By Sara Wille. Posted on December 23, 2014
My husband and I went sightseeing in Kanazawa last April, and it wasn't long before it became one of my favorite places in Japan. WIth its walkable streets, creative spirit, rich history, and unique sights, Kanazawa is a romantic and colorful place to visit.
Kanazawa is located near the coast of the Sea of Japan. There's enough to see and do that you could easily spend two full days there. But if your itinerary is limited, it’s still worthwhile to try to see the highlights in one day. I recommend filling your day pack with a bottle of sake, some snacks and a small blanket. Wear your walking shoes, as it will be a 15-20 minute walk between each of these sights. (If you’re not able to walk, there’s a convenient Kanazawa Loop Bus with stops near all of these locations.)
Myoryuji, a.k.a. Ninja Temple
Start the day with an early tour of the unique Myoryu-ji Temple, also known as “Ninja Temple” because of its many secret doors and passages. It appears to be three stories tall from the outside, but there are actually seven levels nestled throughout the building. There’s even a hidden room that was designated as a place for samurai to commit harakiri (a ritual suicide reserved for samurai).
The tour through the inside was fascinating to me, and my inner child was giddy to see such an intricately designed secret network. Reservations are required for the 45-minute guided tour, which is only in Japanese. If you request an English guidebook, you can easily follow along as you walk through the temple.
Nagamachi Samurai District
Just a short walk from the temple, Nagamachi is one of only a few remaining samurai districts in Japan. Visit this area to get a sense of how the warriors lived during the Edo period. Notice the dirt walls that line the streets, and don’t miss a walk through the restored Nomura Samurai House. You’ll see the living quarters of this wealthy family, a garden with 400-plus-year-old trees, and a small museum that displays swords and other belongings of the Nomura family. My favorite part of the museum was a thank-you note Mr. Nomura received for killing a high ranked soldier and then presenting the soldier's head to the officials.
Being approximately five miles from the Sea of Japan, Kanazawa has exceptional seafood. Much of the seafood moves through Omi-Cho Market, where you can wander the aisles lined with the freshest fish, vegetables, tea, flowers, and other goods. Before you leave, grab lunch at one of the restaurants inside the market for what may be the best sushi of your life. It's the best sushi I've had so far!
Kenroku-en is one of the three most esteemed gardens in Japan, and the only one of those in the Chubu region. The strolling-style garden is truly spectacular, Japanese landscaping at its best. The city view from the garden is also worth seeking.
(If you visit during cherry blossom season, walk the garden during the day and consider returning after dark when the trees are illuminated.)
Ishikawa Prefectural Museum of Traditional Arts and Crafts
As you roam the garden, try to make your way to the southeast border of the garden, where you’ll find the Ishikawa Prefectural Museum of Traditional Arts and Crafts. Kanazawa is well-known for a multitude of handicrafts, and this small but comprehensive museum will allow you to see a little bit of everything. From gold leaf and lacquerware to folk toys and taiko drums, the variety and craftsmanship on display here is captivating.
Kanazawa Castle Park
Enter the Kanazawa Castle grounds via Ishikawa-mon Gate, at the northern corner of Kenroku-en, for the most dramatic approach. During cherry blossom season, you’ll likely see many groups of family and friends having hanami (flower-viewing) picnics in the park, under the pink and white trees.
As my husband and I searched for our own picnic spot, we were approached by a Japanese man who kindly invited us to join his group of friends. We welcomed this spontaneous development and fortunately had a bottle of sake on hand to share with everyone. Spending the afternoon with that group was so much fun; we stayed for several hours chatting and eating.
If the weather permits, you can break out your own sake, snacks and blanket for a picnic any time of year. There’s a view of the mountains near the northwest corner of the park that makes for a beautiful tableau. (Or, if it’s too cold for a picnic, head over to the geisha district earlier for a cup of matcha at Kaikaro Teahouse).
Higashi Chaya District
There are three geisha districts in Kanazawa, but the biggest is the Higashi Chaya District. Visit Shima Teahouse, a restored tea house/museum, or Kaikaro Teahouse, which is still operating and serves tea to the public.
During our visit, my husband and I were lucky to be invited to a koto concert at a teahouse along the sakura-lined river. Shortly after we sat down, we were presented with hot tea and a Japanese sweet. The musician, wearing a colorful kinomo, played Japanese folk songs in front of a window overlooking the river and flowering trees. It's hard for me to put the beauty and excitement of that experience into words.
I left Kanazawa already looking forward to my next visit. This beautiful city, full of art and history, deserves to be on your list of places to see in Japan.
There are plenty of other activities to do and places to see if you have more time in Kanazawa, including the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa Noh Museum, and the Kanazawa Yasue Gold-Leaf Museum. You can also try your hand at making traditional crafts from Kanazawa, like lacquerware, porcelain painting, silk dyeing, applying gold leaf or making folk dolls.
Sara Wille is an American living in Nagoya, drinking as much tea as she can and enjoying all of the cute things Japan has to offer. She believes that Japan has something for everyone and hopes to persuade others to experience this amazing country.