Kanazawa City, the capital of Ishikawa Prefecture in Japan, is an attractive centre with a plethora of fantastic cultural attractions. Travellers will be treated to everything from well-preserved historic districts to modern museums and the natural charms of Kenrokuen Garden, among Japan’s most beloved landscaped gardens.
Watch this short video before reading on to discover everything Kanazawa City has to offer:
Kanazawa enjoys a long history that translates today into a wealth of cultural heavyweight attractions. The city flourished in the Edo Era, rivalling Kyoto and Edo (Tokyo) itself in terms of importance. Kanazawa’s fortunes were made by the ruling Maeda Clan, whose might and power derived from their successful rice production and the size of their sprawling fief. Kanazawa Castle, the family home, dates from this time; enchanting Kenrokuen Garden, meanwhile, once served as the castle’s outer grounds. But this is not just a city steeped in history. Sure, there are atmospheric samurai districts and restored residences galore, but there are also modern museums, bustling markets and even a Ninja Temple.
Japan is known the world over for its superlative train network, which is both wide reaching and incredibly fast. It comes as little surprise, then, that Kanazawa City is best accessed by rail. From Tokyo, you can reach the city in 2.5hrs via the Hokuriku Shinkansen (bullet train); if you’re coming from Kyoto, the journey is just 2hrs via the Thunderbird Express. For a cheaper option, you can travel by bus from Tokyo to Kanazawa, though the journey will take considerably longer: around 8hrs. Flights connect Tokyo’s Haneda Airport with Komatsu Airport just outside Kanazawa, though it’ll cost you more than the train, and will take longer door to door.
Kanazawa City has a rich heritage and dazzling array of cultural attractions. Having escaped the destruction suffered by many Japanese cities in World War II, Kanazawa today retains a number of perfectly preserved historic districts – wandering among wooden-fronted, single-storey buildings, you’ll feel like you’ve stepped back in time. Stand-out historic monuments are joined by a clutch of fantastic museums, spiritual sights and thronging markets. But the number-one attraction for which Kanazawa City is undoubtedly best known is Kenrokuen Garden, among the Three Great Gardens of Japan. It’s a stunner throughout the year, from its snow-draped boughs in winter to the cherry blossoms of spring, and has been capturing hearts for more than two centuries.
Start your visit to Kanazawa City with a visit to Kazue-machi Chaya District. Located along the riverside between Asanogawa Ohashi Bridge and Naka-no Hashi Bridge, it makes up one of three geisha districts in the city.
Here you’ll find rows of historical houses and teahouses that have become part of Japan’s prestigious Cultural Assets ever since 2008. Take in the traditional atmosphere as you admire the historic buildings and surrounding scenery – but this isn’t a district trapped in the past.
Kazue-machi is still a working district, so as you pass by you might overhear geisha performing traditional Japanese musical instruments, such as the shamisen, bamboo flute and drum.
Once the city’s most important building, Kanazawa Castle served as the home of the Maeda clan for a staggering fourteen generations. Though today’s buildings are reconstructions of the Edo Period originals, Kanazawa Castle Park is still well worth a visit to wander the green grounds and to admire the Castle gates and reconstructed walls.
The history of Oyama Jinja Shrine is inextricably linked to the Maeda family, the samurai clan who presided over the area for several centuries right up until 1871. Oyama Jinja Shrine is in fact dedicated to the first lord of the mighty clan, Maeda Toshiie, and you can see a statue of the man himself on site. The shrine was first built at its present location in 1873, with the Shinmon Gate a later addition built in 1875; it may come as a surprise that the shrine gate was actually designed by a Dutch architect. If you look closely, you’ll notice it incorporates elements of both Asian and European iconography. Note too the Dutch-style stained-glass window on the top storey of the shrine.
Oyama Shrine was initially constructed on Mount Utatsu, while its gate was once a fixture at Kanazawa Castle. The ensemble now sits in its current location just beyond Kanazawa Castle Park, with pleasant garden grounds featuring a series of pretty ponds and bridges.
Comprising a series of historic samurai houses strung along two canals in the vicinity of Kanazawa Castle, Nagamachi District once sheltered the city’s samurai class. Many of the buildings have been well preserved and are typical of the Edo Era, with earthen walls and private entrances. Stroll the area’s streets and check out any number of samurai houses that have since been restored. These give great insight into how these Japanese warriors once lived; the Nomura Samurai Family Residence is one of the most evocative. The old home of the wealthy Nomura samurai family, you can enter the building and marvel at the artefacts within – highlights include a fine example of samurai armour.
The 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa is among the city’s most popular attractions, with visitors streaming through the gallery’s light-filled spaces. There’s a great range of superlative modern art on display here, from contemporary paintings to big-space exhibitions and plenty of video and mixed-media displays. The creative remit extends to music, film and the performing arts. Come early in the day to enjoy the exhibits without the crowds.
While most visitors will prioritize the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa there’s plenty more to entertain culture vultures in Kanazawa City, with museums dedicated to Japanese art, philosophy and even phonography. The D.T. Suzuki Museum honours the Japanese writer who brought Zen Buddhism to the West, exploring the man as well as his work. The quiet and carefully curated museum, along with its peaceful water garden, does well at emboying Suzuki’s Zen message. The Ishikawa Prefectural Museum of Art (IPMA), meanwhile, has a small but stellar collection of Japanese art and cultural artefacts, while the idiosyncratic Kanazawa Phonograph Museum has a vast and intriguing collection of old phonographs and antique radios. Visiting any of these museums makes for an authentic, calm and thought-provoking excursion.
Kanazawa’s historic Higashi Chaya District is an evocative area lined with old geisha houses. Many of the beautiful wood-panelled buildings today serve as restaurants or café, and traditional Japanese music still wafts through many of their windows. Choose your favourite spot and hole up with a cup of steaming green tea or hunker down to a multi-course Japanese meal. Alternatively, just follow your nose for a walk down Kanazawa’s memory lane. Head away from the main street and you’ll shake off the tourists; some of the backstreets are equally picturesque, and much quieter.
Omicho Market – Kanazawa’s main fresh-food market – has been around since Edo times, and is still a shopper’s delight today. The best produce here is all consumable, though it’s possible to buy clothing, flowers and household items, too. Most of the 170 stalls specialize in fresh fish and seafood; there’s a tantalizing range, and the local catch is invariably high quality. If you’re self catering, head down early to pick a fish, or – for a truly authentic experience – choose from the market restaurants and tuck in to some seafood served stall-to-plate. Let yourself be reeled in.
The Teramachi Area is where you’ll find many of Kanazawa’s religious buildings and temples, including Myoryuji Temple – better known as Ninjadera, or Ninja Temple. The building was constructed by the Maeda lords as a secret military outpost in a bid to outsmart the Shogun, who attempted to limit their power through means including strict building regulations. The temple acquired its nickname on account of its cloak-and-dagger defenses and hidden escape routes and rooms, booby traps and labyrinthine corridors and stairwells. A visit to Ninja Temple is sure to spark the imagination and makes a fantastic day out, but make sure you book in advance.
Kanazawa City is one of Japan’s most enthralling destinations, with a tremendous list of big-name sights located in a compact and manageable area. From historic districts with bags of old-world atmosphere to cutting-edge museums and peaceful gardens, you could spend weeks here and never be bored. Well, what are you waiting for?
Top image: Japanese garden in Nagamachi Samurai District, Kanazawa city © cowardlion/Shutterstock
This article was created in partnership with Kanazawa City.
Helen worked as a Senior Travel Editor at Rough Guides and Insight Guides, based in the London office. Among her favourite projects to work on are inspirational guides like