Sushi and samurai, gardens and gold

Kanazawa, Japan – November 2019

While planning last autumn’s trip to Japan, I was keen to include a stop on the itinerary that wasn’t just the usual Tokyo or Kyoto (as fantastic as those places are). After reading a bit about it online, I picked the city of Kanazawa.

Kanazawa is the capital of Ishikawa Prefecture, located in the northwestern Hokuriku region of Honshu, Japan’s largest island. It is one of the best preserved Edo period cities of its size and has a fascinating history featuring the elite feudal class of samurai. The city was built by the wealthy Maeda clan, which was the richest in the country after the Shogun. It grew over time and by 1700, it rivalled Rome in size. The Maeda clan filled Kanazawa with samurai and military nobility, but they also directed their immense wealth towards arts and culture, which drew artisans and merchants to the city. To this day, a deep appreciation of traditional arts persists in Kanazawa, seen particularly in the local handicrafts of gold and lacquer.

The name Kanazawa 金沢, literally “marsh of gold”, is derived from the legend of the peasant Imohori Togoro (“potato-digger”) who was digging for potatoes when flakes of gold washed up. Kanazawa’s love affair with gold leaf was well and truly underway by the 1500s when Lord Toshiie Maeda established himself at Kanazawa Castle and ordered the first production of gold leaf to encourage the development of arts and crafts to flourish. To this day, Kanazawa produces 99% of all the gold leaf in Japan, a fact that becomes quite evident after spending a few hours exploring the city.

Previously somewhat off the beaten path for international visitors, Kanazawa has been easily accessible since 2015 via the JR Hokuriku Shinkansen, a journey just under three hours from Tokyo (or 2.5 hours on the Kanazawa Thunderbird JR Limited Express from Kyoto or Osaka). Coming from these tourist-filled cities, Kanazawa feels peaceful and calm by contrast; we remarked upon the difference almost immediately while walking from the station to our hotel.

One of the best things about Kanazawa is that most of the attractions are within walking distance of each other, particularly if you stay near the castle. (Our hotel was right between Omicho Market and Kanazawa Castle.) Although it’s not too much to walk 10-20 minutes from one spot to the next, there is also a tourist bus called the Kanazawa Loop that travels every 15 minutes in both directions and costs ¥200 per ride (or you can purchase a one day pass for ¥500 and get unlimited rides on the loop bus and regular buses).

Kanazawa Station

Kanazawa Station, the first thing here that most people will see, is itself worth admiring. Often listed as one of the world’s most beautiful train stations, the station plaza is covered by the massive aluminium and glass Motenashi dome, symbolising an open umbrella as a gesture of Kanazawa’s hospitality (motenashi). The dome provides both natural light and shelter from the frequent rain and snowfall that this region is known for.

At the entrance of Kanazawa station sits the Tsuzumi Gate, so named because its two pillars recall the form of the tsuzumi drum, used in Noh theatre. Striking in design and blending modernity with tradition, the gate has become an emblem of Kanazawa.

Kanazawa has incredibly well-preserved areas dating from the Edo period. The city has somehow managed to escape damage from the natural disasters that wreak havoc in Japan with some frequency. It was also spared from Allied bombings during World War Two. As a result, it has retained the charming wooden architecture of its chaya (teahouse) districts, dating from feudal times. In fact, Kanazawa has not just one but three entertainment districts: Higashi Chaya, Nishi Chaya and Kazue-machi. Of these, Higashi Chaya is the largest (and most popular with tourists).

Kazue-machi Chaya

Located along the river between Asanogawa Ohashi Bridge and Naka-no Hashi Bridge, Kazue-machi Chaya District is an old geisha district that isn’t as touristy as Higashi Chaya across the river, so there aren’t really many shops or cafes to stop at. Nonetheless it is still very lovely and worth a quiet stroll down the river bank.

Higashi Chaya

Sometimes called Kanazawa’s Old Town, Higashi Chaya brings to mind Kyoto’s Gion district in Higashiyama, with similar stately wooden houses lining neatly cobbled streets but without the same heaving throngs. This is the largest of the three geisha districts created just outside the city limits during the Edo period as designated entertainment zones for wealthy clientele, such as rich merchants and noble descendants of samurai.

To this day, geishas entertain guests in exclusive teahouses with singing, traditional music, dancing, and drinking games. The most famous chaya in Kanazawa are found on the main street, including Kaikaro and Shima. Some offer guided tours and geisha shows.

Craftsmen and artists are scattered throughout the picturesque neighbourhood, and there are also cafes and restaurants among the teahouses. Kanazawa has a long tradition of making traditional Japanese sweets, known as wagashi, which were seemingly loved by the ruling Maeda clan. These confections are often served with green tea, its bitterness balancing the sweetness of the wagashi. If you have a sweet tooth, this is a good place to try some.

