Kanazawa: Japan’s Best Kept Secret
Kanazawa is a beautiful city that is rich in both culture and history. Located in Ishikawa Prefecture in the Chubu region of central Japan, it has one of the best preserved samurai and geisha districts in all of Japan.
The city managed to avoid the worst of the bombing during World War 2, which means that most of its historical and cultural sites have remained beautifully preserved. Today, Kanazawa is undeniably an attractive modern city with contemporary architecture and art, but it still boasts traditional culture and heritage around every corner.
Kanazawa has long been regarded as a hidden gem due to the fact of its remote location from other major cities in Japan such as Tokyo and Osaka. This is about to change in 2015 with the opening in March of the new Hokuriku Shinkansen line. The new line will take you from Tokyo to Kanazawa in about 2.5 hours, making Kanazawa a hotspot for 2015.
What to see in Kanazawa?
Your first stop once you get off the train should be Kanazawa’s train station. The station is a major attraction itself and is regarded as one of the most beautiful train stations in the world. Outside the station you will find the impressive red-coloured wooden gate called Tsuzumi-mon. The gate symbolizes a traditional Japanese musical instrument called tsuzumi (hand drum). Just behind the gate is the east entrance to the station and a glass dome called “Motenashi (Welcome) Dome”, which looks like a huge glass umbrella. After checking out the station make a move to the centre of the town where you will find Kenrokuen and Kanazawa Castle.
I must admit that my main reason for visiting Kanazawa was for the famed Kenrokuen, which is regarded as one of Japan’s most beautiful gardens, and the star attraction of Kanazawa. The former castle garden dates from the 17th century and was original a pleasure garden for the local lord to stroll through from his nearby castle. The garden is huge at about 105,000 square meters and took over 170 years to complete. We visited the garden in winter, but it was still breath-taking with its yukitsuri (snow ropes) and snow covered landscapes. The plum blossoms were just about to bloom as well making it truly spectacular. The garden has been designed to be enjoyed through-out the year with plum and cherry blossoms in spring, azaleas and irises in early summer, green leaves in summer, and red and yellow leaves in Autumn. Make sure you check out the Kotojo-toro lantern, which is the symbol of Kanazawa as well as the 300 year old tea house.
Kanazawa Castle was built in 1580 as the castle for the powerful Maeda clan. The original castle was destroyed by fire, but extensive reconstruction has taken place in recent times to restore the castle to its former glory. They have done a great job restoring parts of the castle using traditional construction techniques and materials to give it an authentic look. The castle has some beautiful stone walls and distinctive white lead tiles that grace the roof.
Nagamachi Samurai District
A short walk to the west of the castle and you will find the Nagamachi Samurai District (Nagamachi Buke Yashiki). This well preserved area was once where the samurai of the town used to reside. The area features winding streets lined with traditional tiled roof mud walls, and traditional samurai houses which allow you a look into the life of a samurai during the samurai age of Japan. It is a wonderful place to soak up the historic atmosphere of the town and to imagine you are a samurai walking these ancient streets.
Chaya-gai Geisha District
North-east of the castle you will find the picturesque Higashi Chaya-gai (East Geisha District). The area was established in the early 19th century as a centre for geisha to entertain wealthy patrons. A walk along the narrow paved streets is reminiscent of another era with the slatted wooden facades of the geisha houses enhancing the mood. We visited a traditional former geisha house dating from 1820. The houses allow you to catch a glimpse of what life would have been like for a geisha in Japan several hundred years ago. If you are lucky, you might also spot a geisha in the evening on her way to one of her engagements. This is the only place outside of the ancient capital Kyoto, where you can still see real geisha walking the streets.
21st Century Museum of Modern Art
If you have had enough of culture and tradition then head to the 21st Century Museum of Modern Art for something new. This ultra-modern museum which opened in 2004 is one of Japan’s most popular and features contemporary art from Japan and all over the world. It is conveniently located next to Kenrokuen and is easy to spot with the museum building itself a work of art.
If you are looking for a new off the beaten track destination to visit in 2015, definitely put Kanazawa at the top of your list.