Explore Central Honshu
Back in the mid-nineteenth century KANAZAWA (金沢), meaning “golden marsh”, was Japan’s fourth-largest city, built around a grand castle and the beautiful garden Kenroku-en. Today, the capital of Ishikawa-ken continues enthusiastically to cultivate the arts and contains attractive areas of well-preserved samurai houses and geisha teahouses. Its modern face is ably represented by the impressive 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa – all up, this is the one place you shouldn’t miss on the Sea of Japan coast.
Kanazawa’s heyday was in the late fifteenth century, when a collective of farmers and Buddhist monks overthrew the ruling Togashi family, and the area, known as Kaga (a name still applied to the city’s exquisite crafts, such as silk-dyeing and lacquerware, and its refined cuisine), became Japan’s only independent Buddhist state. Autonomy ended in 1583, when the daimyō Maeda Toshiie was installed as ruler by the warlord Oda Nobunaga, but Kanazawa continued to thrive as the nation’s richest province, churning out five million bushels of rice a year.
Having escaped bombing during World War II, traditional inner-city areas, such as Nagamachi with its samurai houses and the charming geisha teahouse district of Higashi Chaya, remain intact and are a joy to wander around.
Kanazawa can be used as a base to visit other places in Ishikawa-ken, including the Noto Hantō, the rugged peninsula north of the city and a great place to enjoy seaside vistas and a slower pace of life. To the south, in neighbouring Fukui-ken, is the working monastery Eihei-ji, one of Japan’s most atmospheric temples.Read More
Early morning or late afternoon are the best times for experiencing Kanazawa’s star attraction, Kenroku-en (兼六園), at its most tranquil, otherwise you’re bound to have your thoughts interrupted by a megaphone-toting guide and party of tourists – such is the price of visiting one of the official top three gardens in Japan (Kairaku-en in Mito and Kōraku-en in Okayama are the other two). Kenroku-en – developed over two centuries from the 1670s – is rightly regarded as the best.
Originally the outer grounds of Kanazawa castle, and thus the private garden of the ruling Maeda clan, Kenroku-en was opened to the public in 1871. Its name, which means “combined six garden”, refers to the six horticultural graces that the garden embraces: spaciousness, seclusion, artificiality, antiquity, water and panoramic views. It’s a lovely place to stroll around, with an ingenious pumping system that keeps the hillside pools full of water and the fountains – including Japan’s first – working. There are many carefully pruned and sculpted pine trees and sweeping views across towards Kanazawa’s geisha district Higashi Chaya.
In the garden’s northeast corner is the elegant Seison-kaku (成巽閣), a two-storey shingle-roofed mansion built in 1863 by the daimyō Maeda Nariyasu as a retirement home for his mother. Look out for paintings of fish, shellfish and turtles on the wainscots of the shōji sliding screens in the formal guest rooms downstairs. The view from the Tsukushi-no-rōka (Horsetail Corridor) across the mansion’s own raked-gravel garden is particularly enchanting, while upstairs the decorative style is more adventurous, using a range of striking colours and materials including, unusually for a traditional Japanese house, glass windows, imported from the Netherlands. These were installed so that the occupants could look out in winter at the falling snow.
21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art
21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art
Highlighting a forward-thinking attitude that had previously been obscured by the city’s love of the traditional arts is the excellent 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art (金沢２１世紀美術館), opposite Kenroku-en’s southwest entrance.
The hyper-modern design by the architectural practice SANAA – a circle of glass embracing a series of galleries, a library and a free crèche – is like a giant geometry puzzle and perfectly suited to the multiple uses of the facility. Exhibitions frequently change, although there are some specially commissioned works on permanent display. James Turrell’s Blue Planet Sky is a great place to relax and watch the clouds float by, while Leandro Elrich’s Swimming Pool encourages fun interaction between viewers around the pool’s edge and those walking beneath. The twelve tuba-shaped tubes that sprout out of the lawns surrounding the gallery are by the German artist Florian Claar; speak into one and the sound comes out of another.