This is also a fantastic place to buy souvenirs. As mentioned, 99% of Japan’s gold leaf is produced here (including the gold covering Kyoto’s famous Kinkakuji), and there are traditional artisans throughout the city crafting everything from gold leaf cosmetics to lacquerware. If you fancy, you can buy edible gold leaves to spruce up your plating at home, or enjoy an iconic soft serve ice cream topped with gold flakes. If gold isn’t your aesthetic, Kanazawa also produces 100% of the country’s silver leaf and platinum leaf. These nationally designated traditional handicrafts are known collectively as Kanazawa haku (metal leaf).

I popped into one of the gold leaf stores in Higashi Chaya called Gold Leaf Sakuda and was immediately greeted with a hot cup of tea topped with gold flakes. After finishing my tea, gold and all, I inspected the gold decorated wares and was then invited through to the workshop to see the production process. There were four craftspeople working. It was interesting to see how they handled the gold leaf, so delicate and thin (0.1 to 0.125 micrometres in thickness) that even the smallest amount of static electricity can make it tear. Apparently the humid climate makes Kanazawa perfectly suited to gold leaf production because of this.

Around the corner from the main thoroughfare in Higashi Chaya is a shrine called Utasu Shrine. Not particularly remarkable if you’ve ever seen a Shinto shrine before, but a nice reprieve from the relative bustle of the streets for a little while.

Oriental Brewing

After a busy few hours of sightseeing, it was time to wet our whistles so we made a pit stop at Oriental Brewing near Asanogawa Bridge. This place has a great selection of craft beer and a much smaller selection of izakaya-style snacks. Admittedly, I can never go past kara-age (Japanese fried chicken) whenever it’s on the menu.

Kanazawa Castle

Kanazawa Castle, located in the city’s centre, has played a vital role in Kanazawa’s history as the seat of the powerful Maeda clan for 14 generations. The castle has burnt down many times over four centuries, and the current structures standing were reconstructed based on how the castle stood in the 1850s.

The site was left in a state of disrepair during most of the 20th century. After many decades of neglect, reconstruction started in the 1990s, based on painstaking research of historical documents and photographs, as well as archaeological finds. Builders relied on traditional local construction techniques and used historically accurate materials to construct the wooden frameworks and outer stone walls, finished with white plaster and topped with lead tiled roofs.

Entrance to the surrounding park and the castle grounds is free, but there is a small fee to explore the interior of the castle buildings. Inside, you can learn how the structures were constructed with interlocking wooden beams and pillars exposed from the interior, as well as models and scaled replicas. There are also magnificent views of the surrounding city from the bay windows, which were designed for dropping stones on invading enemies. Peeking out from the turrets, you can imagine defending the keep as a samurai archer.

Heading east through the restored Ishikawa Gate will take you to the northern corner of Kenrokuen Garden.


Kenrokuen is a garden park extending over eleven hectares in the middle of Kanazawa, and was once the outer garden of Kanazawa Castle. It is considered one of the Three Great Gardens of Japan (first letters capitalised so you know it’s a Big Deal), along with Kairakuen Garden in Mito and Korakuen Garden in Okayama.

Kenrokuen is famous for its constantly changing scenery. Its many paths meander past seasonal floral displays, streams, ponds, waterfalls, stone lanterns, and historical tea houses. The garden was created by the Maeda family in 1676, destroyed by fire a century later, but later restored, acquiring its name, “garden of six elements”. This title refers to a classical Chinese poem about six contrasting features needed for the perfect garden: extensive space, quiet seclusion, human artistry, old fashioned elegance, flowing water, and distant views.

During winter, the pine trees in the garden are protected with a conical arrangement of ropes tied to bamboo poles (yukitsuri) to prevent heavy snowfalls from breaking the branches, creating an instantly recognisable sight that adorns postcards and souvenirs from Kanazawa. The yukitsuri were already up when we were there in autumn, preparing to brace the weight of snow-laden boughs.

The kotoji-toro lantern is another symbol of Kenrokuen, and by extension Kanazawa, with a distinct shape that everyone who visits Kanazawa will see represented in one way or another. With one stone leg on land and the other in the water, the lantern is named after the bridges on a Japanese harp (koto) which hold the strings up.

Omicho Market

Kanazawa is known for its fresh seafood. Off the coast of the Noto Peninsula, warm and cold currents intersect in the Sea of Japan, providing an important ecosystem for a wide variety of sea life to migrate and breed. Fishing boats bring daily catches to Kanazawa’s ports, which end up in Omicho Market (“Kanazawa’s kitchen”) and from here to the city’s restaurants, often mere hours after leaving the waters of the East Sea.

Omicho Market has been operating since the Edo period and has almost 200 stores, from dine-in restaurants to stalls selling rows of fresh seafood, some available to eat on the go such as oysters shucked to order or freshly caught sea urchin. I had a kaisendon from one of the stores (sashimi on rice) and the seafood was fresh and tasty.

A lot of people who visit Kanazawa love this market. Although it’s much smaller than say, Tsukiji (or Toyosu) in Tokyo or Kuromon in Osaka, the quality of the produce compares very favourably. Everything is so fresh. It’s a fun place to explore and grab a bite or two.

