Japan City Guides: Kanazawa
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Kanazawa Guide 金沢
For many, Japan begins and ends in Tokyo - the neon-clad shopping opportunities of Shinjuku and Ginza, the endless crowds and traffic, and the general cacophony of commerce.
For others, however, the real Japan begins in the countryside: not necessarily the depths of "inaka" (i.e. thoroughly rural areas), but the regional cities all over Japan, each with a character of their own, their own festivals, foods, sights, sounds and smells.
Kanazawa city and the surrounding prefecture of Ishikawa is one such city, and offers the visitor a look at the Japan of north-east Honshu.
Kanazawa Castle Gate & Pond & Stone Lantern at Kenrokuen Garden
Known as the kaga hyaku man goku ("one million bushels of rice") area because of its rich harvests in the Tokugawa period, Kanazawa is an area replete with history.
Much of the money made from agriculture was spent on inviting craftsmen and artists to the city, and these new workers gave rise to traditions in pottery, gold leaf work, lacquer-ware and kimono-dyeing.
The skills and arts that remain have made Kanazawa one of the few cities worthy of the name "little Kyoto". Although few places in Japan are truly free from concrete sprawl, the winding streets of the temple district, the slatted wooden houses of the old geisha district, sights such as kimonos being washed in the Sai River and the beauty of the cherry blossoms in Kenrokuen Gardens are truly magical.
In Kenroku-en, Kanazawa, this distinctive stone lantern with twin pedestals of differing lengths has become an icon of the city.
Where to start? If you haven't experienced Tsukiji in Tokyo, or you simply don't want to get up that early, then Omicho market may be for you.
The grand entrance to Kanazawa Station and Kanazawa Castle
In contrast to the tranquil tea houses and temples, Omicho is a bustling local market lined with small sushi restaurants and selling many varieties of fresh fish and seafood, fruit and vegetables and innumerable kinds of pickles and seaweed.
Housewives doing their shopping mix with visiting businessmen selecting huge crabs on ice to take home as souvenirs, as well as foreign tourists.
Bowling them all aside are rowdy, shouting men pushing carts of produce through the maze of alleyways and, in the process, destroying the myth of a universally polite and refined Japanese race.
Although the market is mainly covered, it still gets very hot in summer, so great blocks of ice in sacking are placed on the paths to cool the market down. Although fairly effective (if messy) ducking into one of the darker, cooler small sushi bars is to be recommended. Here you can relax with a delicious bowl of fresh salmon on rice or grab some of the best crab sushi you will ever have as it comes past you on the conveyor belt.
Walking Tour of Kanazawa City
Once refreshed and sustained for the day, it is time to set off on a walking tour. Kanazawa is one city that truly benefits from being explored on foot - the convenient city buses or "loop" tourist bus will easily get you where you want to go, but you will have no chance to wander down narrow alleyways or to poke your nose into small shops selling green tea, making tatami mats in front of you or repairing obscure traditional musical instruments.
21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art & the Higashi Chayagai district
Head east from the market to the Higashi Chayagai - the old tea district - still lined with wooden houses featuring the distinctive slatted windows through which geisha could be seen by prospective customers.
The district is well maintained and is a nice balance of preserved geisha houses open to the public, newly restored art galleries, tea and trinket shops and family houses where residents continue with normal modern life and carefully conceal their cars behind slatted wooden garage doors. The Sakuda Gold Leaf Company (Tel: 076 251 6777) has demonstrations of the gold leaf-making process and gold leaf products on sale.
You can climb up the hill to the small shrine at the top and look down on the river below you, where you may see lengths of kimono silk being washed in the water.
The main attraction here is Myoruji aka Ninjadera (i.e. Ninja Temple) (Tel: 076 241 0888) so nicknamed for its passageways, trapdoors and other secret devices to keep out intruders. (Tours are "by reservation" but you can just turn up and "reserve" on the spot.)
After that, head down the main hill, crossing back over the river, and plunge briefly into modern Japan as you cross "the Scramble" junction, passing bars, restaurants, Mr Donuts, MacDonald's and so on, and head right up Tatemachi Street.
You're heading for "Nodaya" on the left at the end, a Japanese style tea shop selling matcha green tea, cakes, green tea ice cream and other delicious treats. Relax here, inhale the scent and take in the mesmerizing sight of the green tea spinning in the big tubs at the back of the shop.
Relaxed and mildly caffeinated, head left at the end of Tatemachi and make your way to Kanazawa Castle (Tel: 076 234 3800). Far more interesting since the castle was rebuilt in 2001 (there was only the original Ishikawa Mon gate and walls remaining from the 16th century castle for many years), this reconstruction provides a fascinating look at what life would have been like inside a Japanese castle.