Nearby is Kanazawa Nō Museum, shining light on the most refined of Japan’s dramatic arts. On the ground floor is a virtual nō stage around which you can walk as if you were in a play. Upstairs are prime examples of nō’s ornate costumes and inscrutable masks.
Kanazawa-jo and around
Kanazawa-jo and around
From Kenroku-en’s northernmost exit a footbridge leads to the Ishikawa-mon, a towering eighteenth-century gateway to the castle, Kanazawa-jō (金沢城). There’s been a fortification on the Kodatsuno plateau since 1546, but the castle in its present form dates back mainly to the early seventeenth century. In 2001, part of the inner enclosure was rebuilt using traditional methods and plans from the Edo period. These included the three-storey, diamond-shaped Hishi Yagura and Hashizume-mon Tsuzuki Yagura watchtowers, the Gojukken Nagaya corridor linking them, some of the earthen walls, and the Hashizume bridge and gate leading to the enclosure. Inside the buildings you can see the intricate joinery and inspect the one-tenth-scale skeletal model carpenters used to master the complexities of the task.
Parts of the original castle are within the grounds, as well as an attractive modern garden with traditional elements – an interesting contrast to Kenroku-en. If you head for the Imori-zaka entrance at the southwest corner of the grounds, you’ll emerge near the back of the Oyama-jinja (尾山神社), a large shrine dedicated to the first Maeda lord, Toshiie. The shrine is fronted by the Shinmon, an unusual square-arched gate with multicoloured stained glass in its upper tower, designed in 1875 with the help of Dutch engineers and once used as a lighthouse to guide ships towards the coast.
Alternatively, returning to Ishikawa-mon and Kenroku-en’s north exit, head along the garden’s eastern flank, to the small traditional garden, Gyokusen-en (玉泉園). Built on two levels on a steep slope, this quiet garden has many lovely features, including mossy stone paths leading past two ponds and a mini waterfall. For ¥500 extra you can enjoy green tea and a sweet in the main villa’s tearoom. Next to the garden at the Kaga Yūzen Traditional Industry Centre, or Kaga Yūzen Dentō Sangyō Kaikan (加賀友禅伝統産業会館), you can watch artists painting beautiful designs on silk, then try your own hand at this traditional Kanazawa craft or dress in a kimono made from the dyed material.
Scenic Nagamachi (長町), west of Kōrinbo, is a compact area of twisting cobbled streets, gurgling streams and old houses, protected by thick mustard-coloured earthen walls, topped with ceramic tiles. This is where samurai and rich merchants once lived. Many of the traditional buildings remain private homes but one that is open to the public is Nomura House (野村家), worth visiting principally for its compact but beautiful garden with flowing carp-filled stream, waterfall and stone lanterns. The rich, but unflashy materials used to decorate the house reveal the wealth of the former patrons and, in keeping with the culture of the time, there is a simple teahouse where you can enjoy macha and a sweet for ¥350.
Also of interest is the Shinise Kinenkan (老舗記念館) a small museum in a handsome, spacious pharmacy and old merchant home. Upstairs, examples of the city’s various handicrafts are displayed, including an amazing flower display made entirely of sugar, and intricate designs of the gift decorations called mizuhiki. At Nagamachi Yūzenkan, 2-6-16 Nagamachi (長町友禅館), on the far western side of Nagamachi, you can learn more about the yūzen silk-dyeing process, paint your own design or buy pieces of the colourful fabric.
Higashi Chaya and around
Higashi Chaya and around
Kanazawa is the only place outside of Kyoto to support the old-style training of geisha. Of the three districts in which this happens, Higashi Chaya (東茶屋), a fifteen-minute walk northeast from Kenroku-en across the Asana-gawa, is the largest and most scenic.
