The Japanese cities of Kyoto and Nara are often lauded for their history and culture by travelers worldwide. Both cities have gone to great extremes to preserve their heritage by maintaining ancient buildings, some of which are the most impressive wooden structures you’ll ever see.
However, both cities remain popular with tourists also because of their convenience. Kyoto is a popular tourist hub with accommodating hotels located smack within the Osaka/Kyoto/Kobe metropolitan area, and Nara is a stone’s throw away for a peaceful day trip. Many other Japanese cities have been able to maintain their past and keep their heritage intact but don’t quite benefit from the accessibility that these two cities enjoy.
Kanazawa is one of these cities. Located in the northern prefecture of Ishikawa in the Hokuriku region, it has always existed on the outskirts of Japanese history. It played home to one of Japan’s wealthiest samurai families, but it existed a little too far away to make an impact. In slightly modern times, the city acted as a college town where families would send students to expand their minds, and this ties into its history as one of the most illustrious Buddhist destinations, as shown by the large number of temples that populate its streets.
Today, Kanazawa is expanding and booming in popularity thanks to a new access route from Tokyo. The Hokuriku Shinkansen, one of Japan’s many “bullet trains” first opened in 1997 but only made it as far as Nagano, the mountainous prefecture to Kanazawa’s southeast. In 2015, Japan finally completed construction of its extension into Kanazawa, making the city within a reasonable two and a half hour train ride from downtown Tokyo.
Not bad considering it’s on the exact opposite coast. Tokyo is on Japan’s outside bend, and Kanazawa is on the inside bend.
Osaka has also always allowed for easy access to Kanazawa. A ride on one of its Thunderbird trains also takes about two hours and 45 minutes. The trek isn’t as easy as getting to Kyoto, but those looking to travel off the beaten path while touring central Japan would do well to plan an overnighter in the far north. My wife and I did that earlier this month as one of our final trips before having our first child, and yeah, Kanazawa is a remarkable little town with a unique atmosphere and a surprising amount to see.
We left on a Saturday afternoon and opted to stay at Yamashiro Onsen, one of Ishikawa Prefecture’s many hot spring resorts. If you’ve followed my travels around Japan before, you know I just love onsens. Nice baths, comfortable rooms, amazing food (especially the breakfast), and a location deep in the heart of Japan. It was about as perfect as an overnight gets in Japan.
I was unaware of this, but local traditions are heavily influenced by the presence of demons. Generally, these dances and festivals take place at certain times of the year, but our hotel happily shows off these dances every night for guests.
As for the city of Kanazawa, there are plenty of destinations to set out for. The city is laid out to surround its two main destinations: Kenrokuen, one of Japan’s premier gardens, and the remains of Kanazawa Castle. These two locations are perched on a small hill in the center of town, and the main road conveniently circles them. Kanazawa’s elaborate bus system helps shuffle tourists into different locations so as not to crowd all of the areas at one time. We opted to take the counter-clockwise route, first landing in the city’s old temple district.
The temple district of Kanazawa is exactly what it sounds like. The neighborhood is cluttered with old houses and even older wooden buildings, many of them still standing from back when Kanazawa was a major player in the development of Japan’s Buddhism. Aside from the community effort to keep these temples in tip-top shape, the reason that many are still standing is that Kanazawa evaded the United States’ radar during World War II. Bombers laid waste to most of Japan’s major cities, including Kanazawa’s neighboring city of Toyama, but like Kyoto and Nara, Kanazawa wasn’t seen as strategically important and was spared.
Kanazawa’s temple district contains too many temples to visit in a single day, but most tourists head for one that actually isn’t even a temple at all! Myoryuji Temple seems as ordinary as any other structure surrounding it, but on the inside, you’ll witness why this place is nicknamed “Ninja Temple.” Indeed, this building was an old ninja headquarters disguised as a temple. Here, ninjas and spies posed as peaceful, working monks, but they were actually tasked with keeping tabs on those coming into the city.
