Guide to Kanazawa

Kanazawa, the capital of Ishikawa Prefecture, on Japan’s central Honshu Island and famous for its well-preserved Edo-era (1603-1868) districts, art museums and regional handicrafts, is one of the overlooked jewels of Japanese tourism. Called “Little Tokyo” by locals, it hosts some breathtaking scenery, with beautifully preserved traditional neighborhoods.

Despite being relatively remote and less exposed to the public, it is the perfect place for you if you would like to see the best-preserved major Edo-period city in Japan.

Highlights

  • Eat exotic food with edible gold flakes on top in the Hakuza Shop.
  • Kenroku-en Garden is one of Japan’s best gardens.
  • Gold-leaf products are a must take-away from Kanazawa.
  • Kanazawa Castle has been reconstructed, after being burned down several times.
  • Omichi Market is home to much locally-caught seafood.

Travel to Kanazawa

Although home to some of the best places to visit in Japan, ‘Kanazawa’ is still hardly a familiar name to tourists. It is filled with interesting things, both historic and modern. The samurai, merchants, geisha, and lords have all left their mark there, in turn leaving a great impression on Japanese history and culture.

Aside from the popular landmarks, the food is what makes Kanazawa unique, particularly its seafood. You can eat good food at practically any price.

Good places to visit from Tokyo alongside Kanazawa are its neighbors, Takayama and Shirakawa-go. All three are popular stop-offs from Tokyo. Both of Kanazawa’s neighbors also offer breathtaking scenery and historic places to visit.

History of Kanazawa

The name Kanazawa means “marsh of gold”. It was derived from a legend, in which a peasant named Imohori Togoro made his living digging potatoes. He washed gold dust from the potatoes into a well, now called Kinjo Reitaku, earning it the name “Kanazawa”.

The city served as the seat of the Maeda clan, the second most powerful feudal clan next to the Tokugawa shogun or the central governor, during the Edo period.

The family's financial power, based on rice harvests, was invested in the promotion of culture and learning. This led to the development of traditional culture and a number of traditional activities, including handicrafts like gold leaf and kaga yuzen (silk dyeing).

Today, Kanazawa serves as the capital of Ishikawa Prefecture, on Japan’s central Honshu Island.

Top attractions in Kanazawa

Kanazawa is a city loaded with landmarks and attractions that can amaze tourists who come to visit. Here are some of the top attractions the city has to offer.

Kenroku-en Garden

When you come to Kanazawa, the number one thing you have to do is visit Kenroku-en Garden. It is ranked by the Japanese as one of the top three gardens in the country.

This is the place for you who yearn for fresh air, as you enjoy the ponds, fountains, and waterfalls in the garden, and enjoy the traditional craftsmanship with beautiful stone bridges and stone lanterns.

Kanazawa Castle

Kanazawa Castle is the place where the Maeda family resided and governed the Kaga clan, after they moved to Kanazawa back in 1583. Over the years, the castle burned down several times, but was then renovated and reconstructed.

Today, you can still freely roam around parts of the castle, though nothing remains of the original castle and the few buildings standing are much more recent reconstructions.

Nagamachi and Kaga Yuzen Silk Center

Nagamachi was a samurai district at the foot of the former Kanazawa Castle, where samurai and their families used to live. Some of the former samurai houses and their gardens have been restored and are also open for public viewing.

Yuzen is a dyeing technique characterized by beautiful designs, featuring subjects such as flowers and birds, and human figures. Kaga yuzen is characterized by designs of realistic natural beauty in five vivid tones called "Kaga gosai", and it frequently uses gradation dyeing called "bokashi."

Higashi Chaya District

The Higashi Chaya area is a lovely neighborhood filled with beautifully preserved geisha houses called chaya houses. A chaya is a house where visitors enjoy feasts and Japanese traditional performances, of Japanese dance, or Japanese instruments like the koto or the shamisen, for example.

Higashi Chaya District is the largest and by far the most interesting among the three Chaya districts in Kanazawa. Many of the chaya houses have now been converted into restaurants or teahouses.

Omicho Market

Omicho Market has been Kanazawa's largest fresh food market since the Edo period. It is a less crowded and more enjoyable market than Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji and more spacious than Kyoto’s Nishiki. Inside the market, you can find a large number of stores, including fish stores, vegetable stores, and grocery stores.

Most shops specialize in excellent local seafood and produce, but you can also find flowers, clothing, kitchen tools and more on sale. At some restaurants in the market you can sample some of the stuff you see on sale.

21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art

The 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, a circular building, 112.5 meters in diameter, with no façade or main entrance, focuses on art produced since 1980, and is heavy on installations, video and mixed-media pieces, much of it playful, energetic and thought-provoking.

You can see some of the museum exhibits for free. Since there are lots of hands-on exhibits, both adults and children can enjoy their time here.

Gold leaf in Kanazawa

Gold leaf production in Kanazawa can be traced back 400 years and today is one the city’s many flourishing traditional crafts with gold-leaf-decorated goods featuring heavily in the city’s souvenir stores.

