Ishikawa is one of the country’s most enchanting prefectures. Its scenic location – fringing the Sea of Japan on Honshu’s northern coast – is matched by a long history, stretching back to days ruled by the Kaga clan. Over the centuries, Ishikawa has developed into an important centre for a range of creative arts, and you’re just as likely to find yourself marvelling at fine ceramics and lacquerware as sparkling ocean views. Here, Rough Guides brings you the definitive Ishikawa travel guide.
Ishikawa’s got it all, from a strong sense of living history and an array of must-see cultural sights to a captivating fine-arts scene, bubbling hot springs and peaceful gardens. Walk around the streets of the capital, Kanazawa, and you’ll be rewarded with historic streets lined with low-strung wooden buildings. Wander through sculpted Kenrokuen Garden, or relax in Kaga Onsen, and you’ll feel your troubles float away. And that’s before we come to the great outdoors – active travellers can make the most of Ishikawa’s rugged seascapes and the craggy coastlines offered by the Noto Peninsula. Art lovers, meanwhile, will want to spend time ogling exquisite 17th-century ceramics and lacquerware – or more modern treasures at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa. Ishikawa is a bountiful and varied prefecture, where visitors of all persuasions will find plenty to entertain them. Get stuck in.
Ishikawa is located in the central belt of the country, on the island of Honshu. The prefecture capital, Kanazawa, is easily reached from Tokyo by bullet train – a quintessential Japanese experience in itself. JR trains also reach Kanazawa from Kyoto, Osaka and Nagoya. Flights from Tokyo arrive into Noto Satoyama Airport in Wajima, while Komatsu Airport is served by a good range of domestic flights, as well as a few Asian international routes. There’s also a bus service from Tokyo, though this takes around eight hours.
Ishikawa is served by an excellent public-transport network, so getting around once you’re here is easy and hassle free. Local trains and especially buses will generally get you everywhere you need to go, though hiring a car will give you that bit of additional freedom. There’s an extensive bus network in Kanazawa city, including two tourist routes that take in the major sights. Hiring a bicycle, meanwhile, is an atmospheric way to go.
There are some great options for places to stay in Ishikawa, from luxury hotels to authentic ryokan and even local farmstays. The prefecture capital, Kanazawa, naturally has the most choice, though there’s a good selection of accommodation in the Kaga area and on the Noto Peninsula, too. Hotels cover every budget, and most have Western facilities and English-speaking staff; good options include Hyatt Centric Kanazawa in Kanazawa and Kagaya in Nanao on the Noto Peninsula. Further southwest in Ishikawa is Mori no Sumika Resort & Spa, where you can bed down in a luxury resort and spa immersed in natural surroundings and treat yourself to exquisite cuisine. There’s also two types of baths to enjoy at their on-site hot spring.
Kenrokuen Garden is one of the finest in all Japan. It’s history is closely linked to that of the Maeda clan, who once ruled over Kaga. The garden was conceived in 1676 as the private garden of the Maedas, but suffered fire damage in 1759 and was subsequently rebuilt. Kenrokuen was finally opened to the public in 1874, and today is a dazzling example of Japanese garden design. Ponds, waterfalls, stone lanterns and cobbled paths, quaint teahouses and sculpted hills combine to beautiful effect, and the sense of peace and harmony is palpable. Whatever the season, there’s something to see at Kenrokuen, from the cherry blossoms of spring to flowering iris in summer, fiery red maple leaves in autumn to snow-capped pines in winter.
There’s much to see and do in Kanazawa, the capital of Ishikawa prefecture, and you’ll want to spend at least a couple of days here to do it justice. The city has a rich and well-preserved historic legacy – the city having escaped the air-raid damage wrought on much of Japan during World War II.
Kanazawa has been an important cultural hub since the Edo Period, when it served as the seat of the ruling Maeda family. Today, you can visit their former residence, imposing Kanazawa Castle, which served as the family home for fourteen generations. The castle is edged by the Nagamachi Samurai District, where – you guessed it – the period’s samurai and their families once lived. It remains an atmospheric place, crossed by narrow lanes and pretty canals, its buildings characterized by private entranceways and earthen walls. See how the samurai lived at Nomura Residence, a restored samurai residence with plenty of insightful exhibits.
You can also soak up the city’s past in Kanazawa’s historic Higashi Chaya District. As you walk past wood-panelled old teahouses, listen out for traditional Japanese music drifting through their windows.