Several old teahouses are open to the public. The Ochaya Shima (お茶屋志摩) is the most traditional, while opposite is Kaikarō (懐華樓), decorated in a more modern style, including an unusual Zen rock garden made entirely of broken chunks of glass and a tearoom with gilded tatami mats. At both you can take tea (without geisha, unfortunately) for a small extra fee. Tea is also part of the deal at the venerable Shamisen-no-Fukushima (三味線の福島), where you can learn to pluck the Japanese stringed instrument, the shamisen. Walk off all that tea by exploring the scores of temples nestling at the foot of Utatsuyama in the north area of Higashi Chaya.
On the south side of the Asanagawa bridge is the smaller, but equally scenic Kazue-machi Chaya geisha district; there’s a teahouse you can stay in here. Five minutes’ walk south of here is the Ōhi Museum (大樋美術館), displaying and selling exquisite examples of amber-glazed pottery refined over four centuries for the urasenke style of tea ceremony.
Nishi Chaya and Myoryu-ji
Nishi Chaya and Myoryu-ji
The third of Kanazawa’s pretty geisha districts, Nishi Chaya, is on the south side of the Sai-gawa, ten minutes’ walk from the distinctive iron bridge Sai-gawa Ohashi. It’s less commercial than Higashi Chaya – to see inside the beautifully decorated teahouse Hana-no-Yado (華の宿) you need only buy a coffee or macha.
Five minutes’ walk east of Nishi Chaya, in the temple-packed Teramachi (寺町) district, you’ll find Myōryū-ji (妙立寺), also known as Ninja-dera. Completed in 1643 and belonging to the Nichiren sect of Buddhism, this temple is associated with the Ninja assassins because of its many secret passages, trick doors and concealed chambers, including a lookout tower that once commanded a sweeping view of the surrounding mountains and coast. It’s necessary to book a tour to look around the temple, however the guides barely make an effort, so don’t make this a priority.
Should you hunger for further cultural enrichment, Kanazawa has many more museums, several of which are clustered around Kenroku-en. The best is the informative Ishikawa Prefectural Museum for Traditional Products and Crafts, or Ishikawa-kenritsu Dentō-Sangyō Kōgeikan (石川県立伝統産業工芸館), displaying prime contemporary examples of Kanazawa’s rich artistic heritage, including lacquerware, dyed silk, pottery, musical instruments and fireworks. None of the articles is for sale but all have a price tag, so if you take a fancy to one of the gold leaf and lacquer Buddhist family altars, for example, you’ll know that it costs ¥4.5 million.
The Ishikawa Prefectural History Museum, or Ishikawa-kenritsu Rekishi Hakubutsukan (石川県立歴史博物館), housed in striking red-brick army barracks buildings dating from 1910, has displays including a detailed miniature reconstruction of a samurai parade, a grainy black-and-white film of Kanazawa from the early twentieth century, and a reconstruction of a silk-spinning factory.
On the other side of the neighbouring Honda Museum, the Ishikawa Prefectural Museum of Art, or Ishikawa-kenritsu Bijutsukan (石川県立美術館), has beautiful examples of calligraphy, kimono, pottery, lacquerware and other relics of the Maeda clan, displayed along with a more eclectic collection of contemporary local art. There are usually special exhibitions held here, which cost extra.
Jutting out like a gnarled finger into the Sea of Japan is the Noto Hantō (能登半島), the name of which is said to derive from an Ainu word, nopo, meaning “set apart”. The peninsula’s rural way of life, tied to agriculture and fishery, is certainly worlds away from fast-paced, urban Japan – there’s little public transport here so the area is best explored by car or bicycle. The rugged and windswept west coast has the bulk of what constitutes the Noto Hantō’s low-key attractions, while the calmer, indented east coast harbours several sleepy fishing villages, where only the lapping of waves and the phut-phut of boat engines breaks the silence.