The production of gold leaf started in Kanazawa at the end of the 16th century, when the Maeda family, who ruled the Kaga clan in feudal times, invited many artisans to Kanazawa.

Gold leaf is made by tirelessly beating out and stretching alloy of pure gold with minuscule traces of silver and copper. Thin sheets of alloy are then sandwiched between thin sheets of paper one sheet at a time, beaten and stretched, gradually becoming thinner and thinner, via this multi-stage process.

Cherry blossoms in Kanazawa

Kanazawa, with its fantastic gardens and green spaces, is the perfect place for enjoying Japan’s famous cherry blossoms. The blossoms usually bloom in the last week of March and the first two weeks of April. When they bloom, almost all the trees come into full bloom at the same time and stay that way for a week or more.

In some places the sakura blooming season offers the most magnificent views. The most famous is Kenroku-en Garden, Kanazawa’s best attraction. There are about 420 cherry trees in the garden, and in the best scenario, you can find them all blooming at the same time.

Kanazawa Castle is also another perfect spot for viewing the cherry blossoms. There are about 400 cherry trees on the castle grounds and at the peak of the season you can expect all of them to be blooming.

Getting around Kanazawa

Kanazawa is a relatively compact city, and there are a few means of transport that can get you around the city. Most of its important sights are within a 2-kilometer square, so you can cover most with these means of transport.

The first is by bus. Kanazawa has two bus services designed specifically for tourists that make loops around the city, stopping at all the major spots. You can buy a day-pass for 500 yen (about 4.5 US dollars).

The second method is by taxi. Taxis are surprisingly cheap and plentiful in Kanazawa. The drivers are also surprisingly used to dealing with foreigners. 1,000 yen (9 US dollars) can get you around most of the famous places around the city. There are taxis around Kanazawa Station, or you can flag them down from the street.

The third method is by bicycle. Kanazawa has a rental bicycle system called “Machi Nori” that allows you to pick up and drop off bicycles all over the city. It’s not typically the best way as the bicycles may not meet some people’s standards, but it’s doable.

Side trips from Kanazawa

Kanazawa makes for a great trip out of Tokyo. Its neighbors Shirakawa-go, Gokayama and Takayama are also good destinations. Let’s take a look at the attractions in the three neighbors before coming to Kanazawa.

Shirakawago and Gokayama

Shirakawa-go with its neighboring Gokayama was made a UNESCO world heritage site in 1995, famous for its traditional gassho-zukuri farmhouses, some of which are more than 250 years old.

Gassho-zukuri means "constructed like hands in prayer", as the farmhouses' steep thatched roofs resemble the hands of Buddhist monks pressed together in prayer. The roofs are made without nails, and provide a large attic space used for cultivating silkworms.

The architectural style was developed over many generations and was designed to withstand the large amounts of heavy snow that fall in the region during winter.

There are three villages making up Shirakawa-go, of which Ogimachi is the biggest and the main attraction. This place makes a perfect trip before going to Takayama.

Takayama

Takayama is a city in the mountainous Hida region of Gifu Prefecture that retains a traditional touch like few other Japanese cities, especially in its beautifully preserved old town. It ranks as one of the top candidates for destinations with a rural element.

In Takayama, a lot of places are worth visiting. They include Takayama Jinya, Hida Folk Village, and Matsuri no Mori. If you visit at certain times of year, you may also witness the Takayama Festival, one of Japan's three most beautiful festivals.

Kanazawa guided tour

In this tour, you will be accompanied by a local guide, very beneficial for tourists who have minimal knowledge of the place they are visiting. The guide will be able to provide up-to-date factual information and answer any questions you have about the attraction, and also ensure your safety in the different terrains of different attractions.

Full-day Kanazawa highlights

The first attraction you visit is the Kenroku-en garden, one of the top three gardens in Japan. Kanazawa Castle, next to the garden, will be the next spot. After that, visit Kagayuzen Kaikan where you can see demonstrations of the centuries-old Yuzen silk painting technique.

You will then visit the Nagamachi Samurai district. There you can enter preserved houses where samurai and their families used to reside. After that, visit the Higashi Chaya District. It is the largest and by far the most interesting of Kanazawa’s Geisha Districts. Many of the buildings along the central street now house cafes and shops.

Finally, visit the Shima teahouse. It is still an operating tea house, but opens its doors to the public. You can enjoy a cup of green tea here to finish the day.

Half-day Kanazawa traditional crafts experience

In this tour, you will experience making two of the crafts that Kanazawa is famous for.

The first is gold leaf, which is particularly famous in Kanazawa. Try your hand at decorating a small lacquer plate or a pair of chopsticks with this thin, sparkling, precious product.

Next, try experiencing the kaga yuzen, a form of kimono-cloth dyeing that is an exquisite Kanazawa specialty. You will decorate a handkerchief using this traditional technique. You get to keep your creations as souvenirs of this memorable day.

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