Kanazawa is located three hours North-West of Tokyo, in Ishikawa Prefecture, making it an easy addition to most Japan touring itineraries. Accessed easily by shinkansen the city is beautiful, historic and relatively unspoiled.
Having avoided the WWII air raids a lot of architecture and traditional charm remains. With its Samurai and Geisha districts Kanazawa is a great place to either stop off for a day trip or stay a couple of nights to get deeper into this historic Edo era city. We had five wonderful hours, as we passed through from Kyoto to Iiyama, and have based this itinerary on our route around the quaint city, being wowed everywhere we went.
Kanazawa is extremely welcoming to tourists with an almost overly modern shinkansen station and great connections right outside the station. If walking there are signposts at regular intervals, directing you to all the highlights. Pick up a day ticket from the information kiosk for the Kanazawa Bus Loop. This allows unlimited travel on the Kanazawa Tourist Loop as well as the Kenrokuen Shuttle for just 500 Yen per person (buses travel the loop right or left and depart every 15 minutes). The loop stops at all the main tourist sites and is easy to navigate, with clear instructions on the bus and obviously numbered stops, for even the most hap hazard of tourists.
Higashi Chaya district
Hopping off the bus, at our first stop, we found ourselves surrounded by alleys leading enticingly to the stunning little geisha district of Higashi Chaya. Beautifully preserved and looked after, the paved streets are lined by elegant wooden buildings, sliding doors, and slatted windows. It was barely busy and like stepping back into the Edo period. Owing to the lack of crowds and souvenir shops, the district feels much more authentic that that of Kyoto and we spent some time happily meandering the area. The wooden buildings house small craft shops, gold leaf shops (which Kanazawa is famous for, keep an eye out for the gold leaf ice cream!), and of course tea houses that give the ‘Chaya’ part of the districts name.
There are a couple of well-preserved teahouses here that open to the public, we visited the historic Ochaya Shima. Traditionally patronised by upper class the tea houses were a place to drink tea, sake and be entertained by geisha. Dating back to 1820 Ochaya Shima has been kept much the same as when it was built and is both fascinating, and enchanting to visit. We made our way upstairs through the sparsely, but elegantly, decorated guestrooms. Here the geisha would perform and many instruments are included in the rooms. The second floor is simple and stunning with tatami matting, and sliding paper and wood doors. Downstairs is the kitchen, traditional courtyard and a dressing room full of original geisha memorabilia including hair pins, combs and fans. An enlightening insight into the life of a geisha and a wonderful setting in this beautiful district.
Next stop is the famous Kenrokuen Gardens, one of Japan’s most celebrated landscape gardens. Characteristic of the Edo period (1603-1868) the garden has the six sublimities of a perfect landscape garden; spaciousness, seclusion, artifice, antiquity, watercourses, panoramas and was originally the outer garden to the neighbouring castle.
On our early autumn day, the gardens were looking gorgeous with the leaves just beginning to turn. Heading down from the main gate we found ourselves at a large pond with the Yugaotei teahouse on its bank which dates back to 1774. The pond is full of enormous Koi carp and criss-crossed with picturesque bridges. Heading up to the higher area of garden we passed the plum grove, making our way past the impressive raised root pines, and following winding streams to the main Kasumigaike Pond. A wonderfully peaceful stroll among the gardens and a tranquil interlude to our day of sightseeing, Japanese serenity at its best.
Just across from the entrance of the gardens is the Kanazawa Castle. Standing here since 1546 the original buildings have been plagued by several fires and the current reconstruction hails from 2001. The work was done using the traditional, and ingenious, lock and key wooden structures of the original, no nails required! We wandered across the garden and moat with the impressive white castle and black tiled roof ahead of us, a very impressive scene with a background of blue skies. The main building houses a small museum of the history of the castle, and the reconstruction work. At each corner watchtowers are reached by treacherously steep stairs, after careful navigation of these the views across the city to the forest covered mountains beyond were fantastic. Each watchtower had slats for arrows and later guns and drop holes for dropping rocks upon any attackers. At the far side of the castle sits another beautiful garden with pond, bridges and the ruins of original castle walls.
Heading back towards the Kanazawa station for our train we visited the Omicho market for some much-needed sustenance. Open Mon-Sat, 9am-6pm, the market is a bustling hive of activity laid out in a cross shape. Known locally as one of the best places to buy seafood, there are a number of restaurants and hundreds of stalls to peruse. We decided to forgo the giant spider crabs, octopus and fish eyes in favour of a tasty minced beef croquette before heading off to our next destination!
The perfect break in our train journey, we would have enjoyed an overnight stay here to see one of the many Geisha shows. The five hours we did have were perfect to fit in the itinerary above and we thoroughly enjoyed our visit to this beautiful time capsule of a city.
With more time add in:
Nagamachi Samurai district
Leaving the castle behind we recommend taking the short walk from here to the Nagamachi Samurai district, although we didn’t visit ourselves this would easily be achievable with 6-8hrs of sightseeing. Similar to the geisha district, the area of Nagamachi retains much original architecture and charm. Dotted along narrow flag stoned lanes, and alongside bridged canals, sit the tiled roofs and earthen walls of the former residences of the castle’s samurai and their families. Nomura-ke is a restored residence giving an insight into samurai lifestyle, with artefacts of the era and a beautiful inner courtyard garden, and would be well worth a visit.
The Nishi Chaya District
Further out on the tourist loop is the Nishi Chaya district which is like the aforementioned Higashi Chaya. Still beautiful and traditional, there are no tea houses here open to the public but a lovely place to wander the picturesque lanes. In addition, it is a short walk from Myoryuji Temple, more commonly known as Ninjadera or the Ninja Temple. It was originally built by lords with many deceptive features for safety, but confusingly wasn’t associated with ninjas. Effectively a military outpost, Myoryuji has several escape routes, secret rooms and trapdoors (hence the name) which were built in case of invasion. The Ninja Temple can be visited with a guided tour in Japanese and English guidebooks are available.