August 13, 2017

Visit Historic Kanazawa

Often referred to as "Mini Kyoto," Kanazawa is every bit as historic and charming as Kyoto but is rarely as crowded as the former capital.

The iconic archway at Kanazawa Station in Ishikawa Prefecture

It’s no secret that Kyoto has become a tourism powerhouse in recent years. The ancient capital’s notoriety however has come at a cost. Everyday, visitors from across the globe flood the city’s marvelous attractions. Consequently it can be hard to navigate spots like Kiyomizu-dera without risking a selfie stick to the eye. Indeed the problem is so bad that the city has had to resort to hiking fares just to ensure transportation for residents.

Kyoto’s popularity has unfortunately given rise to a “Disneyland” like commoditization of tourism assets. Luckily for those in search of authenticity though, there is an alternative. Located near the coast of the Sea of Japan, the city of Kanazawa is every bit as historic as the overcrowded incumbent. Furthermore the region is still rather unknown by most foreign visitors. Here, you’ll encounter fewer vendors hustling to make a buck off clueless tourists.

While Kyoto does have some must-see sights like Fushimi Inari Taisha, repeat visitors would do well to add Kanazawa to their bucket lists. Much like Goldilocks’s porridge, the city is neither too crowded nor too remote: it is JUUUST right!

Getting to Ishikawa Prefecture & Kanazawa

The JR Kanazawa Station sign in Ishikawa Prefecture

Historically, Kanazawa hasn’t been all that easier to get to. The trip often entailed either flying in or taking a complex combination of express trains. Luckily for you though, Japan has recently opened up a new bullet train route from Tokyo. This means that the charms of Kanazawa are only a mere three hours away from the nation’s capital.

While those coming from Tokyo will want to use the bullet train, visitors making their way from Kyoto and Osaka will instead want to opt for the Thunderbird limited express. As always, refer to Hyperdia or a similar service prior to your day of departure to figure out the best route.

Important Kanazawa Transportation Tips

An aerial shot of Kanazawa Station in Ishikawa Prefecture

Unlike many other areas in Japan, the JR Kanazawa Station is actually located on the outskirts of the city center. Most of the downtown area is instead clustered around the the castle park. Unfortunately this means that walking is out of the question for all but the most intrepid adventurers. Instead, you’ll want to make use of Kanazawa’s extensive and easily accessible bus system.

Thankfully, most of the city’s main attractions can be reached by the Kanazawa Loop Bus. These buses travel either clockwise or counterclockwise around the aforementioned castle. The buses are labeled “Right Loop” (RL) or “Left Loop” (LL). Which bus you should take ultimately depends on where you’re trying to go but I’ll note the closest stop in each of the following sections.

Buses really only need to be used for travel to and from the station. The city is surprisingly walkable and many of the main sights are clustered within a 1–2 km radius of the castle park. That said, if you’d prefer to travel around by bus consider purchasing a one day pass to save a few hundred yen. These can be purchased at the information counter near Kanazawa Station’s bus stop.

For more information about the Kanazawa’s bus system and passes, please refer to this sightseeing map.

Kanazawa’s Eastern Chaya District

Kanazawa’s Higashi or Eastern Chaya District in Ishikawa Prefecture

Kanazawa’s most iconic attraction is its Eastern Chaya District. Located on the outskirts of the city, the area’s buildings served as entertainment facilities during the Edo period (1603–1886). Lords and their high ranking officials would go here to experience performances by talented geisha. Today, many of the region’s buildings have been transformed into retail shops and the like yet several continue to offer the traditional fare (at a significant cost).

Perhaps the most salient feature of the Eastern Chaya District (and all of Kanazawa in general) is the degree to which its structures have been preserved. Unlike Tokyo or Osaka which were nearly bombed flat, Kanazawa escaped the ravages of World War II almost entirely intact. This means that many of Kanazawa’s attractions are original which cannot be said of other parts of the country. Nowhere is this more apparent though than in the Eastern Chaya District.

While a leisurely stroll through the historic buildings is the area’s main to-do, be sure to keep an eye out for the following two attractions. You’ll find both of these locations within close proximity to each other; they should be located around this point if you fire up Google Maps.