A series of secret passages and trapdoors also show that they weren’t messing around when it came to assassinating a few figures or preparing traps for invaders.
Interesting place. Being inside is like seeing all of your ninja dreams coming true.
After the Ninja Temple, we took the main road back clockwise to grab some lunch. We took a pass on Nagamachi, the town’s old samurai district, simply because I had already been there once before, and we were hungry. However, I wouldn’t recommend passing it up if it is your first time in the city. It’s been a decade since I walked through its streets, but I still remember walking through the ancient walls, shops, houses, museums, and gardens.
Our destination was the Omicho fish market. As you might guess, this shopping center, located smack in the middle of the city, is where you can buy the freshest fish in town, and naturally, you’re going to pay quite a high price. I gobbled down a reasonably priced plate of fine sushi, but my wife splurged a bit and ordered a bowl of seafood that set her back roughly $40. No complaints, this was on her hit-list, and she enjoyed it to the best of her ability.
Afternoons in Kanazawa can get quite warm despite being so far north in Japan, and after lunch is when the swelter started to sit in. I wanted to enjoy the castle grounds and Kenrokuen once again like I did on my previous trip, but we spent those hours huddled under clumps of shade rather than enjoying the buildings and plants. The castlegrounds has very few trees, and that doesn’t mesh well with a pregnant woman trying to remain comfortable.
Don’t let that deter you though. Kanzawa’s castle ruins are some of the most expansive in the country, covering a very large swath of land and offering an excellent view of the surrounding city. The main castle keep itself no longer exists, but certain sections still retain their old structures, most notably the north Ishikawa Gate. You’ll have to pass through there to get to Kenrokuen, and in all honesty, that little stretch of street is more interesting than being inside the garden. Old shops line up and down, selling snack and souvenirs alike.
Kenrokuen is worth a look though. Japanese gardens come in all shapes and sizes, and I’ve been in ones a fraction as big as this and have walked away more fulfilled. Korakuen, Okayama’s large garden, hits that relaxation tone a bit better, whereas as the most fascinating bit I walked away with here was that I witnessed Japan’s oldest fountain. That’s a nice bit of history and science, but yeah, I would have rather headed straight for our final destination in the city.
My wife agreed. The most she enjoyed at the garden was the gilded ice cream. Kanazawa has this weird trend of putting edible gold on its food, and ice cream is the most popular for visitors… I dunno.
We closed our afternoon with an area I had wanted to go to, the Higashi Chaya District, translated into “East Teahouse” district. Back in the day, this area was the local hangout for many businessmen, students, and even further back in the day, the samurai. Geisha populated rows upon rows of old wooden buildings, eager to serve clients and provide a fun night of entertainment. Yes, nowadays, you can still see them walking about.
In the booming present day Kanzawa, the Higashi Chaya District offers a nice mix of old and new. Most of the modern day social gatherings now happen in the downtown center, closer to the station, so you’re not likely to find the same excitement as previous generations did here. However, the wooden buildings all still exist in their perfect rows and bring a nostalgic charm to whole area. Some have been remodeled into fashionable shops, others are now utilized as straight up snack bars and other popular drinking venues for the locals.
And yes, several have maintained their old-fashioned tea house business model and still provide that authentic Japanese service. Don’t think all hope is lost.
However, this is just a nice area to walk through. You don’t need to have a meal or a drink to get the whole experience. A nice tour through the museum, a beautiful view of the nearby mountain, and an atmosphere that lets you lose yourself to a few decades in the past, that’s all you really need. If I ever get back to Kanazawa, I might just hang out in this part of town all day. It’s far enough away from the hubbub that has become the downtown shopping district, and it’s one of the few places in a major Japanese city that I feel I can escape from it all.
Kanazawa isn’t exactly a top priority on many tourists’ destinations, but I recommend it. The clash of old houses and a booming downtown area really gives it a unique atmosphere that even Kyoto has been losing in recent years, and the Higashi Chaya District is interesting and unique enough to warrant a visit if you get tired of temples and shrines in the second half of your Japanese vacation.