Japan’s Kanazawa has cherry blossoms, geisha and ancient samurai past
Kanazawa is known as Japan’s “Little Kyoto” for a reason.
Up until the late 19th Century, the castle town of Kanazawa flourished under the powerful Maeda clan, who ruled over an ancient province then known as Kaga.
Cherry blossom petals fall in Nagamachi samurai district.
Today, Kanazawa is a lively modern city with a population of just under 500,000, located 250 miles northwest of Tokyo. It retains much of its Kaga past, which is why the Maeda’s old powerbase is gaining popularity as a travel alternative to Kyoto — with far fewer visitors. Kyoto receives more than 50 million domestic and international tourists annually, while Kanazawa gets around 8 million.
Since a bullet train connection was added in 2015, the city is only 2 1/2 hours by rail from Tokyo, making Kanazawa just as easy to get to as Kyoto.
A history of samurai & geisha
Many of Kanazawa’s most popular sites are historic, especially the preserved quarters like the narrow, earthen-walled streets of the Nagamachi samurai district and the rows of wooden buildings that make up the old Higashi Chaya entertainment district.
Geishas still perform in Higashi Chaya teahouses, but the heritage structures here now mostly house a mix of stores, cafes and restaurants.
Women in Higashi Chaya, Kanazawa, Japan.
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With Kenrokuen, the city has one of the Three Great Gardens of Japan. Built by the Maeda clan, this 11-hectare strolling-style garden features a large central pond and teahouses, but is best known for the distinctive yukitsuri rope and bamboo supports placed over its trees to protect them from snow in the winter. It is one of the most popular places in Kanazawa to see cherry blossoms bloom in the spring.
Yukitsuri ropes at Kenrokuen, one of Japan’s Three Great Gardens.
For a look at Kanazawa’s food and drink culture, stop by the Omicho Market. Established in the 1700s, Omicho has close to 200 stalls selling seafood, vegetables, tea, sake and confectioneries. The market’s restaurants are also good places to try sushi or kaisendon — a bowl of hot rice topped with raw seafood.
Shopping for gold leaf and kimonos
The Maeda clan were great patrons of culture. During their reign they funded the development of arts and crafts that are still prevalent today.
Most obvious is Kanazawa’s gold leaf (kinpaku) industry. The city produces more than 99 percent of Japan’s kinpaku, which was traditionally used to decorate temples, shrines, ornaments and other items.
Gold leaf decorates everything from temples to tea cups in Kanazawa.
In Higashi Chaya, stop by gold-leaf specialist stores Sakuda or Hakuza to see just how widespread kinpaku’s usage has become. This ultra-fine leaf is now found on cakes and ice creams and in cosmetics.
Near Kenrokuen garden, the Kaga Yuzen Kimono Center is the place to learn about the local variety of kimono dyeing called Kaga Yuzen. The center displays traditional kimono decorated with Kaga Yuzen designs, as well as contemporary items such as patterned wedding dresses and men’s shirts.
Young women in kimonos at Kanazawa’s Coming-of-Age ceremony, a celebration of those who turned 20 years old during the past year.
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On weekdays, artisan Kozo Morita can be seen at work in his workshop here, and not just designing kimono; he also uses Kaga Yuzen techniques to decorate guitars.
Culinary twists on tradition
Gold leaf on ice cream and kimono patterns on guitars aren’t the only ways Kanazawa tweaks tradition. Local craft brewery Oriental Brewing — which has gastropubs by Kanazawa Station, Higashi Chaya and Nagamachi — has incorporated the region’s roasted boucha tea into one of its stouts and yuzu citrus into an ale.
A cocktail from Furansu Cocktail Bar.
Courtesy of Furansu Cocktail Bar.
The city’s cocktail scene is equally creative. At Furansu Cocktail Bar, a laid-back cocktail bar near Nagamachi that’s run by French-Japanese brothers Nao and Seiguy Karasawa, the menu includes the Japanese Old Fashioned. It combines whisky infused with shiso (a plant in the mint family), a shiso sugar and a shiitake and nori (dried seaweed) bitter and is then finished with a sprinkling of edible gold leaf before it is smoked with cherry blossom chips.
Getting there: From Tokyo, take the JR Hokuriku Shinkansen Line (bullet train); the journey is approximately 2 1/2 hours.
Getting around: Almost all the main sights are served by the Kanazawa Loop Bus, which runs frequently throughout the day. With the 500-yen Day Pass, you get unlimited rides.
Stay: The 19th-century Asadaya in the city center is a classic ryokan — or traditional inn — with four tatami-matted guest rooms, a communal hot-spring onsen bath, inner garden and artful multi-course kaiseki dinners.
Or add a night just outside Kanazawa in the hot-spring resort town of Yamashiro Onsen. There, the luxuriously austere Beniya Mukayu — a Relais & Chateaux property — has gardens, a tea house and 16 suites with bamboo flooring, tatami mats and private hot-spring onsen. Guests must be at least seven years old.