ‘gold leaf’) and cosmetics.
3) The Kanazawa of today: 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art
This flying saucer from outer space landed in Kanazawa in 2004. It’s the birth of the imagination of Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of the famed SANAA architecture studio.
The permanent collection is not particularly rich. But it features works by renowned artists such as Anish Kapoor, Olafur Eliasson, Tony Cragg, James Turrell, Leandro Erlich. Some of the works are outside, in the garden. It also hosts interesting temporary exhibitions, but the museum is incredible even from outside. It’s then definitely worth a visit.
The museum seems to have a focus on playful, interactive art. The most popular one of the permanent collection is the Swimming pool by Leandro Erlich.
The museum isn’t the only remarkable building in the city. The stations are often big and interesting places in Japan ities, but the station of Kanazawa, designed by Tameo Kobori is really incredible. This huge station built in glass, wood and steel is among the most beautiful in the world (and here is a virtual tour inside it).
4) The food is awesome in Kanazawa
Kanazawa is close to the sea and is rightly known for its fresh fish (as well as for the excellent sake). A very popular dish is sashimi (raw fish) served over a bowl of rice (donburi), which you can try, for instance, at the lively Omicho market. There, I had a very nice meal at Jimonotei, but there are several restaurants.
Winter in Kanazawa is very cold. Therefore warm food is perfect for the season. Another specialty to be tried is oden, meat and vegetables cooked in a tasty broth. My favorite place is Oden Miyuki Honten, but it’s not the only restaurant of this kind in the city.
How to get there, and transportation in Kanazawa
- From Kyoto there is the JR Thunderbird Tokkyu (express train): it takes two hours and costs about 6.300 yen
- From Tokyo the Hokuriku Shinkansen will take you to Kanazawa in two hours and a half, and costs 14.000 yen. The comfortable night bus is also an option: it costs around 8.000 yen.
- Buses connect Kanazawa to the beautiful towns of Shirakawa-go and Takayama.
- Kanazawa is quite big but it’s possible to walk between the points of interests. For instance the tea houses of Higashi-chaya are about two kilometres (30 minutes on foot) from the Kenrokuen garden. The station is located two kilometres north-west of the most famous sightseeing spots.
- There’s a loop bus that links the stations with all the most famous spots. It moves only one way. There are other buses which are easier to use than in other cities. Ask for a map at the very helpful tourist information office at the station.
Not mentioned in most of the guides, Kanazawa does have a nice onsen (hot spring) with a very basic rotenburo (outdoor bath). Kenkroku-onsen is a twenty minutes walk from the Kenrokuen Garden. Bus 6 also stops near the onsen: get off at Akatsuki machi. The website is in Japanese.
Book on Kanazawa
Of the chapters of my book Horizon Japan is set in Kanazawa.
All the texts are by Patrick Stephen Colgan. All pictures by me. Pictures licensed under the Creative Commons licence by-nc-sa. For commercial uses contact me. This post is a translation from my italian blog, Orizzonti.