Kourin Sushi

Kourin Sushi is a small family-run establishment not far from Omicho Market which we came upon on the way to Kanazawa Castle. All good sushi places seem to be tiny in Japan, and here you have the choice of sitting at the bar counter, on a tatami mat, or a bigger shared table. The sushi was delicious and inexpensive. I tried one of the most well-known local specialities: amaebi (sweet shrimp.) To be honest I don’t usually rate shrimp/prawn nigiri sushi but this had a creamy texture and hard to describe meaty sweetness that was very nice.

Sushi Ippei

This even tinier sushi place was also a great find, offering quality seafood that you’d get in an elegant, high-end restaurant but at a reasonable price, with relaxed staff and an informal atmosphere (I just think the overall standard of sushi is high in Kanazawa).

Besides sushi, which you should not miss if you visit this city, here are a few other things we also tried during our stay in Kanazawa.

Turban Curry

This was a great place to try the local variation of Japanese curry. Compared to the usual Japanese curry, Kanazawa curry is a deeper brown chocolate colour and is very rich in taste and thick in texture. It is usually served with thinly sliced cabbage on a stainless steel dish. Turban Curry has been serving Kanazawa curry for 50 years. Not entirely sure if the name is unintentionally problematic or not.

Champion Curry in Omicho Market is another popular Kanazawa curry restaurant. I think the closest you can get to Kanazawa curry outside Kanazawa is Go Go Curry which has stores all over Japan (big gorilla on its signage, you can’t miss it).

Curio Espresso and Vintage Design

A quaint cafe serving Seattle-style coffee, opened by an American and his Japanese wife. Cosily decorated with old-school vintage bric-a-brac and indoor plants. There are also some nice Western food offerings if you need a break from traditional Japanese fare. Widely acknowledged (by bloggers anyway) as the best coffee in Kanazawa.

Fukumitsuya Sake Brewery

The sake produced in this region is considered to be of high quality, due to the precipitation of the Hokuriku region and the rice grown in Ishikawa Prefecture.

We booked a tour of Fukumitsuya Brewery, which brews strictly premium grade Junmai sake. Junmai, meaning “pure rice”, is an important term in the world of sake, as it separates pure rice sake from non-pure rice sake. Junmai sake is brewed using only rice, water, yeast, and koji, with no other additives like sugar or alcohol.

Fukumitsuya was founded in 1625 during the Edo period and is Kanazawa’s oldest existing brewery. The tour started off with an introductory video, then we walked to the well of hyakunen mizu (100 year old water). Rainwater from the foot of Hakusan, a mountain in the southeast, filters down through the mineral-rich soil into the groundwater, a journey spanning 100 years, then drawn up to the well from deep below the brewery. It is full of minerals like calcium and magnesium, making it essential to the dryness of the sake.

Sake would not exist without koji kin, or Aspergillus oryzae, a mold indigenous to Japan. Koji kin germinates upon beds of steamed rice, releasing enzymes that break down the starch in the rice into simple sugars for fermentation. Yeast is then added.

Unlike the production of beer, sake brewing involves a process called multiple parallel fermentation in which saccharification and fermentation occur simultaneously, rather than sequentially. The starch in the rice is converted into simple sugars and these sugars are fermented into alcohol, all in the same tank.

As a self-confessed process nerd it was all pretty fascinating and of course after the free tastings I felt I had to buy a couple of bottles to bring home.

Menya Taiga Ramen

I had read online about this assuming ramen store near Kanazawa Station and was keen to try it before we left town for Shirakawago.

Menya Taiga is a small, 13 seat ramen shop that serves several versions of grilled miso ramen. The options are limited to classic miso, red spicy miso, black (squid ink) miso, and miso tsukemen (dipping noodles). Now, I haven’t been to Sapporo (yet) so I don’t necessarily have a strong foundation on which to judge miso ramen, but this was pretty damn good (coming from someone who prefers tonkotsu broth). It is worth trying a spoonful of Menya Taiga’s broth before you make your mind up about miso ramen – a rich, slightly smoky, umami grenade.

Yum yum. This place is pretty popular so you’ll definitely have to join a line, but it is worth the wait. We got there just before they opened (11:30 am) and there was already a queue of about a dozen people.

Hopefully, I’ve conveyed how much I enjoyed my time in Kanazawa. Often labelled an “underrated” destination in Japan, there are plenty of things to see and do here – we didn’t even have time for the Ninja Museum, the Nagamachi Samurai district or the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art – and it manages to pack in so much of what makes this country culturally intriguing, with far fewer crowds of tourists than cities like Kyoto or Tokyo (which are still worth visiting though). The slower, more laidback style make a nice change of pace. Kanazawa’s historical centre is relatively small and everything is close together, so you don’t need to spend days and days seeing it. It is a beautiful city that takes pride in its traditions, and memories of its feudal history seep through in the Edo period streets and artfully landscaped gardens. As more and more people find out about Kanazawa, its under-the-radar status is unlikely to last long.

aka aka to
hi wa tsurenaku mo
aki no kazu

red, red
the pitiless sun, and yet
the autumn breeze

— Matsuo Bashō, 1689
(inscribed on a rock in Kenrokuen)

The Windy City

Chicago, USA – September 2017

I only spent a few days in Chicago, and most of those were largely stuck in a conference room, but even within the limited time afforded to escape and explore, I saw enough to take a real shine to the Windy City.

