48 hours in Kanazawa
Kanazawa was always high on my list when I was planning my return trip to Japan. In reality, this small city – perched beside the Sea of Japan – exceeded all of my expectations. From the moment my white-gloved taxi driver pulled into the Higashi Chaya District, I fell in love with Kanazawa. My driver, Masa-san, spoke perfect English, and gave me a brief introduction to his hometown, where he managed to reference Japan’s most beautiful garden, the ancient samurai district and the city’s thriving art scene all in one sentence. I could not have been more excited to have arrived in the capital of the Ishikawa Prefecture.
My guide was Tomoko-san, who has been looking after our clients here for many years. She taught me so many fascinating snippets about daily life that I ended up jotting every single thing down so that I didn’t forget any of the insights she had given me – from explaining why doorways are so narrow to when the Japanese really wear kimonos. I could not have enjoyed my time with Tomoko more.
Our first stop was a private visit to the historic samurai district of Nagamachi, which was incredible. Tomoko-san somehow negotiated for us to visit rooms in the houses that are usually closed off to the public and explained how the samurais ruled here in the 19th century. Kanazawa is one of the only cities in Japan to still have a samurai district and to be able to see these hidden rooms was really special.
Next, we moved on to the famous Kenrokuen Garden, supposedly “one of Japan’s three most beautiful landscaped gardens”. No photographs could have prepared me for this place. I was speechless. It is the most picturesque and peaceful garden I have ever seen, with hundreds of different areas to explore, depending on what interests you most. From maple trees to blossom trees and koi ponds to ancient bridges, it is staggering.
Part of me wanted to rush around and see as much as I could, but the other part wanted to enjoy the grounds in the most zen way possible, as I imagine was the goal when the Maeda clan designed the impressive garden. Tomoko-san explained many of the principles behind the layout and showed me some secret spots on small hills, from where we could admire the sweeping views. I would love to come back and experience the gardens in the snow, or in the sakura cherry blossom or momiji (meaning ‘red leaves’) seasons. I think I could visit every year for the rest of my life and still find an exquisite new corner each time.
Tomoko-san then suggested we spend the next couple of hours exploring the arts and crafts of this little city. We rented bicycles and cycled between the key sites, beginning with the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, including a quick photo opportunity in Leandro Erlich’s ‘Swimming Pool’, before viewing some of Yayoi Kusama’s most iconic paintings. We then jumped back on our bicycles and headed to a gold leaf factory. This is a hugely important export for the city, given Kanazawa produce 99% of Japan’s gold leaf. We even sampled gold leaf ice cream!
Our next stop was Higashi Chaya, which is the best preserved chaya district in Kanazawa, and sometimes described as ‘Little Kyoto’. Having visited Kyoto a couple of times before and adored it, I wasn’t sure anywhere in the world could be quite like it but I kept an open mind. Higashi Chaya is so charming and beautifully maintained, with small lanes of old but perfectly latticed teahouses, bursting with history and character. Cedar balls are hung from some doorways, signifying that the owner’s sake offering has now matured to perfection.
There are far fewer tourists here than in Kyoto, and as a result, this corner of Kanazawa felt more as if we were experiencing an authentic way of life that has remained unaffected by modernity. On the other hand, for all the beauty and iconic status of Kyoto, the machiya districts there often feel as if you are wandering along well-trodden lanes. Tomoko-san quickly caught my attention, as a geisha scurried across a quiet lane, only the clicking of her wooden geta sandals giving her away.
After strolling through the labyrinth of lanes and peering into endless teahouses, we headed to Omicho Market, famous for its snow crab. There are more than 200 bustling stalls selling everything from fresh seafood to local produce, including many things I couldn’t even begin to recognise. Some of the items I was encouraged to try were broiled eel, edible chrysanthemum flowers, octopus skewers and kobako crab.
Tomoko-san then led me to a very unassuming doorway, which opened into a Japanese sushi-counter-style restaurant, with a slowly rotating conveyor belt, on which lay the freshest of sashimi. Kanazawa was the birthplace of conveyor-belt sushi as we know it today, she told me. From its magnificent gardens and array of arts and crafts to its samurai houses and imposing castle, Kanazawa is amazing and I cannot wait to go back.