Once one of Japan’s largest cities, in recent decades Kanazawa has languished in the shadow of its better-known rivals. But all that’s changing now, with the west coast city surging on a new wave of optimism boosted by the arrival of the Shinkansen’s high-speed rail links. Kanazawa is well and truly on the up – and with good reason. It’s a city that’s abundant in traditional charm, from its magnificently sculpted Kenroku-en garden – rated among the best in Japan – to its history-steeped geisha and samurai districts. Yet it’s also a city that’s very much still alive and kicking too, with an enviously cutting-edge art scene and a fast-growing cohort of contemporary restaurants.
So Kanazawa’s piqued your interest? We’re not surprised. Here’s everything you need to know before your trip:
Affectionately known as “Little Kyoto”, Kanazawa has the cultural charms of its bigger sister with only a fraction of the crowds. It’s a city blessed with all the hallmarks of an illustrious, cultured past, harking back to the fifteenth century when it was part of Japan’s only independent Buddhist state and a hothouse for the arts and crafts. Crammed with historical sites, Kanazawa straddles the lantern-lined Sai-gawa river and spreads out in a tangle of wood-clad traditional houses and more modern, concrete buildings.
Easily walkable, it’s a city that’s made for exploration, from its gloriously intact samurai and geisha districts – still much the same thanks to the area escaping the ravages of World War II – to the wonderfully imagined Kenroku-en garden. However, far from a dusty-time warp, Kanazawa is a place with a raw buzz about it: the bustling Omicho Market (home to some of the freshest fish and seafood in the region); a growing number of edgy eateries; and an emerging modern art scene.
The changes in Kanazawa are largely thanks to the bullet train. Since the arrival of the high-speed line in 2015 – which dramatically speeded up the city's links with Tokyo – Kanazawa has been nudging its way onto the tourist trail. Not only is it easier and quicker to access than ever before but there’s been a flurry of investment in the city too, from new museums to cool restaurant openings.
For now, the city is at a sweet spot, with most tourists still filling the gaps in their Tokyo-to-Kyoto itineraries with Kanazawa's better-known rivals like Osaka and Nara. And with the upcoming Rugby World Cup and Olympics shining the spotlight firmly on Japan, even more people will be travelling to the country. The time to see the best of Kanazawa is now – before everyone else catches on.
No trip to Kanazawa would be complete without a visit to the beautiful Kenroku-en garden. Once the outer grounds of Kanazawa’s castle, today the garden is ranked as one of the top three great gardens in Japan. And it’s easy to see why. Artfully arranged over stepped levels, riddled with little streams, adorned with sculpted pine trees and boasting views out over Higashi Chaya’s rooftops to the snow-sprinkled mountains beyond, the garden is a real pleasure to explore.
Also hot on Kanazawa’s must-see list are the city’s wonderful historic areas. Hemmed in by heavy earthen walls, Nagamachi – the old samurai district – is a tightly-woven area of winding cobbled streets, traditional houses and little canals. As well as a samurai heritage, the city – which aside from Kyoto, is the only town in Japan where old-style training of geishas still takes place – also boasts three geisha districts, of which Higashi Chaya is the largest. A charming mesh of streets lined with row-upon-row of traditional machiya houses, this is the place to head for an old-style cup of matcha. Among little shops selling gold-flecked pottery and bottles of local sake, are a number of traditional teahouses – choose Ochaya Shima, where the tearoom sits at the back of a historic geisha-entertaining house that’s crammed with beautiful artefacts.
Another fascinating insight into Kanazawa’s past is the Myōryū-ji. Dating back to 1643, this temple has earned the nickname of “Ninja temple” owing to a maze-like interior that’s made up secret passageways, concealed chambers, trap doors and hidden staircases.
And finally, for a blast of the hyper-modern don’t miss the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, a dynamic hub for the city’s arts scene that showcases a revolving programme of exciting exhibitions.
You haven’t eaten in Kanazawa if you haven’t visited the city’s lively Omicho Market. Housed in a vast building, the market – whose history dates back to the Edo era – hums with life; a warren of lanes hemmed in by stalls selling everything from tumbling stacks of knarled wasabi roots, to flower stalls proudly displaying just-bloomed branches of cherry blossom. What people really come here for though is fresh fish and seafood, served in a scattering of little sushi bars around the market’s periphery and in the more formal restaurants upstairs. The most daring eaters, however, join the snaking queues of locals that wriggle away from seafood stalls; here there’s everything from hand-sized oysters and near-translucent octopuses to spindly legged vast snow crabs and sea urchins with their spiky shells cracked open ready to be swallowed.
Away from the market, there’s also a city full of great places to eat. For the best of modern Japanese cooking, Plat Home has to be on your radar. Housed in a gorgeously renovated hundred-or-so year-old storehouse, this restaurant combines original elements – wood beamed ceilings, a beautiful heavy stone door – with cool-design touches and a minimalist palette. The best seat in the house is undoubtedly up at the bar of the open kitchen, where you can watch Chef Ponta Okagawa transforming the best seasonal ingredients into artfully arranged small plates.
And there are plenty of places to take a break from Japanese food too. Owned by a husband-and-wife team from Seattle, Curio Espresso and Vintage Design is the place for bowl-sized frothy cappuccinos teamed with a moreish, pulled-pork sandwiches. And for more comfort food, head to The Godburger. Situated on a cool street dotted with boutique concept stores and little bars, this joint serves the city’s best burgers in a space whose interior ticks all the industrial New York boxes.
Top image: Kanazawa castle © Daniel Indiana/Shutterstock