I had to do a bit of research to find out the origins of Chicago’s famous nickname, but it seems the internet is not entirely clear on this (yes, even the internet). The most common explanation is the weather: frigid breezes that blow off Lake Michigan and sweep through the skyscraper canyons of the city streets. Another popular theory posits that it was coined in reference to its bloviating politicians, “full of hot air”.

I’m sure we only skimmed off the very top of the tourist itinerary, and I’ll have to go back and see more of Chicago one day soon, but here are a few things I enjoyed about USA’s third most populous city.

The Riverwalk

The Chicago River has a fascinating history, and is the only river in the world that flows backwards. Chicago was the fastest growing city in the world during the mid-late 19th century, but its boom was jeopardised by the threat of outbreaks of typhoid, cholera, and other waterborne illnesses. Untreated sewage was flowing from the Chicago River into Lake Michigan, the source of Chicago’s clean drinking water. An engineer suggested reversing the direction of the river to flow away from the lake and toward the Mississippi River. Widely acknowledged now as a monumental engineering achievement, the reversal of the Chicago River was the largest public earth-moving project ever completed, costing millions of dollars over many years. But it was finally worth it when Chicagoans no longer had to drink and bathe in their own waste.

The Riverwalk is a pedestrian path that follows the curves of the Chicago River through the downtown Loop. It runs at the level of the river, passing under bridges and featuring different sections like an open amphitheatre seating area and an open-air dining area with a collection of food stalls. The views along the path include most of Chicago’s architectural attractions. However, for a guided introduction to Chicago’s renown buildings, you can’t go past…

The Architecture River Tour

There are a few architecture river tours that you can take down the Chicago River but they all pass by over 40 of Chicago’s most famous historic and modern buildings. These include the John Hancock Center, the Willis Tower (formerly known as the Sears Tower), the Wrigley Building, Tribune Tower, Merchandise Mart, Marina Towers (the two corncobs) and the Lyric Opera House. Another fun thing they point out on the tour is a secret topographical map of the Chicago River hidden in plain sight on one of the buildings.

Chicago was mostly destroyed in the Great Fire of 1871, which provided early modern architects with an open canvas in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to make their mark. Thus the steel-frame skyscraper, though more often associated with NYC, was born here on the shore of Lake Michigan, and with it the modern American metropolis. Probably the most famous architect to live and work here was Frank Lloyd Wright.

A lot of these buildings are also found on a stretch of North Michigan Avenue called the Magnificent Mile, like the Tribune Tower. Home to the newspaper, the Tribune Tower is worth seeing up close. The Tribune’s publisher had asked his correspondents in the years before the tower was built to bring back fragments of famous monuments from around the world. The Tribune Tower’s facade has pieces from 150 historic sites embedded in the stonework, including the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, the Taj Mahal, Rouen Cathedral, the Alamo, the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Parthenon in Athens, Westminster Abbey, and the Great Wall of China, to name a few. You can walk around the building and see these with chiselled inscriptions telling you where they come from.

Millennium Park

This space in Grant Park is the most popular visitor attraction in the Midwest and has won plenty of awards. Created to herald the new millennium, it contains quite a few pieces of bold art, as well as public areas and facilities that combine forward-thinking architecture and design.

The centrepiece of Millennium Park is the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, a 11,000-capacity flowing structure designed by Frank Gehry that hosts Chicago’s biggest outdoor festivals and concerts from spring to autumn. The packed calendar includes the Chicago Blues Festival, the Chicago Jazz Festival and the Grant Park Music Festival, as well as frequent performances by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Lyric Opera of Chicago. When we were here there was a symphony orchestra rehearsing but also a world music concert happening.

In recent times, the most famous landmark to be found in Chicago is probably Cloud Gate. More commonly known as “The Bean” (for obvious reasons), this rounded arch shaped like a giant blob of liquid mercury was sculpted by Anish Kapoor and installed in 2006. A great example of interactive public art, you cannot visit without taking photos of your own distorted reflection against the surrounding Chicago cityscape, or looking up into the “omphalos”, a concave chamber underneath the arch. Iconic.

South of Cloud Gate is the Crown Fountain by Catalan artist Jaume Plensa, featuring a pair of 15 metre LED-covered glass blocks depicting a changing array of Chicago locals’ faces spitting out streams of water every five minutes. The glass towers face each other across a black granite reflecting pool. Like most of the public artworks in Millennium Park, it’s interactive, providing a space for kids to cool off under the waterfalls.

