Art, history and food lovers, dreaming of travelling to Japan to ski and soak in culture when it’s once again safe to adventure, we have the place for you. Kanazawa.
Then when you hit up Kanazawa, which is also the capital city of Ishikawa Prefecture, you’ll discover one of Japan’s oldest and best-preserved towns. Full of the kind of culture that makes it feel like a little ‘showcase’ of what life was like in ancient times.
Historically one of Japan’s most powerful cities, Kanazawa was the home to the Maeda Clan during the Edo Period from 1603 to 1868 (this’ll be important later, trust us). It was thankfully left mostly untouched during World War II and now has the most incredible samurai and geisha historical artefacts along with landscaped gardens and modern museums, all found on the stunning coastline of the Japan Sea.
It’s the ultimate day trip from the town of Nagano, or stay a few nights, either way here’s our guide of the must-see spots in this stunner of a location.
Kenrokuen Garden is one of the most famous draw cards for Kanazawa, and is best-known as one of Japan’s Three Great Gardens; the others are Korakuen in Okayama and Kairakuen in Mito. It was built by the Kaga Clan in the mid-17th century and is one of the most famous pond gardens of the Edo period.
Don’t worry if you’re here in the winter; the garden is beautiful year-round, but especially magical in spring for cherry blossom season, or autumn for the autumn leaves. It’s also located right in the centre of Kanazawa City, which is handy as you’ll likely want to go back several times over.
Take in the view from nearby Seisonkaku Villa, one of the best remaining samurai villas in Japan and built in the last years of the Edo Period. The roof was specially built without supports that would interrupt the view, making for perfect views over the garden.
Museum of Contemporary Art
Take a glimpse at the modern in the middle of a city full of the old – the perfect contrast. The 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art opened in 2004, designed by Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa (SANAA) – the same world-renowned architects who worked on the Louvre.
This museum has received numerous awards, including the Golden Lion at the 2004 Venice Biennale of Architecture and The Pritzker Architecture Prizein 2010. It’s most famous for Leandro Erlich’s swimming pool, a very very cool optical illusion which had a brief stint at MoMA in New York before being brought to Kanazawa.
Nagamachi Samurai Residence
Nagamachi is the city’s famous samurai district and still contains remaining samurai residences. As you wander through the earthen walls, narrow laneways and water canals, it’s a true throwback to a time when samurais roamed the streets as the highest-ranking social caste of the Edo period.
One of the main attractions is the restored samurai residence, Nomura-ke, which displays the lifestyle and artefacts from that time. There’s also the Shinise Kinenkan Museum, which is a restored pharmacy displaying the lives of the merchant class that came after the decline of the samurai.
There are a lot of great restaurants also scattered around this area, along with Kanazawa Castle, which was rebuilt in 2001 and provides an incredible look at what life would have been like inside a Japanese castle back in its heyday.
Higashi Chaya District
One of the most popular sightseeing areas in Kanazawa, Higashi Chaya-gai is the city’s famous teahouse and geisha district. The history of this area goes back to 1820, and the streets remain stunningly well-preserved; it’s especially worth a stroll at night, where you can take in the sights under old-fashioned lanterns as you explore among the wooden-slatted roofs.
The gold leaf experience
Kanazawa is famous for the city’s love of arts and crafts, from pottery and kimono dying to lacquerware and gold leaf work. In fact, the city still accounts for more than 99% of Japan’s gold leaf production, from when the tradition kicked off in around 1593.
You’ll still see the traditional techniques in town, passed down from generation to generation; and the Haikuichi stores in the area even offer the opportunity to use the ancient practice and gold-leaf your own item to take home as a souvenir.
Kanazawa City food and drinks
Did we mention the food? Oh, the food. You haven’t tried sushi until you’ve sampled the sushi made in Kanazawa from the fresh fish that has been harvested directly from the port – perferably from the fish market. Add traditional Kaga vegetables and sake from Ishikawa Prefecture, and you have a meal made in historical Japanese heaven.
There’s also a famous bar hop that takes you to Kanazawa Central Gastronomic Street, a drinking area that retains the atmosphere of the Showa era from 1926. Local guides will take you to the best spots, where you’ll be able to chat directly to restaurant owners about their ingredients of choice, how the sake is made and how the seafood is sourced.