  • Shima Teahouse
    This nearly 200 year-old teahouse has been well preserved and has been converted into a museum. For a fee of 500 yen, visitors can wander through its corridors, travel back in time, and experience days gone-by. Perhaps nowhere else in Japan will you find a teahouse that has so thoroughly preserved the traditional atmosphere of everyday life during the Edo period (1603–1868).
  • Hakuza Gold Leaf Shop
    It is said that Kanazawa is responsible for as much as 99% of Japan’s gold leaf production. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Hakuza Shop in the Eastern Chaya District. What makes this shop so extraordinary is the fact that it’s home to a traditional warehouse that has been entirely covered with gold. It’s really a sight to behold!

The Eastern Chaya District is easily reached by taking the Kanazawa Loop Bus to stop RL4. Unfortunately, many of the fun venues in Kanazawa begin to close for the day around 5:30 or 6:00 PM. You’ll want to get an early start so you have enough time to explore.

Lastly, make sure you don’t leave the Eastern Chaya District without trying a gold leafed ice cream. Remember my rule about neibutsu and trust me on this one! It’s really, really good.

Kanazawa’s Kenroku-en Gardens

The amazing Kenroku-en Japanese garden in Ishikawa Prefecture’s city of Kanazawa

The Kenroku-en gardens might possibly rank as one of the most spectacular places on the planet. One could easily spend the better part of a day leisurely meandering along the garden’s peaceful paths. In all honesty, the tranquil grounds probably deserve their own article but in the interest of brevity I’ll limit things to the bare essentials.

Anyway, along with Kairaku-en in Mito and Koraku-en in Okayama, Kanazawa’s Kenroku-en completes a trifecta of legendary traditional gardens. The spacious area used to be part of the nearby Kanazawa Castle grounds for generations. Following the close of the Edo period (1603–1868), the gardens were made available for the public to enjoy and have remained so ever since.

As with any Japanese garden, Kenroku-en is meant to be savored much like an expensive bottle of wine. Take my advice and do not rush. There’s something beautiful hiding around every twist and turn here. Rather than spoil all the charms, I’ll leave it up to the reader to realize their own appreciation in person. Suffice to say, the gardens at Kenroku-en are well worth the 600 yen entry fee. In fact, it might very well be the best investment you ever make!

That said, one thing I will encourage you to check out is the Seisonkaku villa. Located at the near the rear of Kenroku-en, this complex was constructed during the final years of the Edo period (1603–1868). It was built to be the home for a lord’s mother and is said to be one of the most elegant remaining samurai villas. It will run you another 700 yen to enter but again, it’s money well spent.

One thing you’ll definitely want to keep on the lookout for is the villa’s back porch. This engineering masterpiece was created to emit noises similar to those made by the nightingale when walked upon. The porch served as a medieval alarm to alert any nearby defenders to the presence of any suspicious intruders. Now how cool is that!

Kenroku-en is closest to the RL8 and LL9 bus stops. Alternatively, there’s a one way ride from the station called the Kenroku-en shuttle that runs 200 yen and takes a little under 20 minutes. Either will work but opt for the former if the garden isn’t your first stop.

Explore the Rebuilt Kanazawa Castle

Ishikawa Prefecture’s Kanazawa Castle set against the setting sun

Spoiler alert! The current iteration is a recent reconstruction and not an original like Hikone Castle. Therefore, don’t go expecting a historical relic and getting disappointed. Until very recently the grounds where the castle stands were actually home to Kanazawa University. While pieces like the Ishikawa-mon Gate that faces Kenroku-en remain, most of the main structures date back to only the 1990’s.

Now that the above disclaimer is out of the way, let’s look at this attraction in a bit more detail. Since the university’s recent move, the city has been on a mission to restore as much of Kanazawa Castle as possible. The first buildings were completed in 2001 with more additions being finished in 2010 and 2016.

While not necessarily historical themselves, the structures are being rebuilt with traditional means. This allows for visitors to easily appreciate the engineering marvels that went in to constructing these mighty fortresses. The rebuilt portions of the castle do an amazing job of documenting this historical process and showing how something of this girth could be made without a single nail.

Lastly, a quick word of advice. If you’re going to visit both Kanazawa Castle and Kenroku-en (and you should) be sure to purchase the combination ticket. Rather than paying full price to enter separately, admission to both can be had for only 1,000 yen.

Kanazawa’s Omicho Fish Market

People shopping at Kanazawa’s Omicho Fish Market in Ishikawa Prefecture

Kanazawa has been described as a “seafood heaven” and there’s no better place to sample the area’s specialty than Omicho fish market. This collection of vendors has been the city’s largest since as far back as the Edo period (1603–1868). Even today, the hub of bustling shops sports over 200 unique shops. The primary offering of Omicho is of course Kanazawa’s legendary seafood but you’ll also find merchants peddling things like clothing and other household necessities.

