Kanazawa is beautiful at this time of the year. It’s beautiful at any time of the year, but now, the air is crisp and cold, the trees are burning bright reds and yellows, and the snow crab is sweet, juicy and ready for eating.
Famed for its delicious seafood, ancient culture and contemporary art scene, Kanazawa should be on every traveller to Japan’s must-visit list in my opinion. Lying on the Japan Sea side of the island, and only a two hour train from Kyoto (JR Thunderbird) or three from Tokyo (Shinkansen) both routes covered by the JR Pass, it’s a much more laid back town with a quaint and charming feel, steeped in history and natural beauty.
Always an exciting hub of craftsmanship and creativity, Kanazawa has gained some popularity in the past few years as a must-see destination, but it will still be far less busy than Kyoto or even Nara, and just as beautiful. Here’s my favourite way to spend 24 hours in this beautiful part of Japan…
Train has always been my favourite way to travel in Japan. Clean, spacious and always on time (I think I’ve had one delay in my four years here, aside from major shutdowns due to typhoons, which is a relative rarity in a country that actually experiences quite a few mega storms), train travel here is easy and often strewn with stunning scenery outside the window – another positive point and a great way to see more of the rural beauty of the country. Arrival into Kanazawa by Train is recommended and very convenient. The modern station building is probably not what one expects for such a famed historical town, but it’s a great showcase of the harmony between old and new that the city is rather good at adopting, particularly in the arts, which includes the 21st Century Modern Art Museum, the first port-of-call in our 24 hour sojourn.
Filled with contemporary works that complement regional traditional arts and revitalize the local community, the 21st Century Modern Art Museum is not only at the forefront of exhibition curation, but the architectural design itself is a sight to behold. Designed by Sanaa, the building is an ode to a quest for ethereal lightness. Various galleries and community facilities are arranged in a maze of white cubic pavilions that allow visitors to drift through, taking in the sights and sense of serenity of external landscapes through the surrounding body of glass. As part of an inter-museum relationship Kanazawa 21 is collaborating with Benesse Art Site Naoshima and Mori Art Museum, Tokyo to bring visitors a “Museum Link Pass,” that is valid at all three museums and offers a small present and discounted admission fees for entry into all three sites.
If the arts is your thing, be sure to visit the Ishikawa Prefectural Art Museum and the D.T Suzuki Museum that form a cultural cluster around the 21st Century Modern Art Museum and offer equally impressive architecture and content. The Prefectural Art Museum focuses on home-grown Japanese talent, particularly artists and creators local to the area, both up-and-coming and well-established, while the D.T Suzuki Museum is the spot for silent contemplation on the life and works of philosopher Daisetzu Suzuki. Trust me, you don’t need to have a pre-existing interest in Buddhist philosophy to enjoy this place, the architecture alone is reason enough to visit and the space just radiates zen and inspires anyone to indulge in some self-reflection.
From the museums, it’s a short walk to Kenroku-en, one of Japan’s most beautiful gardens. Meander through moss, winding streams and manicured hills to appreciate the garden’s beauty from every angle, just the way it was intended in this ‘stroll-style’ setup. Adopting gardening techniques from different periods, Kenroku-en stands as one of the three most beautiful gardens in Japan (along with Kairaku-en in Mito and Koraku-en in Okayama).
Whilst the garden may tempt most, Kanazawa is also known for its castle, whose worn stone walls beckon and enrapture visitors with a vastness that makes for some very dramatic photo-taking. Much of the castle has been restored and rebuilt after damage from fires and fights over its (almost) 500 year history. Still, the architecture is sympathetic to the original and I think worth a wander before heading to the central fish market for some lunch.
Omicho Market, Kanazawa’s main place to buy fresh food since the Edo period is the perfect pit stop for lunch. With over 200 stores selling everything from sushi (Kanazawa is renowned for its delicious fish), local tofu, vegetables and even cookware and kitchen tools if you want to pick up a present, this is a cheap and cheerful sustenance option before heading to an afternoon of weaving through the maze of Higashi Chaya’s small streets and traditional architecture.
Stunning flagstone streets and pretty wooden façades epitomize the rustic charm of Kanazawa’s ancient entertainment district. The area, once home to multiple ‘ochaya’, venues where geisha would entertain, are now home to restaurants, shops and museums. Some still function as geisha entertaining premises too. The area is famed for its gold leaf production and a number of stores in the Higashi Chaya district sell souvenirs, from budget to boutique to high-end and there’s a stunning lacquerware shop, Kihachi, that I fell in love with on my trip (my wallet no so much)…
After a full day of exploring everything Kanazawa has to offer, a comfy bed and a good night’s sleep are in order. My recommendations for places to stay are limited in the city, but if you can bag a night at one of these it will be the icing on a very delicious cake of a trip.
Only two rooms in a traditional machiya style hotel in the heart of Higashi Chaya, this luxury little bolt hole offers a great breakfast and dinner in a stylish setting with western comforts. It’s my top pick for the town.
A very cool hostel style residence, this place is budget friendly and also does offer some private Japanese style rooms. There’s a great bar/restaurant too and it’s in the centre of the city so perfect as an exploration base.