21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa puts on an impressive range of modern-art exhibitions in a cutting-edge, glass-fronted gallery. While the majority of works are based around the visual arts, the museum’s remit includes music, the performing arts and film, too. The emphasis here is on creating a vibrant space in which to learn, explore and communicate.
Stretching for some 100 kilometres into the Sea of Japan, the Noto Peninsula is fairly off grid, and a must for adventurous travellers. Public transport is limited here, and you’ll really need to hire a car to make the most of the area. Thankfully, it’s a great place for a road trip, with stunning coastal scenery and seascapes to take your breath away. The Koiji Coast and the Kongo Coast are both stunningly beautiful. The Noto Peninsula is also famous for its culinary prowess. Foodies can revel in fresh fish and other seafood served net-to-plate, as well as Noto-harvested sea salt and iwanori, a local delicacy of seaweed hewn from the rocks.
Kaga Onsen actually refers to a series of four hot-spring towns to the south of Kanazawa: Yamashiro Onsen, Yamanaka Onsen, Awazu Onsen and Katayamazu Onsen. The hot springs at Yamashiro Onsen were discovered as long as 1300 years ago by a monk named Gyoki. Today’s communal baths give visitors the chance to take a dip and partake in an authentic, local experience. The hot-spring waters are said to be imbibed with healing properties; visit more than one onsen to compare each bath’s unique characteristics: some have been updated, while others are reminiscent of their Meiji-era beginnings. The onsen villages are all a stone’s throw from Mount Hakusan – which can be climbed in a day – though there are plenty of other wonderful walks in the vicinity. Local eateries, meanwhile, give travellers the chance to savour the local cuisine.
For hustle and bustle, Omicho Market is hard to beat. Kanazawa’s largest fresh-food market since Edo times, Omicho is known for its tantalizing local seafood and other foodie produce – though you’ll also see stalls stacked high with assorted clothing, household items and even colourful flowers. About 170 shops and stalls hawk their goods here, and there’s a tremendous buzz, especially in the morning. Come at lunchtime and join the throngs competing for a table at one of the superlative market restaurants, famous for their rice bowls and delicious Kanazawa seafood. Bring your appetite.
Towering Mount Hakusan is revered as one of Japan’s three holy mountains, alongside Mount Fuji and Mount Tateyama. An active volcano, Hakusan last erupted in 1659, and stands at an impressive 2702 metres on the border of Gifu and Ishikawa prefectures. It has been designated as a national park since 1962, and remains blissfully untouched by man, though hiking is possible in season (June–October), when the snow melts. The climb up Mount Hakusan takes a full day, with most travellers opting for the Bettodeai Trailhead. Keep your eyes peeled for the golden eagle, the named bird of Ishikawa, which lives in the area.
Ishikawa prefecture has long been respected as a centre for traditional arts and crafts. The decorative arts are particularly well represented here, and you'll find everything from fine ceramics to lacquerware and gold leaf. Lacquerware hubs include Yamanaka, Kanazawa and Wajima; the latter produces items with a unique undercoat that provides additional durability. Kutani ware, meanwhile, is a style of local pottery dating back to the 17th century characterized by its decorative glazes and hand-painted designs that often take inspiration from nature. Look out for Kaga dyed silk, too: craftspeople still employ 15th-century techniques to produce high-quality fabrics decorated with realistic plants, flowers, birds and other natural forms. The silk is then used to fashion kimonos and other accessories, which make beautiful and authentic souvenirs.
Ishikawa is a year-round destination, with hot, humid summers and cold, snowy winters that deliver in terms of both romance and winter sports. Most travellers choose to come in the mild spring months, when the cherry blossoms are out in their full glory, though the rust-reds of autumn are appealing too. Whenever you decide to visit, check out the region’s events calendar to see what’s on, and order seasonal delicacies from restaurant menus around the region. It is also worth spending some time before your trip researching travel tickets and deals, as well as any accommodation or activities you want to book, as some things book up well in advance. And be sure to download the Japan Official Travel App to help you on your way.
Ishikawa is one of the country’s most riveting destinations. Visitors will discover matchless scenery and a thriving cultural scene, with atmospheric castles, exquisite decorative arts, bustling markets and samurai houses to explore. And once you’ve had your fill of traditional sightseeing, you can stroll through manicured gardens or put your feet up in misty onsen springs. This is a place that knows how to unwind. Sink in.
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Top image: Kanazawa Castle, Japan © Lee Yiu Tung/Shutterstock
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