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

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)

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