Kenroku-en Garden. Photograph from Wikimedia Commons
Travel Destinations

Kanazawa has the best of what Japan has to offer – and far from the tourist crowds

The modernity of Tokyo and a glimpse of old Japan (akin to Kyoto’s main attraction) meet in this little known city. Its cuisine is quite a sensation, too.
Gideon Lasco | Jul 17 2019

KANAZAWA - When people think of Japan, Tokyo and Kyoto come to mind, or for the more adventurous, perhaps Sapporo. Kanazawa in Ishikawa Prefecture does not rank high on the list. Many may not have even heard of it.

And yet this city, facing the Sea of Japan, deserves to be recognized (as many Japanese do) as one of Japan’s most charming places, having its own share of the modern amenities of Tokyo, the ancient temples of Kyoto, and the culinary delights of Sapporo. Precisely because it’s not swarmed by foreign tourists, it does not have to perform itself before visitors, or cater to tourists in a way that detracts from its authenticity.

Kanazawa's iconic Tsuzumi-mon Gate, fronting the train station, welcomes visitors to the city. Photograph from Wikimedia Commons

 

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Thanks to the Hokuriku Shinkansen, Kanazawa is now easily reachable from Tokyo, taking just under three hours via Nagano through the tunnels under the Japanese Alps. Even as the traveler arrives at the Kanazawa Station, one can appreciate its edge over Tokyo: the luxury of space, the unconventional design of the station itself punctuated by the massive torii — the Tsuzumi-mon Gate — that has become a symbol of the city.

 

A glimpse of the old

What I like about Kanazawa is that it offers a glimpse of Old Japan — the Japan that we imagine in our animé dreams; the Japan of geisha and ninja; the Japan whose beauty is such that the natural response is to compose a haiku. Kyoto may be far more iconic, but when will you ever have the Old Capital all to yourself?

In Kanazawa, especially on weekdays, it’s still possible to walk on the Eastern Chaya — the ‘teahouse district’ where geishas once entertained guests — in contemplative peace. On the other side of the Asano River, meanwhile, lie what I consider to be the highlight of the city: Kenroku-en—acclaimed as one of the three best gardens in Japan. Readers of Lian Hearn’s Tales of the Otori will doubtless appreciate the fact that one of the villas in the garden has a nightingale floor — it squeaks like a nightingale when someone’s walking: a way of warding off ninja assassins. In the Kenroku-en there are tea shops where one can enjoy a cup of tea — just like in Kyoto, but again, with much fewer people.

Kanazawa Castle Park. Photograph from Wikimedia Commons

From the Kenroku-en - one can wander off to Kanazawa Castle Park (where the old castle of the Kaga lords has been rebuilt) and the Nagamachi District which used to house all the lord’s samurai. If you still have time to spare, you can also walk to the Myouryuji — the “Ninja temple” with secret passageways and traps where it would seem that Uchiha Sasuke would spring forth at any moment.

 

A touch of the new

While taking pride in its historic attractions, Kanazawa is also at the forefront of contemporary innovation in art and design, as the train station itself shows. Just a stone’s throw away from Kenroku-en stands the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, which feature artworks from all over the world including Leandro Erlich’s “Swimming Pool,” an interactive installation which makes it appear as though people are submerged in water while they remain completely dry.

21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa. Photograph from Wikimedia Commons

The museum building itself is an architectural marvel, designed without an “entrance” to encourage exploration, literally, from different perspectives.

Another notable structure, closer to the sea, is the award-winning Kanazawa Umimirai Library. Shaped like a box, the exterior of the building sports 6000 holes, each with translucent glass that diffuse the light inside. Kanazawa is a very walkable city and one can easily imagine seeing K in Haruki Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart wandering around.

Kanazawa Umimirai Library. Photograph by Asturio Cantabrio on Wikimedia Commons

 

A taste of Japan

I have to admit that next to the mountains, the biggest draw Japan has for me is the food. In this aspect, Kanazawa delivers magnificently. Being by the Sea of Japan, there are particular kinds of seafood that are unique to Kanazawa; sushi lovers must not miss the nodoguro (black throated sea-perch), the different kinds of ebi (shrimp), the buri (yellowtail) and even the engawa (fluke fin) and melt-in-your-mouth chu-turo (medium fatty tuna). As seasons change, so does the sushi: if it’s winter be sure to try the snow crab.

Sampling shiro ebi (white shrimp) sushi in Mori Mori - a kaiten-zushi (conveyor belt sushi) restaurant near Kanazawa's train station.

One of the best places to experience Kanazawa is the Omicho Market — which is just 10 minutes away from the train station. Just ask for a sushi rice bowl (chirashi-zushi) or a selection of the day’s best catch (osusume). My favorite is the Mori Mori Sushi - a kaiten-zushi (conveyor-belt sushi) place near the train station. I loved it so much that I went there thrice during my recent three-day stay!
If you’re not into seafood, you will be pleased to hear that Kanazawa has a lot to offer beyond sushi. Vegetarians will love kaga yasai — 15 indigenous vegetables of Kanazawa that are turned into (and incorporated) in various local dishes. One of these dishes is jibuni — a really tasty duck soup that also ranks among the city’s popular delicacies.

Omicho Market. Photograph by Kimon Berlin on Wikimedia Commons

Ishikawa Prefecture being a rice-growing part of Japan, there are a lot of great sake in the city and one can do sake tasting in Kanazawa’s sake shops, restaurants, or izakayas. (Cultural note: Japan and the Philippines are both rice-growing countries but one main difference is Japan’s climate means there’s only one season for planting rice. Rice farmers end up making sake or working for sake factories during the months when they can’t grow rice.)

Of course, the usual Japan favorites are there too: matcha lovers can find matcha-flavored goodies everywhere, even in the convenience stores. Don’t get me started to matcha waffles and baumkuchen!  

 

Stopover or destination in itself

Beyond the city, moreover, there are attractions within the Hokoriku region for which Kanazawa can be a base. Two of the 100 Famous Mountains of Japan are within day-hiking range: Mt. Arashima in Fukui Prefecture and Hakusan which is just one bus ride away during the hiking season. Meanwhile, nearby Toyama is a gateway to the Japanese Alps — Murodo, Takayama, Kamikochi and beyond (Hikers should make sure to drop by the outlet store of Mont Bell in Honmachi - just 5 minutes  away from the Kanazawa train station)

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

4 peaks done in 10 days! ゴールデンウィーク10連休で4座! . 長期旅行はしなかったけど、「天気の良さそうな日に快晴予報の地域の山を登る」をテーマに、楽しく過ごせました。一緒に行ってくれた仲間のおかげ!レジャーの事だけ考えていられる、幸せな連休でした♡ . ①② Mt. Shibutsu #至仏山 ③④ Mt. Ryokami #両神山 ⑤⑥ Mt. Arashima #荒島岳 (📸by @arimuramasaaki , with @actibase ) ⑦⑧ Mt. Daibosatsu #大菩薩嶺 . . #hiking #trekking #trekkinginjapan #snowhiking #mtshibutsu #mtryokami #mtarashima #mtdaibosatsu #登山 #雪山登山 #登山女子 #山好き #ゴールデンウィーク #あっという間の連休 #晴天 #百名山

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Moreover, those traveling around Japan can use Kanazawa as a halfway point between the Kanto (Tokyo) and Kansai (Osaka and Kyoto) regions, and spend a day or two in Hokuriku. Whether as a stopover or a destination in itself, Kanazawa offers the best of Japan — far from the tourist crowds.