Like most of the works in the Millennium Park the Crown Fountain is interactive, and on hot summer days you’ll see children paddling in the reflecting pools and cooling off under the waterfalls that cascade down the sides of the towers.

Heading east from Millennium Park into the Loop, we embarked on a quest to try Chicago’s claim to culinary fame (well, one of): the deep-dish pizza.

More like a pie or a savoury cake than the classic Neapolitan pizza, the deep-dish pizza was invented in Chicago’s north side neighbourhood in the 1940s. Slicing into one, the layers are inverted – the sliced mozzarella is densely laid first then covered with vegetables and meat, typically Italian sausage, before being topped with a layer of sweet crushed tomatoes. The inversion of the ingredients prevents the cheese from burning.

You can find deep-dish everywhere in Chicago but the well-known restaurants include Lou Malnati’s, Pizano’s, Giordano’s, and Gino’s. There’s also Pizzeria Uno (the original… I think). Some of them sell little pies for one person, but after trying both, I think you really need the big pie for the real thing. I am certainly no expert, but Lou Malnati’s was pretty good. Pequod’s is supposed to be good too!

After dinner we went out for a show, which was good fun. (Yeah, pre-COVID-19 times were wild, weren’t they.)

We did a few other things in our off-time, including hitting a duelling piano bar which was insane fun, and we also went up the Willis Tower for some city views. We went for a walk around Navy Pier, checked in to a blues club, and had some drinks on a rooftop bar overlooking the DuSable Bridge over the Chicago River. But really, we didn’t stray too much from the Loop (downtown) and there is so much more to the city, like Lincoln Park to the north. It would have been great to catch an improv show at The Second City (training ground for so many incredible comedians: Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Stephen Colbert, Mike Myers, Steve Carell, Eugene Levy, Bill Murray, etc) or attend a baseball game (White Sox versus Cubs?).

There is a lot to do and see in Chicago and I do hope that I’ll be lucky enough to go back (even for a work-related trip) and tick some more off the list. It has world-class food (Alinea, anyone?) and nightlife in spades. As de facto capital of the Midwest aka “America’s Heartland”, Chicago really is the all-American city – perhaps more so than New York, which feels like its own little cosmos – and as such, it is certainly worth visiting, especially if you’ve only ever stuck to either coasts of the country.

It is hopeless for the occasional visitor to try to keep up with Chicago – she outgrows his prophecies faster than he can make them. She is always a novelty; for she is never the Chicago you saw when you passed through the last time.
— Mark Twain

Tales from the West Lake

Hangzhou, China – May 2019

My trip to Hangzhou this time last year was a pretty impulsive one; I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to buy some cheap flights just a few weeks before departure. I had been to mainland China exactly once before, over a decade ago, and had some pretty strong memories of intense culture shock in the metropolises of Shanghai and Beijing. But that was a long time ago, and I imagined that China had changed somewhat since then. After some brief online research, Hangzhou seemed interesting enough, so I was intrigued to see what I would find once I landed in the capital of eastern China’s Zhejiang province.

What greeted me was a fascinating mix of the ultra-modernity of 21st century China, the natural beauty of the West Lake area, and echoes of the proud tradition found in the city’s imperial history.

After spending some time in this place, it’s easy to see why this is where the Chinese themselves come on their domestic holidays. There’s an old saying in China: While there is Paradise in Heaven, there are Suzhou and Hangzhou on Earth (上有天堂,下有苏杭). After visiting on his travels through China, Marco Polo wrote in his travel writings that Hangzhou “is without a doubt the finest and most splendid city in the world.” In its heyday, it was the largest city in the world. The city rests on the West Lake, which has itself inspired countless legends and folktales with its evocative scenery and dream-like landscapes.

Hefang Street 清河坊

I stayed on a small street just off Hefang Street, one of the main tourist areas in Hangzhou. Sometimes known as Qinghefang, this pedestrian avenue is a great place to try some of the local food or to shop for souvenirs. It rained the first night I arrived and into the next morning, but it soon cleared up by the mid-afternoon.

Hefang Street is one of the best preserved urban areas from the old city of Hangzhou. Hangzhou was China’s capital during the Southern Song Dynasty over 800 years ago, and this area has stood the test of time, surviving through the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. It’s still a prosperous marketplace nowadays, and most of its businesses and shops are over a century old. The street is home to the five major Hangzhou specialties (in no particular order): lotus root starch, scissors, fans, tobacco and silk. 

Known also as “Snack Street”, Hefang Street is littered with street stalls and hawker centres, offering local street food as well as snacks from all around China such as roasted walnuts and “dragon-whisker” candy.

I spied a very long queue outside one particular stall selling duck pancakes, so naturally I had to join it. Unfortunately when I got to the front and tried to order, the man took one look at the cash in my hand and shook his head vigorously, then pointed at the QR code in front of me. I was sorely disappointed. But it was a good lesson to learn on my first morning – China is now almost entirely a cashless society (from what I could tell), and WeChat Pay and AliPay reign supreme. Yes, even at tiny food carts in alleyways.

