1. Kanazawa’s history
2. Kanazawa Yasue Gold Leaf Museum
3. Geisha Districts
4. Nagamachi Samurai District
5. Kanazawa Castle
6. Kenroku-en Garden
7. Oyama Shrine
8. Kawazawa Station – Tsuzumi-mon Gate
9. Omicho Market
10. 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art
Gold leaf production, samurai houses and chayas (geisha houses) are some of the highlights in Kanazawa, a city on the northern coast of Japan that is easily accessible from Tokyo. Kanazawa is located just a few hours’ train journey from the Japanese capital with the high-speed bullet train Hokuriku Shinkansen – and is therefore easy to include in a Japan trip.
The city is very well preserved since it escaped destruction during WWII and therefore it has an important cultural heritage today. You can explore the city on your own or choose an organised tour.
In addition, Kanazawa offers so much more: fascinating traditional and contemporary art and philosophy including a spectacular station gate, the DT Suzuki Museum, and the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art. Culinary experiences in the form of exquisite seafood served in izakayas and other establishments await, and so does the famous Omicho Market, the picturesque castle gardens, and stunning temples and shrines.
Where to stay in Kanazawa – samurai or geisha district? Whatever you choose, you will not be far from significant places that will let the past come alive and take you back to Kanazawa’s heyday.
UAN kanazawa enjoy this hotel with an excellent location near Omicho Market. The hotel features a terrace/patio where you can have a cup of green tea and each room is equipped with Yukata robes for the guests’ use. Breakfast is both Western and Japanese-style and at night there are free soba noodles in the bar.
THE HOTEL SANRAKU KANAZAWA located only 1 km from Kanazawa Castle and Kenroku-en Garden – and near the Kanazawa seafood market – you will find this 5-star hotel with spacious air-conditioned rooms. Some rooms have balconies and others garden views. In the morning the hotel serves both an American and Japanese breakfast (including local dishes).
Kanazawa means ‘marsh of gold’. According to the legend, the city got this name since a peasant, Imohori Togoro, found gold flakes when digging for potatoes.
During the Edo period (1603 – 1868), Kanazawa was home to the Maeda Clan. Mighty samurai warrior families resided along the canals in the city near Kanazawa Castle. Many of their homes have been restored over the years and are still very well preserved.
Kanazawa has also a significant cultural heritage in the form of its geisha districts with historical teahouses and outstanding two-storey wood-panelled buildings. Since the bombings during World War II spared the city, Kanazawa’s traditional geisha districts are today an excellent and much less touristy alternative to visiting the famous geisha districts in Kyoto.
Since the Edo period, Kanazawa has flourished with gold leaf craft and the gold leaf production is today part of the cultural heritage of Kanazawa. Gold leaf was used for decoration purposes in ancient Japan. Most famous is the gold plating of the famous Golden Pavilion in Kyoto, Kinkakuji, which received its gold leaf from precisely Kanazawa. The gold leaf production still thrives in the city. In fact, 99% of Japan’s gold leaf manufacturing still takes place in Kanazawa and the city specialises in providing gold leaf for the restoration of historic properties.
The Kanazawa Yasue Gold Leaf Museum is located near one of the geisha districts, the Higashi Chaya District, which since the Edo period also has been the home of local gold leaf craftsmen.
The museum presents the process of creating gold leaf through an exhibition and explanatory videos, as well as exhibits various gold-plated items of historic importance. The history of gold leaf is described, including the use of gold leaf in temples, shrines, paintings, religious statues, Buddhist instruments, and other traditional Japanese objects covered in gold leaf.
Besides the hundreds of gold-leaf pieces on display, the museum also features Japanese folding screens and various handicrafts created using ancient techniques for lacquerware and ceramics.
The exhibition illustrates the melting process after which the gold (with minuscule traces of copper and silver) is poured into moulds, as well as the subsequent beating process with the use of traditional tools to produce the ultra-thin golden layers. It is a thorough process where beating out and stretching the delicate foil is the key to the result. The fully hammered gold leaf sheets are only 1/10,000 mm thick! They are moved around using a pair of bamboo tweezers, cut on a bamboo frame, and moved to a sheet of handmade paper. Just a tiny bit of static electricity can tear them apart!
Nevertheless, today the application of the fragile gold leaves is not limited to traditional art and restoration purposes. It also contributes to the gastronomy in Kanazawa, e.g., as the golden topping on ice creams in several places in the city. A sheet of gold leaf wraps the soft ice cream and let you get a taste of the precious metal. Since ancient times, it has been known to promote longevity and it is popular in an edible form as food decoration. Other speciality stores and workshops in the area sell golden cosmetics or let you apply the golden leaves to selected items, e.g., chopsticks, which will leave you with a unique souvenir of Kanazawa!
There are several geisha districts in the city, and they are an important part of Kanazawa’s cultural heritage. The geisha houses were traditional places for entertainment where Kanazawa’s geishas danced and played instruments to entertain the wealthy guests. Moreover, Kanazawa’s chayas are undeniably intertwined with the gold leaf history and craft in the city and they date back to the Edo period. The Kanazawa Yasue Gold Leaf Museum can be found just a stone’s throw from the historical houses.
The most famous and largest district is Higashi Chaya, situated north of the Asano River. The spectacular two-storey wooden buildings still stand as they did hundreds of years ago. Already in the past they were quite eye-catching since two-storey houses were generally not allowed in Kanazawa at the time. Some of the geisha houses and teahouses have today been transformed into popular souvenir shops, cafés, and restaurants with the exterior appearance still preserved. You can attend a geisha performance in Higashi Chaya.
