Kanazawa Guide

Kanazawa Guide 金沢

Kenrokuen Gardens, Kanazawa.
Kenrokuen Gardens, Kanazawa

Kanazawa is the capital city of Ishikawa Prefecture, with a population of almost half a million, and is nicknamed "Little Kyoto" for its strong tradition of arts and crafts, as well as for being one of the best-preserved cities in Japan: a 21st century showcase, in many parts, of the face of old Japan.

Kanazawa's best-known feature is the beautiful Kenrokuen Garden.

Kanazawa History

Kanazawa is replete with history, and in the in the Tokugawa period of Japanese history was known as the kaga hyaku man goku ("one million bushels of rice") area because of its rich harvests.

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 Kanazawa's temple districts, 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. And today's Kanazawa continues the city's tradition of prizing cultural pursuits with its profusion of museums.

Stone lantern at Kenroku-en Garden, Kanazawa.
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.

Kanazawa Station.
Kanazawa Station
Kanazawa Castle.
Kanazawa Castle
Ishikawa-mon, Kanazawa Castle.
Kanazawa Castle Gate, Kanazawa
Kenrokuen, Kanazawa.
Stone Lantern at Kenrokuen Garden

Omicho

In contrast to the tranquil tea houses and temples, Omicho is a bustling local market just one kilometer south-east of Kanazawa Station 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. 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.

Access Omicho Market from the West Exit of Kanazawa Station, go down Route 13 starting at "Kanazawa Ekimae Chuo" intersection. About a 15-minute walk.

Kanazawa Castle gate, Ishikawa Prefecture.
Main entrance gate at Kanazawa Castle leading to Kenrokuen Garden
Kenroku-en Garden stone lantern, Kanazawa.
Kenroku-en Garden, Kanazawa.

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, Kanazawa.
21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art
Higashi Geisha District, Kanazawa.
The Higashi Chayagai district of Kanazawa

Head east from the market about 13 minutes on foot to the Higashi Chayagai - one of the old tea (read "night-life and entertainment") districts of Kanazawa - still lined with wooden houses featuring the distinctive slatted windows through which geisha could be seen by prospective customers.

There are three tea districts in Kanazawa, the other two being Kazuemachi, just across the river, and Nishi Chayagai on the south-west outskirts of the city, but Higashi Chayagai is the best maintained and is the optimum balance of preserved geisha houses open to the public (the Shima teahouse and Kaikaro teahouse), newly restored art galleries, tea and trinket shops and family houses where residents continue with normal modern life, their cars carefully hidden away 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. Nearby is the Kanazawa Yasue Gold-Leaf Museum (tel. 076 251 8950) open 9.30-5pm daily (last entry 4.30pm).

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.

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.

Sanjikken Nagaya, Kanazawa Castle, Ishikawa Prefecture.
Sanjikken Nagaya samurai two-storey warehouse at Kanazawa Castle used to store rice and arms

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 (82 ft)-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.

Kenrokuen Garden

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 Garden.

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, Kanazawa.
Kenrokuen garden in Kanazawa - one of the top three gardens in Japan
Kenrokuen Garden, Kanazawa.
Kenrokuen garden in Kanazawa - one of the top three gardens in Japan

Teramachi Temple Area

The Teramachi is an area full of temples and shrines, over the Sai River just south-west of the Kanazawa's CBD.

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.)

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:
Near the station: ANA Crowne Plaza Hotel; Hotel Nikko
City center: Various small ryokan (notably Murataya for good value and central location).

Kanazawa Festivals

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 (165,000 tons) 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 architecturally outstanding 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art.

The 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art (Tel: 076 220 2800). just west of Kenrokuen Garden. is one of Japan's finest modern art museums, housed in a strikingly modern low-rise glass circular building designed by architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa. It features contemporary art, exhibitions and installations from around the world.

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 Modern Literature Museum (Tel: 076 261 5464) is housed in an old Meiji Period brick school building and displays exhibits relating to local writers including Kyoka Izumi (1873-1939), Shusei Tokuda (1871-1943) and Sasei Muro (1889-1962).

The D.T. Suzuki Museum is dedicated to the life of the Japanese Buddhist philosopher, Daisetz Suzuki (1870-1966) who wrote extensively on Buddhism and did much to bring Buddhist philosophy to the West. The museum is south of Kenrokuen Garden, and nearby is also his birthplace.

Tourist Information Office in Kanazawa

The Kanazawa Tourist Information Center near the east exit of Kanazawa Station is open from 10am to 6pm every day, closed only between December 31 and January 2 Some English is spoken, and ample sightseeing materials in English are available..

Kanazawa Tourist Information Center
East Exit
Kanazawa Station
Tel: 076 232 6200

Hotels in Kanazawa

Kanazawa is well served for both western-style business hotels and Japanese-style ryokan, minshuku and traditional inns. Recommended places to stay in Kanazawa include the Kanazawa Central Hotel, the ANA Crowne Plaza Kanazawa and the APA Kanazawa Hotel Ekimae both near Kanazawa Station, and the Kanazawa New Grand Hotel, the KKR Hotel Kanazawa and the Kikunoya Ryokan all near Kanazawa Castle and Kenroku-en Garden.

Other traditional Japanese inns in Kanazawa are the Minshuku Ginmatsu, the Ichiraku Ryokan and the Kanazawa Chaya. The Yuyaruru Saisai offers luxury Japanese-style accommodation, with tatami-rooms overlooking the River Sai.

Access - Getting To Kanazawa

Air

Komatsu Airport (Tel: 0761 21 9803) is 25km (15 1/2 miles) 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.

JR Kanazawa Station.
Tsuzumi Gate at the East Entrance of Kanazawa Station

Rail

JR Thunderbird Osaka-Kanazawa-Toyama.

Kanazawa is served by the JR Hokuriku Line to Osaka (2 hours, 45 minutes), Fukui (50 minutes), and Kyoto (2 hours 15 minutes).

Until March 2015, from Tokyo you traveled via Echigo-Yuzawa and picked 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).

In March 2015 the Hokuriku Shinkansen opened connecting Kanazawa and Toyama with Nagano, Karuizawa and then Takasaki and then on to Tokyo on the Joetsu shinkansen. The Kagayaki shinkansen train is quickest, taking 2 hours, 30 minutes from Tokyo Station, while the slower Hakutaka shinkansen takes 3 hours.

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.

From Nagoya 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.

JR Hokuriku Shinkansen at Tokyo Station.
Hokuriku Shinkansen at Tokyo Station

Bus

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.

Book highway buses to Narita International Airport from Kanazawa, Takaoka, Toyama, via Ikebukuro and Osaki Bus Station Terminal (night). Book highway buses to the Hokuriku area from Narita Airport Terminals 1, 2 and 3 to Toyama and Kanazawa.

Buses from Kanazawa leave for Shirakawa-go at 8.10am, 9.05am, 10.50am, 1.25pm, 2.40pm and 4pm. The journey takes 1 hour and 15 minutes. Nohi Bus offers a daily bus tour to Shirakawa-go from Takayama with an English-speaking guide leaving Takayama Bus Terminal at 8.30am and returning to Takayama at 3.10pm (6,690 yen for adults).

Kanazawa-Takayama-Shirakawa-go with Nohi Bus
Nohi Bus information in English

Kanazawa Map

Kanazawa map.
Kanazawa Map


View Nagoya & Gifu Map - Aichi & Gifu Prefectures in a larger map

Caroline Lewis


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