Hangzhou’s local cuisine is representative of Zhejiang’s provincial cuisine, one of China’s eight fundamental cuisines. Natives define dishes prepared in this style to be “fresh, tender, soft, and smooth, with a mellow fragrance.” Due to the mild climate surrounding the Yangtze river, the local people enjoy a light diet, prominently featuring river fish and longjing tea (more on this later).

The history of the city has given rise to many folk stories regarding the origins of well-known local dishes, such as Pian Er Chuan Noodles (片儿川), West Lake Vinegar Fish (西湖醋鱼), Dongpo Pork (东坡肉), Longjing Shrimp (龙井虾仁), Beggar’s Chicken (叫化鸡), Steamed Rice and Pork Wrapped by Lotus Leaves (荷叶粉蒸肉), Braised Bamboo Shoots (油焖笋), Lotus Root Pudding (藕粉) and Sister Song’s Fish Soup (宋嫂鱼羹).

Besides the multitude of food vendors, wandering down Hefang street I found art stalls, candy sculptors, pillow shops, caricaturists, storytellers, bonsai shops, teahouses, and old bookstores.

One of the more interesting establishments on Hefang Street is the Museum of Traditional Chinese Medicine (胡庆余堂 Hu Qing Yu Tang), housed in an amazing 19th century Qing dynasty building. Previously a privately owned business, this is now a government-run working pharmacy/dispensary of traditional Chinese medicine, as well as a museum. For a few minutes I watched traditional Chinese medicine practitioners preparing medicines, weighing and mixing various plants and animal products to specific formulae, while customers (patients?) waited. Wasn’t game to try anything though.

West Lake 西湖

The West Lake has been celebrated by poets and artists since the 9th century. Its shores are lined with temples, pavilions, gardens and arched bridges, and there are many islands reachable by boat. The lake’s natural beauty has been one of the most important sources of inspiration for Chinese garden designers. So influential that in 2011 it was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site for having “influenced garden design in the rest of China, as well as Japan and Korea over the centuries”.

The Ten Scenes of West Lake 西湖十景 are based on an age-old aesthetic tradition that dates back to the 12th century and has inspired some of the best literature and art in many millennia of Chinese civilisation. The earliest reference to these ten scenes appeared in the Southern Song Dynasty. The capital city, known then as Linan, attracted talented writers and artists, giving rise to many lake-themed shanshui (山水) or Chinese landscape paintings. Each scenic spot is marked by a stele with a four-character epithet written in the calligraphy of the Qianlong Emperor. I’ve written about a few of them below (some of them are season-specific and so required imagination to picture, e.g. there obviously wasn’t snow when I was there at the end of spring).

Orioles Singing in the Willows Park 柳浪闻莺

It was a short walk from Hefang Street to the poetically named Orioles Singing in the Willows, one of the entrances into the West Lake on the southwestern shore. (Orioles are birds, for the ornithologically ignorant.) The path passes under an ornate entrance archway, through a courtyard neatly lined with willows, then opens on a set of ponds covered with lotus leaves.

The perennial scene here is supposed to evoke the birdsong of the orioles ringing through the willows, mingled with elderly residents shooting the breeze and crooning odes from classical Chinese opera.

There were plenty of old-timers doing their morning taichi. People are almost always doing taichi in China, but I suppose this was a particularly nice spot to do it.

We must be swift as the coursing river… with all the force of a great typhoon…

Leifeng Pagoda in the Sunset 雷峰夕照 – Changqiao Park 长桥公园

Hangzhou is sometimes known (at least in China) as the city of love. This spot on the southwestern shore of the West Lake with the Leifeng Pagoda in the background is a popular one for bridal shoots, and I counted no less than eight couples jockeying for prime views.

Scholars among my readership will of course know about China’s Four Great Folktales: The Butterfly Lovers, the Tale of the White SnakeLady Meng Jiang, and The Cowherd and the Weaving Girl. Two of these take place (at least in part) on the West Lake.

The Butterfly Lovers is sometimes called the Chinese Romeo and Juliet (although with a somewhat happier ending). Set during a time when only males could receive an education, a young girl named Zhu Yingtai persuades her father to let her study in Hangzhou disguised as a boy. While at school, she befriends a fellow scholar called Liang Shanbo. Over three years studying by Liang’s side, Zhu gradually falls in love with him; however, Liang doesn’t know that Zhu is actually a girl. (Yes, like Mulan.)

After finishing their studies and returning to their hometowns, Liang visits and finally discovers that his best friend is a girl (like the 2006 American romantic comedy sports film starring Amanda Bynes, She’s the Man). They confess their love. Liang tries to propose to her, but damn, too late – Zhu’s parents have already arranged her marriage to Ma Wencai, son of a rich noble.

Liang returns to work as a court official and of course, dies of depression. On her wedding day, Zhu is being carried by sedan to the groom’s house when out of nowhere a strong wind stops the wedding convoy, just as they approach Liang’s grave. Zhu dramatically abandons the wedding procession and weepingly mourns at his grave. Probably making a mess of her bridal outfit. But then – boom, the grave opens up! Consumed with grief, the bride-to-be jumps right into the grave to her death.

