Japan’s Hidden Secret: Tourist free Kanazawa or “Little Kyoto”

Kanazawa mfp

Japan’s Hidden Secret: Kanazawa


The Japanese describe Kanazawa, located by the Sea of Japan in Western Honshu, as “little Kyoto” because it offers an artisanal tradition akin to Kyoto’s as well as beautifully preserved traditional neighborhoods. Put more accurately, while Kyoto is the much older Japanese Imperial capital, Kanazawa is the best-preserved Edo (or Shogun-era) city in the country. As an added bonus, it is a City of Crafts and Folk Art and forms part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network. It offers many of Kyoto’s charms without its tourist hordes.  In short, it is a gem that has largely been under the radar for most Western tourists.

The Maedas ruled the remote Kaga region (of which Kanazawa is the center) during the Shogun era, when power emanated from the Edo Castle (today’s Tokyo). Rather than challenge the Shogunate in war, the Maedas poured their efforts into cultural pursuits and channeled their vast wealth from local gold mines into arts and crafts, many of which are still nationally renowned. The name “Kanazawa” means “marsh of gold” and the castle town was famous early on for Kaga gold-leaf, inlaid work and calligraphy. Indeed, the gold leaf that covers Kyoto’s Golden Pavilion was produced in Kanazawa.

Being the richest domain outside the Shogunate, Kanazawa’s population swelled with samurai retainers, artisans, merchants and, of course, geisha courtesans. Since the town was located along a remote sheltered coast across the mountains from Tokyo, it was protected from being ravaged both in the feudal wars as well as during World War II, where it was spared from US bombing. As a result its samurai and geisha districts are remarkably intact.

Here is the lowdown on its six most interesting attractions.

* Kenroku’en Garden: one of the three most beautiful in Japan

kenrokuen-garden-72The Japanese love lists and Kenrokuen means “having six factors” because it has the six attributes the Japanese believe bring out the perfect landscape of the garden: spaciousness, tranquility, artifice, antiquity, water courses, and a magnificent view.

It was begun in the late 1600s and expanded by various generations of the ruling feudal lords of the Maeda family, outside the gates of Kanazawa Castle.

Strolling beside one of its large ponds we stop to admire an elegant stone lantern on two arching legs that has become the symbol of this great castle town.

We walk across the eleven carefully placed red stones of the Flying Geese Bridge. A Shinto wedding party, the bride in a cloud-white headdress and kimono, is having pictures taken nearby.

It is a wintry day and patches of snow dot the mossy ground yet the landscape is serene, ethereal even, with huge conical rope formations framing the garden’s large trees.  Each November, workers install these ukitsuri to protect the tree branches from the heavy winter snow. Only in Japan are such prosaic measures rendered so delicately.

After exploring the gardens we cross the moat to the back gate of Kanazawa Castle, which was the epicenter of the feudal town. Most of the castle burned down in 1888 but the imposing Ishikawa Gate and Sanjikken Longhouse remain and now the site is a delightful public park.

* Nagamachi Samurai District

Samurai-House-Entrance-in-Kanazawa-72We visit the Nagamachi District where several of the chief samurai retainers of the Maeda feudal lords lived in great splendor. We walk along the oldest canal in Kanazawa, the Onosho canal, which used to carry goods from the harbor to the castle town, before strolling the district’s pretty cobble-stoned residential streets, lined with mud walls which are covered with atmospheric straw mats in winter. We see several large nagaya-mon entrance gates, which used to house servants above, and we peak into the pretty gardens that surround large gabled residences, now popular with Kanazawa’s elite.

Our curiosity is sated at the samurai residence, Nomura House, where we can explore inside to admire the Edo artefacts of the Nomura family, who lived here for ten generations. The house has ceilings made from Japanese cypress and exquisite paintings on sliding door panels, while the garden features a 400-year-old Japanese bayberry and a meandering stream surrounded by ancient rocks.

* Higashi Chaya geisha district

chaya-tea-house-in-Kanazawa-72We cross the old stone bridge over the Asano River to Higashi Chaya, the most prominent of Kanazawa’s geisha or entertainment districts, now designated among Japan’s cultural assets. These were off limits to the samurai class but were patronized by rich merchants and artisans who competed to spend the most obscene amounts of money on parties.

We are transported back in time to the Edo Period as we wander a car-free street scape lined with two-story wooden tea houses or chaya (as the geisha houses are called), decorated with fine latticework and illuminated by traditional streetlamps. There are about 50 geisha still working in Kanazawa today and if you are lucky you might see a white-faced, doll-like girl slipping into one of these establishments to dance, perform on traditional musical instruments, and play drinking games.

If you want to go inside, Shima Teahouse (also a museum) and Kaikaro Teahouse are open to public.


* Gold leaf artisans

The gold leaf industry is alive and well in Kanazawa. Kanazawa produces 99% of Japanese gold leaf, gold and silver inlays in metalwork, and gold-thread embroidery as well as high-quality lacquer ware traditionally decorated with gold dust.

On a side street, we visit Sakuda Gold and Silver Leaf Company. Here we watch artisans decorate lacquer ware with wafer-thin gold leaf before we make our own gold-leaf designs on chopsticks.

* Ohi Ware Museum and tea ceremony

yoko-san-tea-ceremony-expert-72We also visit the Ohi Ware Museum and Shop of tea ceremony master potter, Ohi Chozaemon Toshiro. As the tenth generation of his family to craft the finest Japanese tea ware, he is a perfect example of Kanazawa’s artisanal tradition. Tenth generation, as he is called, has also received a Person of Cultural Merit award from the Emperor.

We are fortunate to be invited to a tea ceremony…the meditative ‘way of tea’…by his elegant septuagenarian wife, Yoko San. Her white kimono sprinkled with silver blossoms heralds springtime, just like the delicate sweets that accompany the green tea in Tenth Generation’s exquisite bowls.

* Omi-cho Market

Kanazawa is renowned for an array of gourmet delicacies due to its location on the Sea of Japan. The best place to see these is at the Omi-cho Market, which has also been in operation since the Edo Period. Kanizawa’s prime winter delicacy is the snow crab and we marvel at boxes upon boxes of them at the many fish merchants. Other specialties include jumbo shrimp, yellowtail, mackerel, unique Kaga vegetables and smooth, sweet sake.

The city is also famous for its tea with gold flakes, considered to be good for health and vitality. If that is anything to go by, Kanazawa’s vibrant traditional culture has a long life ahead.


Your say

I’d love to hear about any other artisanal towns you’ve enjoyed visiting in Japan that may be under the radar for Westerners.


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Sue Gough Henly

Sue Gough Henly is award-winning travel writer and photographer whose bi-line has appeared in The New York Times, Travel & Leisure, The Guardian, The Toronto Star and all the major Australian publications. Her travel blog, Genuine Journeys, is full of insider tips on the best places for authentic experiences and luxury splurges. She is also the author of Australia’s Best Places travel app. When she doesn’t have sand between her toes or a pack on her back, she writes about food, wine and culture.

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