The Kazue-machi Chaya is another gem. The chaya is scenically located along the river with a row of historical geisha houses between the Asanogawa Bridge and the Naka Bridge. The setting is beautiful, and it is less crowded than Higashi Chaya – the perfect photo spot!
The smallest district is Nishi Chaya south of Kanazawa Castle Park and Kenroku-en Garden.
Another historical district is the Nagamachi Samurai District brimming with exciting samurai history. It is a well-preserved neighbourhood in the vicinity of Kanazawa Castle with cobblestone streets and canals dating back to the Edo period. The district and its samurai domains were home to the prosperous samurai families in Kanazawa.
The estates remained property of the samurai class right until 1869 when the emperor took over all the domains and the samurai possessions thus came to an end in the district.
Today, the original Edo-era streets of the Nagamachi Samurai District exist side by side with present-day Kanazawa.
A few of the former restored samurai residences are open to visitors, e.g., the Nomura Residence, originally belonging to the Maeda Clan. Inside you will be able to see an original samurai armour and get an impression of how the warrior family used to live with tranquil rooms, as well as a picturesque inner garden with traditional stone lanterns, a pond, and streams. Afterwards, in the adjacent teahouse, you will have the opportunity to taste one of Kanazawa’s gold-leaf soft ice creams!
From 1583, Kanazawa Castle was the home of the Maeda Clan. The impressive castle buildings are still an iconic landmark in Kanazawa. Kanazawa Castle Park is a lovely park and encompasses several park areas, e.g., the Gyokuseninmaru Garden with a spectacular pond and walking paths. It has undergone restoration in 2015.
Over the years, the castle has burned down several times, most recently in 1881, and subsequently rebuilt again. Particularly noteworthy are the Ishikawa-mon Gate from 1788, the Hishi and Tsuzuki Yagura turrets and a long storehouse. In recent years, several other gates have been reconstructed, among others the Hashizume-mon Gate.
Kenroku-en Garden in Kanazawa is considered one of the three most beautiful landscape gardens in Japan. It used to be the outer gardens of Kanazawa Castle and belonged to the Maeda family. Inside the lush garden, you will find streams, small bridges, and historic teahouses.
The concepts behind the garden are the six sublimities: spaciousness, antiquity, artificiality, seclusion, water, and views, which together characterise a perfect garden according to traditional landscape principles. It was not until 1871 that Kenroku-en Garden was opened to the public.
Oayama Shrine, originally from 1599, but moved to its current location in 1873, is also closely linked to the Maeda family. It was dedicated to the clan lord, Maeda Toshiie who lived at Kanazawa Castle a stone’s throw away.
The famous shrine gate dates from 1875 and was designed by a Dutch architect using a mixture of European and Asian style. The upper part formerly served as a lighthouse and has a beautiful Dutch-style stained glass window.
The shine grounds include a garden with a walking path across the pond as well as a statue of Lord Toshiie.
Kanazawa Station features an extraordinarily impressive wooden gate, the Tsuzumi-mon Gate. The massive gate has become an iconic landmark of Kanazawa and constantly amazes first-time visitors from both sides. Between the station and the gate, a huge glass dome rises and adds to the architectural ingenuity.
The remodelling of the old station (1998-2005) was done by design of the architect Ryuzo Shirae and combines Japanese heritage and traditions with present-day Kanazawa. The Tsuzumi-mon Gate is built with the shape of a traditional Japanese torii gate which usually marks the entrance to a sacred shrine. In fact, inside the contemporary station building there is a whole row of smaller ‘toriis’ constructed as pillars supporting the roof of the building – just like the series of toriis often seen at Japanese Shinto shrines. They are decorated with Japanese artwork and lead the passengers to the large gate at the front of the station. Also, Japanese Noh culture is represented here, as the two wooden columns are each shaped like a typical drum used in Noh theatre, a tsuzumi, hence the name of the gate.
The gate is a favoured spot for photography, and you will at all times of the day see visitors taking photographs of this striking symbol of Kanazawa. At night the gate is illuminated in different colours.
At Kanazawa’s fresh-food market, Omicho Market, you can get an authentic culinary experience. The local fish and shellfish catch is attractively presented in a multitude of stalls and shops. People come here to have sushi or sashimi for breakfast or lunch – it is popular, and you may have to wait in line at the restaurants.
The old Edo market has existed since the 1700s and consists of around 170 stalls that together with the restaurants offer an abundance of the freshest fish and shellfish. It is an impressive and colourful market and you can’t help but be tempted to try some of the delicacies. Raw seafood over a bowl of rise, kaisendon, as well as the broth of vegetable and seafood, oden, are some of the specialities. Oden is in the rest of Japan primarily eaten in winter, but in Kanazawa it is popular during all seasons. As a curiosity, the high-quality seafood is often served in ceramic bowls here.
The circular, futuristic-style museum building from 2004 is spectacular. There is no main entrance, thus inviting visitors to walk around it. The museum hosts temporary exhibits in addition to more permanent installations and includes, besides the adjoining green spaces with installations, also as a public library and several lecture halls.
One of the spectacular installations is the famous Swimming Pool by Leandro Erlich, an installation where visitors appear to be underwater. The museum is full of inspiring artworks, often making use of light effects, sound, and multimedia displays.
From Kanazawa it is easy to go on a day trip to the traditional village Shirakawa-go or the Japanese Alp town Tokayama.
Kanazawa Japan – Known for Gold Leaf, Samurai and Geisha
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