The wedding procession watches at first in shock, then in surprise, as a pair of butterflies flutter out of the grave and fly away, together forever. The end.

I guess it’s meant to be romantic. (To be immortal butterflies in love.)

Leifeng Pagoda 雷峰塔

I took the opportunity to visit the pagoda as it was right there.

The pagoda plays a pivotal role in another of China’s four great folktales, The Tale of the White Snake. Rather than re-tell the whole story, here’s a summary I found online:

Once upon a time, there was a white snake demon named Bai Suzhen (白素贞). She lived in the realm of demons, but aspired to become more powerful. Some say she wanted to become a goddess, others that she dreamed of using her powers to help people. But either way, she came to the human world and, to blend in, took on the form of a beautiful woman.

While there, she met a green snake demon named Xiao Qing (小青) who was causing trouble. After some initial scuffles, the two became close friends and traveled the world together in human form. It was at Hangzhou’s West Lake that they met the renowned Chinese scholar Xu Xian. White Snake Bai fell head over heels for the human, and used her magical wiles to set up more opportunities for them to meet again and again, until they finally married.

It was not meant to be, however. An itinerant sorcerer named Fa Hai (法海) could see Bai and Qing for what they really were, and—dedicated to destroying all demons—told Xu Xian the truth. Terrified, Xu Xian urged Fa Hai to attack, and Bai ended up trapped in the Hangzhou’s Thunder Pagoda (雷峰塔). Xu Xian, finished with the material world, became a monk.

Now, originally, this was a horror story, and it ended there. Bai is, after all, a demon. But people tend to like happy stories more than they like sad ones, and romantic stories more than horror stories. So the tale of the White Snake Lady changed. Bai, once the tale’s villain, became a heroine fighting for love against all odds. And Fa Hai, once the hero, became the closed-minded villain determined to keep humans and demons apart. (Even if they were the good, loveable kind of demons.)

In more recent tellings, Bai is not imprisoned by Fa Hai after her marriage with Xu Xian, and Xu Xian is not aware his wife is a snake demon. They open a medicine shop together and become widely known for giving away free herbs to people who can’t afford to pay.

One year during the Dragon Boat Festival, while Bai is pregnant with their first son, her husband brews up a special surprise recommended by Fa Hai: wine infused with herbs that will expel all demons. Unable to think of a convincing excuse, Bai drinks the wine and immediately turns back into a snake. Her husband, shocked beyond belief, ups and dies. Bai returns to human form, obtains some sacred Kunlun Mountain herbs, and brings her husband back to life.

Here, the stories really diverge. In some versions, Bai is able to convince him that the snake was just a dream, and they live happily ever after with their son. Sometimes Bai admits that she is a snake demon, but her husband accepts this and the story ends with the two of them caring for their young son.

But often it’s darker. One version has Fa Hai locking Xu Xian away in Jinshan Temple for his own protection. Bai furiously destroys the temple, violating the laws of Heaven, and is doomed to eternal imprisonment in the Thunder Pagoda. Sometimes a magical hat imprisons Bai in Thunder Pagoda. Sometimes Xiao Qing, the green snake demon, comes to her aid. And so often, the story ends with Bai, her husband, and their son finally reunited.”

(Thunder Pagoda refers to Leifeng Pagoda.)

The legend remains immensely popular, and has spawned books, operas, movies, modern dances and multiple television series. Even as recently as last year. (In this animated version, they’ve translated her name to… Blanca?)

The octagonal, five-story structure was originally built in 975 AD. In 1924, Leifeng Pagoda collapsed and some say a beautiful woman was seen emerging from the ruins (I suspect some may have been trippin’). The current pagoda is a reconstruction built in 2002. The ruins from the original structure are accessible under the new pagoda, but all that’s left are a couple of brick pillars and a few piles of rocks. Since the present-day Leifeng Pagoda is newly constructed, the main reason to visit is to get a full panoramic view of the West Lake and the surrounding hills.

Prince Bay (Taiziwan) Park – 太子湾公园

At the southern end of the West Lake lies a set of beautiful gardens called Taiziwan Park. (Not one of the ten scenes.) I missed all the spring flowers due to timing but still enjoyed strolling through the park around the meandering lakes, rocks, and grass fields.

It was really nice. I spent a serene hour or so here. All the greenery was very calming. I can imagine how picturesque it would be with spring in full bloom.

Three Pools Mirroring the Moon 三潭印月

This scene is actually on the back of the one-yuan note. The islet features three pagodas, two metres high and marked with five round holes. The pagodas are lit at night to match the shimmering geometry of the full-autumn moon. I wasn’t here at night so I couldn’t capture this scene, but I guess you can google it if you’re curious.

