The temples, shrines and neighborhoods in this seaside town of half a million reflect Japan’s colorful past better than most Japanese cities, because Kanazawa, much like Kyoto, escaped destruction during WWII. The influence of the feudal lords and emperors who reigned for centuries is evident in the city’s culture, architecture and food.
Kanazawa is on the Sea of Japan, on the opposite side of the central island from Tokyo. In Japanese, the name means “marsh of gold,” thanks to an old peasant farmer who one day discovered gold leaf on the potatoes he was washing. Today, 99% of the nation’s gold leaf comes from the area. Some of it is even edible.
Bullet trains shorten the trip from Tokyo to just a little more than two hours. Pulling into Kanazawa’s station, visitors are greeted by the towering glass and steel Motenashi Dome and the equally massive, all-wood Tsuzumi-mon Gate, built to resemble traditional tsuzumi drums.
The Maeda clan ruled Kanazawa and surrounding lands for nearly three centuries until the Meiji Restoration restored imperial rule to Japan in 1868. At one point, the Maeda family controlled the largest feudal domain in the shogunate. The family’s low white castle, the moat, the large stone walls, the ponds and the gardens have been partially restored to look as they did in 1850. Striking horizontal roof gables protect the castle’s intricate wood carvings.
Directly across from the castle, on what had been Maeda family grounds, is the meticulously-manicured Kenrokuen Garden, one of Japan’s top three. It comes complete with cherry blossoms in the spring and spectacular foliage in the fall.
The Maeda clan was quite keen in their support of the arts. The peaceful D.T. Suzuki Museum with its simple, minimalist Water Mirror Garden reflects the philosopher’s theories of Zen Buddhism as a physical space.
The nearby 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art uses circular architecture dotted with numerous doors and entrances to symbolize the many ways art can be viewed. The permanent collection includes Leandro Ehrlich’s large-scale “Swimming Pool,” a senses-defying experience above and below the surface of the water that reminds us things are not always as they appear.
At the legendary Omicho market, the only rival to the just-picked farm produce is the fresh catches from the sea. Omicho has been crammed with traders buying and selling the day’s harvests for 300 years. Restaurants in the area do a brisk business selling sushi, Kanazawa curry and bowls of rice crowned with seafood.
For dessert, have some ice cream covered with Kanazawa’s specialty, edible gold leaf. Then shop for ornamental mizuhiki knots, lacquerware and paper umbrellas.
Among Kanazawa’s inviting neighborhoods is the Nagamachi Samurai District, its streets lined with earthen walls hiding the homes where former high-ranking Samurai lived. Nicknamed “the Ninja Temple,” Myoryuji Temple is filled with secret staircases, concealed spaces and hidden passageways dating back to 1643.
The three remaining Chaya teahouse districts in Kanazawa are also very well maintained. Many geisha teahouses still open every day.
Kanazawa is the gateway to the rugged, sea-swept Noto Peninsula where locals haul in great catches of buri, yellowtail, shrimp and black scraper. Seaside restaurants serve that bounty in hot pots called oden where it meets umami-rich dashi broth and vegetables. Enjoy with local sake, hot.
Accommodations run the gamut. Simple ryokans are Japanese cottages, usually with communal baths and thick woven straw mats, called tatami, on the floors. In addition, many fine western-style hotels dot the skyline. But for my money, I’ll take the Yuzuya Ryokan Kanazawa Ryokusone, up in the trees above the city. Seven well-appointed guest rooms, each based on a theme such as Japanese Dogwood or bamboo, terrific views of city and scenery, and an excellent restaurant.grand dame in the heart of Centro. The impressive former convent is filled with patios, gardens and all the amenities in an atmosphere of French savoir-faire.