Just west of Kanazawa Castle is another city landmark - Oyama Jinja (Oyama Shrine) - dedicated to Maeda Toshiie, the first feudal lord of the Maeda clan. The 25m-tall three-story Shinmon gate was built in 1875 with the help of a Dutch engineer and includes an unusual stained-glass window. The building was originally used as a lighthouse.
Finally, take the bridge across the road from the castle (admiring the cherry blossoms on the way, if you happen to be here in April) to the most famous spot in the city, Kenrokuen. Kenrokuen is considered one of the three most beautiful gardens in Japan (with Korakuen in Okayama and Kairakuen in Mito being the other two) and as the last spot on your tour, should be quiet and peaceful with most of the visitors having disappeared. Flop onto a bench at the top of the small hill in the center of the garden and admire the view across the pond, the lilies and the whole city. Seison-Kaku Villa (Tel 076 221 0580) adjoining the garden was built by a member of the ruling Maeda clan as a retirement mansion for his mother.
Kenrokuen garden views in Kanazawa - one of the top three gardens in Japan
Eating & Drinking in Kanazawa
Now head for any of the small restaurants serving seasonal produce and deliciously fresh fish and seafood, and indulge at the same time in some sake tasting. After all that walking, you've earned it!
Some recommended places to stay in Kanazawa are:
Kanazawa's main festival is the annual Hyakumangoku Matsuri, held on the second weekend in June, which commemorates feudal lord Maeda Toshiie's entrance into Kanazawa castle in 1583. The name hyakumangoku recalls the great wealth of the Kaga area which produced a yearly 1 million koku (a unit of measurement corresponding, in concept if not quantity, to a bushel) or 150,000 tonnes of rice. The festival includes a parade of citizens in 16th century costume, torch-lit noh performances, tea ceremonies in Kenrokuen and candle-lit lanterns floated down the Asano River.
The Katatobi Dezomeshiki held in early January is an exhibition of fire-fighting skills and acrobatics on ladders performed by members of the town's fire service.
The Asanogawa Enyukai in mid-April is held to coincide with the blossoming of the cherry trees on the banks of the Asano river. Traditional dances and other entertainments are held on a floating stage.
Museums in Kanazawa
Kanazawa has some excellent museums, especially those dedicated to its traditional craft industries and the architectually outstanding 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art. The Ishikawa Prefectural Museum for Traditional Products and Crafts (Tel: 076 262 2020) near the Seison-Kaku Villa. The Ishikawa Prefectural Museum (Tel: 076 231 7580) has exhibits of traditional crafts passed down by the Maeda family and other precious porcelain, paintings and metalwork. The nearby Nakamura Memorial Museum (Tel: 076 221 0751) houses the personal collections of a wealthy, local sake brewing family and includes calligraphy and tea-ceremony utensils. The Ohi Pottery Museum (Tel: 076 221 2397) displays the artefacts of the Chozaemon family of master potters. The Honda Museum (Tel: 076 261 0500) houses the family collection of the Hondas - retainers to the Maeda clan - and includes some impressive suits of armor. Near the west exit of Kanazawa Station is the Kanazawa Yasue Gold Leaf Museum (Tel: 076 233 1502). The 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art (Tel: 076 220 2800) is a beautiful, low-rise glass circle by architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, which features contemporary art from around the world.
Tourist Information Offices in Kanazawa
Kanazawa Tourist Information Center
Access - Getting To Kanazawa
Komatsu Airport (Tel: 0761 21 9803) is 25km southwest of Kanazawa and is linked by Hokutetsu buses (approx. 40 minutes) to Kanazawa station. There are domestic flights to Tokyo (Haneda), Fukuoka, Okinawa, Sapporo and Sendai and international connections to Seoul and Shanghai from Komatsu Airport.
To Tokyo travel via Echigo-Yuzawa and pick up the Joetsu shinkansen (approx 3 hours 50 mins) or Tokaido shinkansen from Tokyo changing at Maibara to the express train for Kanazawa (approx 4 hours 30 mins).
There is now only one night train to Kanazawa from Tokyo's Ueno Station: the all-seat Noto Express (6 hours, 47 mins). The Hokuriku Express Sleeper (7 hours, 27 mins) which had couchettes and private rooms was discontinued in 2010.
To Nagoya from Kanazawa take the Shirasagi service (approx 3 hours). Alternatively take a Hikari shinkansen from Nagoya to Maibara (27 minutes) and then Shirasagi Express to Kanazawa (1 hour, 52 minutes). The JR Nanao Line connects Kanazawa to Nanao and Wakura Onsen on the Noto Peninsula.
There are long distance bus services from outside Kanazawa Station to Tokyo (7 hours, 30 mins), Kyoto (4 hours), Yokohama (8 hours, 20 mins), Nagoya (4 hours), Sendai (8 hours, 30mins), Niigata (4 hours, 40 mins), Takayama (3 hours) and other destinations.
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