Lingering Snow Over the Broken Bridge 斷橋殘雪 – Duanqiao 断桥

One of the ten scenic scenes is set on the Broken Bridge, where Lady White Snake and the scholar Xu Xian first met in the Legend of the White Snake.

The scene is so named due to an illusion after winter snowfall. Contrary to its name, Duanqiao is actually completely intact; it only appears to be broken after a snowfall. This view from the Bai Causeway, along with its role in the White Snake legend, make it one of those popular romantic spots on the West Lake. When snow falls in winter this spot is abuzz with people (particularly couples) looking for that perfect photo.

Jixianting 集贤亭

I don’t have a story about this, and it’s not one of the ten scenes or anything. Just a simple small pavilion that looked nice lit up in the evening. It is often pictured on tourism material for the city though.

Besides the natural beauty of the West Lake area and the historic importance of the Song dynasty streets, Hangzhou is also a proudly thriving modern Chinese city. When Deng Xiaoping’s reformist policies began in 1978, Hangzhou took advantage of being situated in the Yangtze River Delta to bolster its development. It is now one of China’s most prosperous major cities, and is home to the Alibaba Group.

One night I wandered over to Qianjiang New Town, located in the Jianggan district on the western bank of the Qiantang River, to see some of modern-day Hangzhou.

The round yellow building (some people call it the Golden Sun) is the InterContinental Hangzhou Hotel, which faces the Hangzhou Grand Theatre. The music fountain in front of the Grand Theatre and accompanying light show were amazing. Built by the Chinese government to impress the guests of the 2016 G20 summit, the Hangzhou Light Show is a fantastic 700,000 LED spectacle that plays across all the surrounding buildings. The show lasts 20 minutes and plays every Tuesday, Friday and Saturday at 6:30 pm and 7:30 pm. The deck by the river has the best views of the illuminated skyline in its entirety.

I also took the opportunity to hop on a bus and venture a bit further from the central city and the West Lake. It was easy to find very rural spots within 20 minutes of where I was staying near Hefang Street.

Eight Diagram FieldBa Gua Tian 八卦田

This field is an octagon made of 8 pieces of land, each used to grow a different vegetable, with a wooded area forming the Yin and Yang in the centre (it makes more sense when you see an aerial view). Originally a field used by the emperors of the Song Dynasty to perform rituals for good harvest.

According to history, the nine kinds of crops planted were soybean, red bean, barley, wheat, rice, millet, glutinous rice, broomcorn millet, and ancient millet. Nowadays, there are seven types of crops planted, and at certain times the farmers grow sunflowers, rapeseed, and other colourful blossoms. You can get something of an aerial view by ascending the thousand steps up nearby Jade Emperor Hill, but I was way too lazy to do this. Or I guess you could get a drone.

Longjing 龙井

Longjing tea (龙井茶 dragon well tea) is a pan-roasted green tea produced by hand, and known for its high quality. The name refers to the titular Dragon Well, located near Longjing village, where the swirling of light rainwater with particularly dense groundwater gives the impression of sinuous dragons lurking beneath the surface. Longjing tea production dominates the entire mountainous region surrounding West Lake. Hangzhou, and specifically the area around Xihu (West Lake) is known for a mild, temperate, and often rainy climate, creating the perfect terroir for tea (yes, apparently terroir is as important to tea plantations as it is to vineyards).

Longjing tea was granted the status of Gong Cha, or imperial tea, in the Qing dynasty by the Kangxi Emperor. His grandson, the Qianlong Emperor, conferred special imperial status upon 18 tea bushes. These trees are still living and the tea they produce is auctioned annually for a higher price per gram than gold. The emperor’s celebrity endorsement has carried weight ever since. Longjing’s reputation received a second jolt of popularity from Chairman Mao during the Chinese revolution.

Mao Zedong was a huge fan, and liked it so much that he served the tea to President Nixon during his historic visit in 1972. Today, the early spring harvested crop is sent away to the leaders of modern China who accept only the best, just like their imperial forerunners. Top grade leaves from each year’s harvest from well-known farms fetch astounding prices among the Chinese elite. Xi Jinping reportedly prefers it, and even treated President Obama to a cup when he came to visit.

My trip ended too soon and I would have liked to also visit Xixi Wetlands and a few other spots like the National Tea Museum. But as you can see, there is plenty to see and do in Hangzhou. It’s a great place to visit if you like the colour green, Chinese imperial history, and really good tea. Also wonderful if you enjoy walking.

Of course, Hangzhou today remains under some form of lockdown, like much of the world. But I have no doubt visitors will return, both from within China and then one day from abroad. I think about this trip every now and then, as China has been in the news so much since the start of the year. It’s certainly an intriguing land, full of contradictions and legends, and I only saw a tiny bit of it this time. It may become one of the few countries safe to travel to in the near future; time will tell. I for one would love to see more of it.

I have never traveled to Hangzhou’s West Lake
But seem to have met it in my dreams someplace:
A vague and indistinct expanse of water and clouds
Where lotus leaves merge with weeping-willow branches.
— Huang Zunxian (1848–1905)