Kanazawa City has an array of cultural sights, but there’s a thriving folk-craft scene to get excited about, too. Recognized by UNESCO as a City of Crafts and Folk Art, you’ll find a range of exquisite traditional arts and crafts represented in Kanazawa. From Kanazawa gold leaf to delicate embroidery, local porcelain to colourful washi umbrellas, there’s good reason as to why the UNESCO Creative Cities Network has registered Kanazawa as a ‘City of Handicrafts’, with 22 kinds of traditional crafts among the city’s treasures.
Here’s our guide to exploring folk crafts in Kanazawa City Japan. Watch this short video before reading on to find out more about folk crafts in Kanazawa City:
Kanazawa City is the capital of Ishikawa Province, fringed by the Sea of Japan on the main Japanese island of Honshu. Founded back in 1583, the city’s fortunes were tied for centuries to those of the powerful Maeda Clan, who ruled here right up until 1871. Kanazawa’s rich history has gifted Kanazawa a set of long-standing craft traditions that have made it a true hub for the decorative arts.
Aside from the laundible local craft scene, there are plenty of other attractions to while away your days in Kanazawa. From the harmony of Kenrokuen Garden to Nagamachi District and the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa this is a city where history, culture and nature all steal the show.
Kanazawa City’s long and stable feudal history has given rise to a fine selection of traditional arts and crafts which are still practiced today. Many of the methods have been passed down through generations and honed over centuries, growing out of the samurai culture which blossomed here in the Edo Era. Since Kanazawa was established in the 16th century, it has been spared both natural disaster and the damage suffered by so many Japanese cities during World War II – allowing the city’s arts to develop and progress relatively unhindered for the bulk of modern history. Little wonder Kanazawa’s traditional craftsmanship is among the best in Japan.
Kanazawa was endorsed as a UNESCO City of Crafts and Folk Art in 2009, and the organization recognizes it as a ‘City of Handicrafts’. From Kanazawa gold leaf to Kaga-yuzen silk dyeing, Kanazawa lacquerware to Kutani ceramics, there’s no fewer than 22 traditional crafts on show here. Travellers, designers, treasure-hunters and artists alike will be in arts and crafts heaven in Kanazawa City.
Gold-leaf production first came to the area during the Edo Era, when Kanazawa was busy flourishing under the thumb of the ruling Maeda clan. When the Shogun limited gold beating to certain areas – including Edo (Tokyo) and Kyoto – production was forced to stop. It wasn’t restarted in earnest in Kanazawa until the latter half of the 19th century.
Today, 99 percent of Japan’s total gold-leaf output is produced in Kanazawa. The process involves beating gold until it becomes such a thin sheet that it disappears if you rub it between your fingers. Gold leaf is used to decorate all sorts of Kanazawa handicrafts and other materials, from household ornaments and personal accessories to Buddhist shrines and altars. But it’s not all for show: gold leaf also features in a number of cosmetic products and even foodstuffs.
At the Yasue Gold-Leaf Museum, visitors can learn all about the process of creating gold leaf, and about the tools involved in its production. On top of an extensive collection of gold-leaf objects – amassed by artisan Takaaki Yasue – you’ll find excellent examples of folding screens, Kaga maki-e laquerwork, Kutani porcelain and Noh costumes.
As its name suggests, the Ishikawa Prefectural Museum of Traditional Arts and Crafts is the place to come for a comprehensive overview of folk crafts in Kanazawa City. In the sleek, well-designed museum beside Kenrokuen Garden, you’ll find exhibits relating to some 36 designated traditional crafts in Ishikawa, from Kutani porcelain – decorated in bold dark colours – to hand-painted Kaga Yuzen silk. Whatever form of decorative or creative art floats your boat, you’ll find it all under one roof at this fine museum. The permanent collection organizes different craft objects into sections such as “clothes”, “food” and “festivals”, while special exhibitions focus on arts from across Japan. You’d do well to visit on a weekend, when local artisans give demonstrations of their techniques; watching these talented craftspeople at work is a captivating experience. Round off your day by picking up a handmade piece in the well-stocked museum shop.
Developed by a craftsman named Miyazaki Yuzensai at the start of the 18th century, the traditional dyeing technique of “Yuzen” is used to hand-paint silk fabrics. It is most commonly applied to kimonos in the form of Kaga Yuzen. Kaga Yuzen is famous for producing vividly coloured, finely patterned items, and the process involves pattern transfer, paste coating, colouring, steaming and rinsing.