The West Coast
Travelling up the peninsula’s west coast from Kanazawa, drive past the wide, sandy beach Chiri-hama (千里浜), cluttered with day-trippers and their litter, and head briefly inland to the alleged UFO-hotspot of HAKUI (羽咋). Here, in a suitably saucerish hall near the station, you’ll find Cosmo Isle Hakui (コスモアイル羽咋), a fascinating museum devoted to space exploration which houses a great deal of authentic paraphernalia, most impressively the Vostok craft that launched Yuri Gagarin into space in 1961 – it looks like a giant cannonball.
Nearby, set in a wooded grove near the sea, is Keta-taisha (気多大社), Noto’s most important shrine. The complex dates from the 1650s, although it is believed that the shrine was founded in the eighth century. It’s attractive but the atmosphere is spoilt by the modern-day commercialization of the place, catering to young lovers who come to seek the blessing of the spirits. A few kilometres further up the coast, Myōjō-ji (妙成寺) is a seventeenth-century temple with an impressive five-storey pagoda. Millennia of poundings from the Sea of Japan have created fascinating rock formations and cliffs along this coastline.
Around the midpoint of the west coast is the small town of MONZEN (門前), famous for its temple Sōji-ji (総持寺), a training centre for Zen monks.
A further 16km up the coast from Monzen is WAJIMA (輪島), an appealing fishing port, straddling the mouth of the Kawarada-gawa. The peninsula’s main tourist centre hosts the Asa Ichi, a touristy, yet colourful morning market, where around two hundred vendors set up stalls along the town’s main street selling fish, vegetables and other local products.
Along the same street is also an incongruous replica of an Italian palazzo, inside which is the Inachū Gallery (イナチュウ美術館). This bizarre museum exhibits reproductions of famous art pieces, such as the Venus de Milo, next to original European and Japanese antiques, including a huge pair of jet-black ornamental jars that once belonged to Tokugawa Iemitsu, the third Tokugawa shogun.
Anime and manga fans will prefer the nearby Gō Nagai Wonderland Museum (永井豪記念館), a new facility celebrating the locally-born creator of series such as Mazinger Z, Devilman and Cutie Honey. In one section you can draw your own manga character on a computer and get a print-out as a souvenir.
Wajima is also renowned for its high-quality lacquerware (know locally as wajima nuri), and you’ll find many shops around town selling it. The best collection of pieces can be viewed at the Ishikawa Wajima Urushi Art Museum (石川県輪島漆芸美術館), on the southwest side of town. More modern styles of lacquerware can be seen at the Wajima Kōbō Nagaya (輪島工房長屋), a complex of traditional-style wooden buildings close to the sea in the centre of town, where you can also see the artists creating it. If you make an advance booking, it’s possible to engrave lacquerware yourself. Also well worth visiting before you move on is the Kiriko-kaikan (キリコ会館) on the east side of town. This exhibition hall houses the enormous colourful paper lanterns paraded around town in Wajima’s lively summer and autumn festivals. The museum also shows videos of the festivals.
Elsewhere on the peninsula
The scenic coastline between Wajima and the cape Rokkō-zaki (禄剛崎) is scattered with many strange rock formations – look out for Godzilla Rock (ゴジラ岩) and, near the village of Sosogi (曽々木), the Shiroyone no Senmaida (白米の千枚田), where over a thousand rice paddies cling to the sea-facing slopes in diminishing terraces. Just south of the cape, a winding road leads down to the “secret onsen” inn of Lamp-no-Yado.
Heading inland towards Iwakura-yama, a steep 357m mountain, are two traditional thatched-roof houses that once belonged to the wealthy Tokikuni family, supposed descendants of the vanquished Taira clan. The family split in two in the sixteenth century, one part staying in the Kami Tokikuni-ke (上時國家), the other building the smaller Shimo Tokikuni-ke (下時國家), with its attractive attached garden.
On the Noto Hantō’s gentler east coast, the picturesque Tsukumo-wan (九十九湾), meaning “99 Indentation Bay”, is worth pausing at for the view. Also down this side of the coast, look out for the Boramachi-yagura, pyramid-shaped wooden platforms on top of which fishermen once perched, waiting for the fish to swim into their nets.