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.