There are various places in Kanazawa City where you can watch Kaga Yuzen in action and even book a dyeing experience yourself. The Kaga Yuzen Kimono Center is among the best: learn all about the manufacturing process in the main hall before getting hands-on with a “kimono-wearing experience”, a “strolling in a kimono experience”, or a “Yuzen dyeing experience” – where you’ll make your very own Yuzen handkerchief. Another of the top highlights is the opportunity to see the artisan’s Yuzen dyeing demonstration up close. There are plenty of beautiful finished products for purchase, too. Another option is a trip to the Nagamachi Yuzenkan, a Kaga Yuzen atelier that is the only one of its kind open to the general public. Here, you can peruse a range of exhibits on Kaga Yuzen, book a tour of the centre or buy your very own Kaga Yuzen kimono; bookable extras include a colouring experience, kimono rental and “wearing the Kaga Yuzen” – essentially a photo shoot dressed in a stunning traditional kimono.
Kanazawa gold leaf, Kutani porcelain and Kaga Yuzen might be famous across Japan, but there are several lesser-known crafts unique to the region, too. These include Kaga incrustation works, Kaga fishing flies, Futamata Japanese paper and wagasa umbrellas. At Kanazawa Crafts Hirosaka, you can find examples of all these – and more besides. Peruse the centre’s high-quality wares and marvel at the craftsmanship involved; these pieces make authentic souvenirs and memorable gifts for loved ones back home. Whether or not you make a purchase, browsing is a real pleasure.
A collection of gorgeous hand-crafted lightweight ceramics, Ohi ware was first introduced to the region by Ohi Chozaemon in 1666. Chozaemon initially came to Kanazawa on a trip with the Urasenke Grand Tea Master, but stayed on to work for the ruling Maeda family. As becomes its roots, Ohi ware usually takes the form of tea-ceremony utensils and objects. Shaped by hand rather than a potter’s wheel, Ohi ceramics are characterized by simple shapes and patterns, finished with an amber glaze. They are known for their style and simplicity.
At the Ohi Museum, you can learn all about Chozaemon and the origins of Ohi ware, the Ohi family and – of course – view a stellar collection of these lovely ceramic objects. Special exhibitions are put on seasonally, so check out the museum roster before your visit. The Ohi Gallery, meanwhile, displays work by 10th- and 11th-generation Chozaemons in a Kengo Kuma-designed samurai residence.
Traditional toys have been handcrafted in Kanazawa for centuries, and many of these simple but beautiful objects are thought to be harbingers of good luck. Iconic toys include Kaga dolls, Kaga Tobi firefighters and tumbler dolls. At the Ishikawa Local Products Center, you can try your hand at making a traditional Kaga Hachiman Okiagari, a squat, colourfully painted doll. These handicrafts – resembling Russian dolls – are often given to expectant mothers to bring good fortune and well-being for their children. While you’re here painting a doll of your own, you can stock up on a range of traditional products heralding from the prefecture, from typical crafts to Ishikawa-brewed sake and other local foodstuffs.
Finish your exploration of folk crafts in Kanazawa City with a trip to the Ishikawa Prefectural Museum of Art. Here, you can see some of the best examples of local folk crafts, as well as a dazzling array of antique artworks owned by the area’s influential Maeda family. You’ll find everything from old Japanese oil paintings and sculptures to the work of modern artisans. The historic exhibits – including displays of daimyo tools, once used by feudal lords – help to put the area’s folk traditions in context, while the collections of Kutani porcelain and Kanazawa lacquerware are unsurpassed.
With its western Honshu position, Kanazawa City is accessible from Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and Nagoya. Choose from the Shinkansen (bullet trains) or Express Train or fly from Tokyo followed by a local bus. You can also take the bus from Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, although this takes longer.
Most of Kanazawa City’s top sights are in walking distance, so getting around by foot couldn’t be easier. You can also rent a bike or ride the English-spoken Kanazawa Loop Bus, or opt for the evening Kanazawa Light-Up Bus.
With a temperate climate year-round, there’s no one ‘best’ time to visit Kanazawa. That said, the Spring and Autumn months are particularly picturesque with nature in full bloom, while the winter months can be a little rainy.
Kanazawa City has a rich culture and history stretching from its inception in 1583 through to the present day. The centuries have left behind well-preserved historic buildings, stonking folk-craft traditions and tales of old retold today in the city’s terrific museums. It’s all here and on show in Kanazawa.
There are plenty of reasons to visit Kanazawa, but one of the most compelling is to learn about the area’s living folk-art traditions. Hand-crafted ceramics, delicate and graceful design kimonos and iconic children’s toys are just a few of the objects that are made here, and you can view them in the area’s museums, workshops and craft stores. To really get involved, book a handicraft experience and come away with a piece you’ve made yourself. Everyone’s got some creativity to channel, after all.
Top image: Couple dressed in kimonos walking in Kenrokuen Garden © Joaquin Ossorio Castillo/Shutterstock
This article was created in partnership with Kanazawa City.