Kanazawa, the premier city of Ishikawa Prefecture, has a glorious samurai past financed by agricultural wealth. Located on the "back" of Japan, near the Sea of Japan, the city missed out on both the early industrialization that often came at the cost of traditional arts and architecture and the bombing damage of World War II. As a result, it has long been a popular destination for intrepid but historically-minded tourists. With the opening of the new Hokuriku Shinkansen earlier this year, Kanazawa has become much more accessible and therefore even more popular. When you go, don't miss out on these things.
1. Machi-nori Public Rental Bicycles
Many communities offer ride and park rental bikes, with varying rental plans and varying success. Kanazawa's Machi-nori bikes are convenient, reasonably priced and easy to use. The initial use fee is only Y200 yen, which you can pay by credit card. Programming a passcode when you first rent the bike enables you to return the bike to one of 18 "docking stations" within 30 minutes, sightsee around the area and then pick up another bike later without incurring an additional charge (there are additional charges if you keep the bike out for more than 30 minutes). If you're renting from the Machi-nori head office near Kanazawa Station, you can also pay in cash. Most of the docking stations are conveniently located near prime tourist areas, making these bikes a very handy option for zipping around independently.
2. Kanazawa Castle/Kenroku-en - Get the app!
Of course you'll visit Kanazawa Castle Park and the adjacent Kenroku-en Garden; they are the two most famous sites in the city. But the real news is that both sites offer free wi-fi and a handy app called "Kanazawa Castle AR Tour" to guide you and provide details. When accessing the app while on the grounds, the app detects your location and provides you with precise information about the particular spot where you are, as well as recording the spots you have visited as a kind of digital stamp rally.
The original castle dates to the late 16th century, but has suffered so many fires over the years that there are very few original structures extant except, of course, for the stone walls, of which there are many. Two buildings skirting the southern border of the castle's "ni-no-maru", the Hishi Yagura and the Gokukken Nagaya, have recently been rebuilt using original specifications, enabling visitors to get a strong sense of life in a Japanese castle compound.
Kenrokuen, famous as one of Japan's three most beautiful traditional gardens, is connected to Kanazawa Castle Park by the Ishikawa-bashi bridge over busy city traffic. Sitting atop a hill, with a central pond and waterways supplied by a unique vacuum pump system that has brought the water from the Tatsumi canal far below for hundreds of years, the garden is great place to enjoy nature views as well as city views. The app will help you understand the various historic features of the garden, too.
Just next door to Kenroku-en is Seisonkaku, a 19th century villa built by Maeda Nariyasu, then daimyo of the area, as a retirement home for his mother. Anyone who loves historic homes and gardens will be entranced by the intricate detail of this home, as well as of the Edo-period artifacts on display in situ. The Maeda doll collection is particularly famous. Some of the dolls are always on display in the exhibition room but the entire collection is displayed in February and March to commemorate the Hina doll festival.
4. Chaya districts
Chaya, or teahouses (photo below), were, particularly in the Edo Period, common venues for entertainment. One could reserve a room, order a catered meal, and order in live entertainment in the form of geisha or other musicians. There are still three areas in Kanazawa where streets of chaya are preserved allowing one to step back into the past. Many of the chaya buildings are now restaurants or shops catering to tourists.
Situated northeast of Kanazawa Castle Park along the left bank of the Asanogawa is the Kazue-machi Chaya District and across the river to the east is the photogenic Higashi Chaya District, often featured in Kanazawa advertisements. The entire area is great for strolling and shopping.
Head in the opposite direction from Kanazawa Castle Park and cross the Saigawa to reach the Nishi Chaya District. In addition to the usual restaurants and shops, one chaya here is the Nishi Chaya Shiryokan Museum, with displays allowing visitors to peek into its past as an entertainment venue.
5. Get up close and personal with gold leaf
Kanazawa has a centuries-old reputation as a center of gold leaf production. The Kanazawa Gold Leaf Museum, located near Higashi Chaya District, contains displays on the craft of gold leaf production and some dazzling examples of the use of gold leaf.
But don't stop with just observing museum displays! You can also have hands on experience applying gold leaf to various items...and then take your treasure home with you. There are two shops near Higashi Chaya District offering this experience, as well as lots of beautiful objects featuring gold leaf that you can view, or purchase.
• Sakuda, at 1-3-27 Higashiyama (phone: 076-252-3641), will help you apply gold leaf to chopsticks, boxes and other small objects. The activity takes from 60 to 90 minutes; reservations required. • Hakuza, at 1-13-18 Higashiyama (phone: 076-252-3641) has a broader range of items you can gild, some of which can be completed quite quickly, while other objects may take as long as 90 minutes. Reservations required.
6. Ninja Temple (Myoryuji)
Kanazawa's Tera-machi (Temple District) is near the Nishi Chaya District. One of the most interesting of its temples is Myoryuji, although from the outside it looks rather run-of-the mill. But ring the doorbell to go in and a voice responds asking if you have a reservation. Unless it is very crowded with visitors, even if you don't have a reservation, the voice will ask for your name and give you a tour time.
Yes, this is a temple that conducts guided tours. And the reason for this is the intricate structure of the 350-year-old building, with hidden rooms, secret passageways, concealed staircases, false doors and various other features that have led it to be known as the Ninja Temple (even though the guides are quick to point out that the temple has nothing to do with ninja). Although the tours are only conducted in Japanese, English speakers are provided with a booklet of English explanations of the details of each feature of the tour and so can readily follow along.
Tours are conducted every 30 minutes from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
For reservations, call 076-241-0888 (Japanese only)
7. Nagamachi (former samurai district) and the old canals
Nestled between two ancient canals that run below Kanazawa Castle and parallel to the Saigawa is Nagamachi, once the home of many of the samurai serving the Maeda who were lords of the castle. Each samurai family had its own compound sitting behind high walls, so that in the best-preserved areas the streets are really narrow, walled alleyways. Just wandering these roads is fascinating, but here and there visitors can go behind the walls to view houses and gardens.
There are three in particular to look out for: the Nomura House, a restored samurai house and garden; the Kaga Hanshi, a former stable with lovely adjacent garden; and the Ashigaru Shiryokan, two reconstructed houses that are samples of the more modest life of ashigaru foot soldiers, the lowest ranking samurai. Also look for the Maeda Tosonokami-ke Shiryokan, a museum containing relics of the Maeda clan that ruled this area for several generations. Finally, almost hidden along one of the narrow streets is the Kanazawa Kutani Museum, with displays on the early 19th century origins of Kutani porcelains.
The canals of this area, with their clear, fast-flowing water, are also a feature to stop and appreciate. Kanazawa was once a city of canals that served both to supply water and as a means of transporting goods. The Onosho Canal forms a sort of watery backbone for Nagamachi while the Kuratsuki Canal, closer to the castle, is now a center of interesting eateries and shops that make it particularly fun to wander in the evening.© Japan Today