The best time to visit Omicho is during the morning hours. The market tends to get overrun with both domestic and international tourists by lunch hour so make the effort to get up early! That said, if you’re a night owl and still want to avoid the crowds try going at the end of the day around 4:30 PM. You’ll find that things are beginning to wind down and you’ll also likely have the place to yourself!

Getting to Omicho is quite simple. If you’re taking the loop bus you’ll want to get off at the LL1 bus stop. The market is also serviced by most other bus lines as well but this can get a little confusing. Lastly if you’re up for a walk, you can reach the market from Kanazawa Station in around 10–15 minutes.

Kanazawa’s Nagamachi Samurai District

Kanazawa’s Nagamachi Samurai District in Ishikawa Prefecture

The Nagamachi (lit. long street) Samurai District can be found at the foot of the Kanazawa Castle complex. During the Edo period (1603–1868) the area served as the living quarters for many of Kanazawa’s samurai. The city has gone to great length to preserve the long, winding streets that give the district both its name and historic vibe. Today, Nagamachi is home to a collection of small museums that chronicle the district’s history.

The chief attraction in Nagamachi is the restored Nomura-ke house. This residence once belong to a high ranking samurai family and boasts a small, beautiful garden. Admission will run you 550 yen and visitors can partake in a tea ceremony in a room the overlooks the gardens for an additional charge.

The following are some other spots that might strike your fancy:

  • Shinise Kinenkan Museum
    This building was once a pharmacy and now houses a local arts and crafts museums. Entry will run you a mere 100 yen.
  • Maeda Tosanokami-ke Shiryokan
    This museum is dedicated to the local ruling lords of Kanazawa and houses a number of their belongings. Entry will cost you 300 yen and English audio guides are available.
  • Ashigaru Shiryokan Museum
    This small museum highlights the lives of the ashigaru or lowest ranking foot soldiers. Entry is free but English language guidance is limited.

The Nagamachi Samurai District can be easily reached on the Kanazawa Loop Bus. Which bus you take depends on the direction you’re coming from but the closest stops are RL14 and LL3. From there it’s just a few minutes walk away.

Kanazawa’s Western Chaya District

Kanazawa’s Nishi or Western Chaya District in Ishikawa Prefecture

Like with the aforementioned Eastern Chaya District, the Western Chaya District was another entertainment district on the outskirts of Kanazawa. Unfortunately, it has not been as well preserved as its eastern counterpart and only a small handful of tea houses now remain. That said, the area does have a nice museum that is located at the southern end of the district.

One thing I insist on you checking out while in this area though is the nearby Ninja-dera. This temple was designed to serve as a camouflaged fortress for the lords of Kanazawa. Though the temple has no connection to the ninja, it is rife with countless secret doorways and and traps. You’d do well to look at my guide before visiting as there’s high potential for language issues.

The Western Chaya District can be easily reached by taking the left loop to the LL5 bus stop. Alternatively, it can also be reached on foot in a matter of minutes from the Nagamachi Samurai District.

There’s Still More to Kanazawa

The 21st Century Museum in Ishikawa Prefecture’s city of Kanazawa

Kanazawa is also home to a number of awesome museums. Unless you’re planning on staying for a few days though, these will be hard to squeeze in. I was not able to fit any of them into my itinerary but others with more liberal constraints may fare better.

The most famous museum in Kanazawa is the 21st Century Museum pictured above. It is home to a optical illusion “pool” that makes people appear to be underwater (great for Instagram). You’ll find this museum closest to the RL9 or LL8 bus stops.

Lastly there’s eccentric Oyama Shrine which is home to a very unusual gate. Apparently it was designed by a Dutch architect who incorporated Asian and European motifs. The first story is identifiably Asian whereas the upper stories are modeled after a lighthouse. It’s a cool add-on if you have some extra time to kill.

Introducing Kanazawa Walking Tours

A promotional poster for Kanazawa Walking Tours

Kanazawa is pretty easy to navigate on your own, even for first timers to Japan. That said, for those who would prefer to have a tour guide, I cannot more highly recommend my friends over at Kanazawa Walking Tours. These guys REALLY know their stuff and can help to provide the necessary historical context to really appreciate the city.

While I have no official business relationship with Kanazawa Walking Tours, we both have very similar missions when it comes to helping people experience Japan authentically.