Kanazawa, Japan

Posted by on May 17, 2013

Japan - Kanazawa

Suzuki. Kawasaki. Yamaha. When I first heard the word “Kanazawa,” it reminded me of a kind of motorcycle. Actually, it is one of Japan’s best-preserved cities of the Edo Period, which is the period in Japanese history between 1603 and 1868 when Japanese society was under the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate (i.e. Shogun!) This period was characterized by economic growth, strict social order, and an increase in both environmental protection and popular enjoyment of arts and culture. The shogunate came to an end with the Meiji Restoration in May, 1868 after the fall of Edo.

Kanazawa has an unusual number of cultural attractions for a city its size, including not only historical sites, but fabulous art museums and galleries. It is also part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network as a City of Crafts and Folk Art. Regarding food, Kanazawa lies near the north coast of Honshu island, between the hot south and cold north currents, yielding an abundance of delectably delicious sea creatures, so seafood is everywhere, in many cases, still swimming or squirming.

Kanazawa is just enough out of the way to discourage Western tourists on a standard two week trip; about 4.5 hours from Tokyo, 2.5 hours from Kyoto, and not conveniently in between. Interestingly, it is a destination for a large number of Japanese tourists, so we correctly assumed it was well worth a visit.

While it has a few shrines and temples, Kanazawa is notable for the preserved architecture and “modern museum” feel of the samurai district and a rich, multi-century history of merchant and early geisha traditions from as far back as the 1400s.

We were initially surprised to see that Kanazawa is a very modern city. The train station is a contemporary steel and wood structure suggesting a fusion between old and new, and the city emanates that “fusion” feeling throughout. The downtown shopping district is jeweled with designer stores like Gucci, Marc Jacobs, Sisley, Hermes, Louis Vuitton and others, as though the wealth carried over; Kanazawa was one of the wealthiest feudal kingdoms in recently ancient Japan. (Can I say “recently ancient?)

The city is currently most famous for its garden Kenroku-en, the former castle garden that dates from the 17th century, and identified by the Japanese as one of Japan’s top three gardens.  What makes a top garden according to Japanese aesthetic? An optimal combination of the six attributes required for perfection: seclusion, spaciousness, artificiality (we would probably translate this as having a certain “manicured” quality) antiquity, abundant water, and broad views; on a clear day you can see the Sea of Japan.

Another notable attraction of Kanazawa is the Kanazawa Castle ruin complex, at which we learned a ton about construction in an earthquake zone. Seriously, the complex joint system of buildings built here in the 1600’s is a sight to behold. The rebuilt castle is now a realistic replica, and a short animated film demonstrating the engineering of these structures was so awesome we watched it twice.

We spent two nights in Kanazawa in a “traditional Japanese ryokan,” meaning that it was someone’s house that is run like an inn, with tatami sleeping mats, shared bathrooms, and seating on the floor. We loved that you left your shoes just inside the font door, in a foyer with shoe cubbies and slippers. Our inn was a short walk from the castle ruins and Kenroku-en, in what seemed to be the entertainment district with many restaurants and small parks.

This was our first Japanese city experience outside of Tokyo, and while I love the megalopolis, it was nice to spend time in a smaller, more accessible town.

We spent hours getting lost in the castle ruins and Duke’s favorite, the Samurai District, which was a part of town in which many of the high and mid-ranking Samurai lived during the height of the Edo period. A restored Samurai house with a gorgeous garden was the highlight of our second day, along with traditional Japanese sweets bought from a traditional sweet shop.

A note on the “sweets:” Japanese junk food might explain why all of the Japanese seem so slim. Desserts are not actually that sweet, at least not by American standards. The emphasis seems to be more on the texture (gelatinous is favored) and presentation (detailed and beautiful is the norm, along with meticulous packaging.) While Japanese cuisine is probably my favorite overall, more preferred than even Thai, I am not partial to the Japanese desserts, unless it is matcha ice cream (also not very sweet) or red bean filled buns, which tend to be a little sweeter, but nothing compared to an American doughnut.

Two days seemed the right amount of time to stay in Kanazawa, although we missed the Contemporary Art Museum. If we’d planned our time better, we would have been able to squeeze it in, but it was worth it to get lost in the labyrinthine streets of the historic districts.

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