An Introduction to Nishi Chayagai: Kanazawa's Hidden Treasure
The Japanese refer to Kanazawa as Sho-Kyoto, or Little Kyoto, and at no time is this more evident than when taking in the historic atmosphere that can be found in the city’s three chaya (teahouse) districts. Although the most famous are Higashi Chayagai (Eastern Tea District) and Kazuemachi, you should be careful not to overlook Nishi Chayamachi (Western Tea District), whose small, easy to navigate layout makes it a perfect complimentary stop-off for anyone visiting the nearby Myoryuji or, as it more commonly known, Ninja Dera (Ninja Temple). Nishi Chayagai can be easily accessed by bus. By catching the left loop of the city’s convenient Kanazawa Loop Line service, you can take a 15 minute, 200-yen ride to Hirokoji Bus Stop, from which you will only have to take a short walk down the slope on the right to reach your destination.
Upon reaching Nishi Chayagai, you will be greeted by a row of geisha houses adorned with the traditional lattice design. Visitors are often surprised by how quiet the area is; other than fellow tourists, it is actually quite rare to see people walking the streets during the day. Compared to the increasingly popular Higashi Chayagai, which is now so bustling with tourists that is often impossible to even walk in a straight line, there are relatively few visitors to Nishi Chayagai and this calm, unhurried experience will no doubt come as a relief to those who have experienced the hustle and bustle that the more traditional areas throughout Japan have become following the tourist explosion that has occurred in recent years. This sense of calm carries into the night hours, as twilight is signaled by the music of the shamisen (three-stringed Japanese lutes) and drums played by geisha waiting by the street.
Nishi Chayagai has a long and interesting history, with its current status as a largely residential area in direct opposition to its former role as a red light district; it was leased for such use from the ruling Kaga Clan in 1820 and was placed outside of the city limits to isolate it from general society, being named Nishi Chayagai due to its location to the west of Kanazawa Castle. At the same time, the area to the east of Kanazawa Castle was christened Higashi Chayagai for similar reasons. This led to competition between the two sections to outdo each other and prove themselves to be the city’s premier hanamachi (literally “flower town”, with flower as a euphemism for woman). An example of this is the area’s West Prosecutor Office, which still stands today and can be found at the west end of the street. It was purposefully built in a western style, rather than the Japanese style of the office in Higashi Chayagai, and was completed in 1922. It was used as a place for geisha to perfect their musical and dancing techniques. Although it is not currently open to the public, it is still fascinating to look at 100 years later, standing as a monument to the competition between the two sides of the city. The geisha tradition is also one that continues here, more so here than anywhere else in Kanazawa. The centuries old traditions of the Kanazawa geisha are still practiced in Nishi Chayagai today by nineteen geisha spread over four of the area’s teahouse; more than both Higashi Chayagai and Kazuemachi.
Another interesting landmark is the Nishi Chaya Shiroyokan. Open from 9:30am to 5pm seven days a week and free to enter, Shiroyokan is a well-preserved, but small, two-storey museum, located on the southern end of the district, The first floor is arranged as a small walk-in exhibit, with glass panels protecting ephemera which belonged to author Seijiro Shimada, who wrote the romantic novel Chijo, which was popular in Japan during the inter-war years, and lived in the then teahouse during his childhood at the turn of the 20th century. In addition, there are written explanations about the history of the house and the nearby area. Unfortunately for those who cannot read the language, these are written in Japanese, but, of course, no language skills are required to enjoy the display’s visual splendours.
Upstairs, there is a full-scale reproduction of a traditional chaya-house, with a good amount of space for you to soak in the atmosphere and feel of the past; there is also a display of three of the aforementioned shamisen which conjures up imagery of when Geisha would play the instrument to entertain the tea houses’ guests.
In addition to its charming displays, Shiroyokan, also acts as the meeting place for those wishing to take advantage of the area’s free tour-service provided by local volunteers. Again, this is only available in Japanese, though hopefully that will change in the future as Kanazawa’s reputation amongst international tourists keeps growing.
Moving away from the traditional and the historical, the modern trend is for the conversion of the teahouses into sweet shops. While Nishi Chayagai’s history is the area’s de-facto focus point, it is actually its sweets that attract the most attention from those who make their way there, with the shops always busy with the bustle of Japanese office workers looking for the perfect chocolate omiyage (souvenir) to take back to their jealous co-workers when their trip is over, with three shops proving especially popular.
At the entrance to Nishi Chayagai, and its monument to Siejiro Shimada, is Moroeya which is famous around the country for its selection of rakugan, a type of Japanese hard candy which comes in the shape of various seasonal Japanese flowers or animals which some Japanese consider lucky, such as turtles and rabbits. The sweets are sold at the front of the store, with a cafe space in which you can relax and enjoy them with some Japanese tea at the back.
The sweet shop Cacao Sampaka’s trendy signage, of white letters on a black background, stands out against the more low-key Japanese awnings in the area. Cacao Sampaka is a chocolate brand which started in Barcelona, Spain in 1999 and has just three branches in the whole of Japan - Tokyo, Osaka and Kanazwa - and only seven throughout the world. The first floor is the store front and offers a wide variety of delicious chocolates which have actually been handmade in Barcelona and shipped over from Spain via. cold storage airlift. The items on offer range from chocolate bomboms to the fruity taste of rajoles or delicious cremes and gelatos. Previously, the second floor hosted a cafe, which offered nostalgic views over the street below and allowed for the enjoyment of Cocoa Samapaka from the comfort of the traditional Japanese tatami mat, but this service closed as recently as August 2017.
Finally, there is Kawamura, which, of the three, is located the furthest away from the entrance. This store specialises in amanato, which is made by covering beans in sugar after simmering them in syrup. Kawamura can only be found in Nisha Chayagai, and is very much one for those “in-the-know” on where to look in the city.
Recently, Nishi Chayagai is becoming more and more popular as a filming location, in part due to the fact that is significantly less busy than Higashi Chayagai which makes it easier for photographing and filming a traditional Kanazawa teahouse district, with even an episode of the popular Japanese medical drama Doctor X being filmed there.
Although, to the uninitiated, Nishi Chayagai can seem to offer little to those who visit there, especially next to Higashi Chayagai, those who take the time to dig a little into the area’s history and familiarise themselves with what it has to offer will find that it is every bit as worthwhile as its bigger, more popular rival. Hopefully this article will have helped you, or even encouraged you, to do just that.