Kanazawa: Much More Than Just Kenroku-en
January 20, 2017
As soon as you step off your train at Kanazawa Station you get the feeling you’ve found something special. The countless geometric lines of the glassy roof lend a feeling of vast open spaces, matched in grandeur only by the striking dark wood torii that comprises the station’s main entrance. The scene makes for a dramatic welcome to a city with a subdued but rich personality.
Stop by the visitor information center inside the station and grab yourself a map. Then head out into Hokuriku’s Little Kyoto, a place that half a million people call home.
Kanazawa’s Main Attractions
Kenroku-en is rightfully designated as one of Japan's three most beautiful gardens. Originally the outer garden of Kanazawa Castle, Kenroku-en is most satisfying before the tour buses descend, so do your best to get there at opening time (7:00 am March to mid-October, 8:00am through February, 310 yen). From Kanazawa Station, Kenroku-en is about a 30-minute walk. A taxi gets you there in 10-15 minutes for around 1,000 yen. The ultra-convenient Kanazawa Loop and Kenroku-en Shuttle buses don’t get going until about 8:30, but if you do go by bus get off at Kenroku-en-shita.
Gyokusen-en sits adjacent to Kenroku-en, offering a maze of forested paths lined with countless stone lanterns and one of Japan’s oldest teahouses, the Saisetsu-tei. Named after Gyokusenin, wife of Toshinaga Maeda, this garden was not open to the public until 1971. Entry can now be had for 700 yen, from 9am to 5pm.
Kanazawa Castle was the seat of the powerful Maeda Clan, second only to the Tokugawa domain in terms of size and wealth. The castle was ravaged by fire several times from 1583 to the end of the Edo Period, with only three structures surviving past 1881. One of these is the Ishikawa-mon, the gate that now serves as the main entrance to the castle grounds.
Recent reconstructions have resurrected some of Kanazawa-jo’s past glory. The Hishi and Tsuzuki Yagura watchtowers and the Gojukken Nagaya storehouse that connects them have been rebuilt using traditional techniques and materials. They contain displays of traditional carpentry, and comprise the only parts of the castle where an admission fee is charged. The reconstructed Kahoku-mon, the castle's original main entrance, contains a second-floor display detailing the gate's history and construction. In 2015 the Hashizume-mon Gate and the Gyokuseninmaru Garden became Kanazawa-jo’s latest additions.
Kanazawa Castle is open every day from 7:00 to 18:00 March 1 to October 15, and 8:00 to 17:00 October 16 through February.
The Best of the Rest
The Kanazawa Loop Bus makes it easy to tour the town. Buses run every fifteen minutes in both directions, with day passes available for only 500 yen (sold right on the bus). If your time and itinerary are limited, the Kenrokuen Shuttle offers a more direct back-and-forth route between the station and Kenroku-en.
Ōmichō Ichiba is Kanazawa's largest fresh food market. Dating back to the Edo Era, the Ichiba is at its liveliest during the morning hours through lunchtime. The market has no official closing time, although many of the 200 shops and stalls will be shuttered on Sundays, National Holidays and Wednesdays. Jump off the Loop Bus at Musashigatsuji bus stop.
Nagamachi , the samurai district that was once laid out at the feet of Kanazawa Castle, maintains its original atmosphere with its preserved samurai residences, private entrance gates, narrow walled alleys and winding water canals. The centerpiece of the district is Nomura-ke, a restored samurai residence exhibiting items and artifacts that speak to the lifestyle of the era when samurai were prosperous. In contrast is the Shinise Kinenkan Museum, a restored pharmacy testifying to the rise of the merchant class at the end of the samurai era.
The district has a few other museums and restored structures, as well as a number of shops and restaurants scattered throughout. A leisurely walk is recommended.
Myoryuji Temple, while commonly known as Ninjadera, actually had nothing to do with ninja. But the temple's many deceptive defenses – hidden tunnels, secret rooms, and a labyrinth of corridors and staircases – were enough to merit the nickname. Located in the Teramachi District, Myoryuji Temple (1,000yen, open 9am – 4:30pm [4pm in winter] with irregular closings) is a five-minute walk from the Hirokoji bus stop.
The Higashi Chaya (Geisha) District is the largest and most interesting of Kanazawa’s three Edo Era entertainment districts – neighborhoods crammed with chaya teahouse establishments where guests enjoyed the artistry of singing and dancing geisha. Two of these teahouses, Shima and Kaikaro, are open to the public. Other buildings along the district’s main street now house cafes and shops. Stop by Hakuza for a look at some of Kanazawa’s exquisite gold leaf products, as well as a traditional tea ceremony room completely covered in gold leaf.
Kanazawa boasts its fair share of museums, with a number of them, including the Prefectural Art Museum, Prefectural History Museum, Honda Museum and 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, concentrated around Kenroku-en.
Kanazawa is accessible via the Hokuriku Shinkansen as well as various trains and highway buses running from Kyoto, Takayama, Nagoya, Osaka and Tokyo. Peruse this page for some info on the more popular routes. If your schedule allows, the people of Kanazawa would love to see you.
All photos provided by Kanazawa City
Kevin Kato has hiked, biked, boated and locomoted through forty countries across six continents. He has a Master's Degree in Forensic Science in a box in a closet somewhere. He presently lives, writes and tries to keep up with his three kids in the mountains of Nagano, Japan.