Catching up with friends in Kanazawa

There is a myth that the trains in Japan are never delayed, and if they are it is by some infinitesimal amount, like one minute and eight seconds. Let the records show that this is not true – our train was delayed by half an hour! As a result we missed our connection in Nagoya and had to get another Shinkansen, arriving into Kanazawa a full forty minutes later than planned. I was outraged, I tell you.

Along with Takayama, Kanazawa is best known for its well-preserved Edo-period buildings, but its intoxicating blend of samurai, merchants and geishas has left a host of other attractions to keep visitors interested. Perhaps due to its relatively remote location, Kanazawa often missed by overseas visitors but remains popular with Japanese tourists.

After checking in to our hotel, we headed out in the dank drizzle for a brief explore of the town. Kanazawa is equally famed for its rainy climate, and we saw plenty of that during our brief visit. Nevertheless, I liked what I saw of this compact little city. For example, take the fountain at the entrance to the (spotless) station complex. Sure, any other country might be contented with a nice water feature and have done with it. Not the Japanese. Their water features tell the time and spell out “welcome” to visitors.

Kanazawa station water fountain
A fountain that splits between the current time and a “welcome” message. Genius.

Back at the hotel, and after the luxury of a bath – a treat much missed on our travels – we met up with friends for dinner. We first met Matt and Sarah at the fantastic Gibbon Experience, and have kept in touch. We were very excited when we realised our paths would cross again in Japan and we could spend a couple of days sightseeing together.

At 8:30 the next morning we gathered for a budget-friendly bakery breakfast to fortify us for our day of sightseeing. On our way to our first destination we passed a temple with prayers and wishes displayed on the outside, and a garden with a beautiful stone bridge. This is one of the joys of a compact city such as Kanazawa – a walk allows you to wander and stumble across gems such as this.

A stone bridge in Kanazawa
An unexpected stone bridge

After our immensely enjoyable walk we arrived at the D.T Suzuki museum, which is dedicated to a renowned Zen Buddhist philosopher of the same name. The museum is an elegant, minimalist building which describes the life and wisdom of this interesting man. As well as a serene reading room with English texts about Zen Buddhism, there is a beautiful pool outside; a perfect space for gathering your thoughts.

The zen pool at the D. T Suzuki museum
The zen pool at the D. T Suzuki museum

After a brief visit to a pottery factory, where the lovely owner very kindly gave us a free guided tour, we stopped for some spicy sesame noodles. The warm broth was a welcome antidote to the chilly drizzle outside.

We spent the afternoon exploring the beautiful Kenroku-en Garden. Considered one of Japan’s top gardens, it was alive with bright moss and puffy cherry blossoms. The design is of a “strolling garden”, and we meandered along the pretty serene paths over streams and little bridges. Gardens have to be one of the real treats of Japan and – to me – are a perfect representation of the country. They are beautiful, but also considered, subtle and intricate.

Kanazawa’s Kenroku-en Garden
The beautiful springtime in Kanazawa’s Kenroku-en Garden

Owing to its location by the coast, Kanazawa is also famous for its seafood. After the garden, we took a stroll through the market. Compared to the markets we had visited in Southeast Asia, this was spotless. Matt and I even felt confident sampling a raw sea urchin!

Sea urchin at Kanazawa market
Sea urchins fresh from the market

I think Matt pretty much nailed the description – it has a texture of melted chocolate but tastes of the sea. Surprisingly tasty!

Katie eating sea urchin
Yum!

Alas, sea urchins weren’t enough to sustain us and so – after another very welcome hot bath – we headed to a local mall to try the food court. We ended up having delicious hamburgers coated in gravy, which was surprisingly easy to eat with chopsticks!

The next morning, we took advantage of a break in the relentless Kanazawa drizzle to check out the grounds of the Kanazawa Castle. Japanese castles are a strange blend of beautiful design and a meticulous attention to death-inducing detail. As we oohed at the crisp, white lines of the castle building, our tour guide showed us the steps to the castle which had been deliberately laid at subtly different heights to ensure that any charging enemy would quickly end up in a tangled heap.

The steps of Kanazawa castle
The steps of Kanazawa castle: designed to kill

As we drew closer to the castle itself, our guide pointed out double-doored entrances built at 90 degree angles to herd armies into a confined space. The murder holes built into the walls surrounding the entrance would take care of the rest. Do not, I repeat, do not mess with these people.

Slightly subdued and pondering the follies of attacking a Japanese castle, we wandered over to the old Geisha districts. Known as Higashi Chaya-gai, the streets lined with tall narrow wooden houses would once upon a time have echoed with the laughter and sounds of the geisha tea ceremonies. Now, the geishas are long gone, but we were able to visit an old geisha house and see the refined, elegant decor for ourselves. I have to say though, it felt rather lacking in atmosphere compared to how it must have been back in the day!

Kanazawa geisha house decor
Decor at the geisha house

At this point we had to bid a sad farewell to Matt and Sarah who were bound for Takayama. While we waited for our train to take us in the opposite direction we took a walk through the old Nagamachi Samurai district. Alas, the name is slightly deceptive as virtually no samurai houses remain in the area, but the beautiful gardens and walled streets still made for an atmospheric wander during our final (sunny!) hours in Kanazawa.

Samurai district street in Kanazawa
The samurai district

Our two days in Kanzawa had passed by in a busy whirlwind. It is a fascinating little city with something for everyone – great seafood and a diverse and interesting history. I would highly recommend it as an addition to any Japan itinerary – we loved it and sharing it with friends was a bonus.

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If you want to spend two days in Kanazawa
  • We stayed at the Hotel Mystays Kanazawa. Unusually for me I managed to score a pretty good discount as the hotel was newly opened (amazing hotel deals are generally Craig’s forte – I was very proud). Located about five minutes from the station, you can check the current rates here. It’s a lovely hotel complete with a free laundrette and a library for guests.
  • Kanazawa is now on a Shinkansen line from Tokyo, so makes a fairly easy stop between Tokyo and Kyoto using a Japan Rail Pass.
  • There is a saying in Kanazawa – “even if you forget your lunch box, don’t forget your umbrella!”. Take heed!
  • The grounds of Kanazawa castle are free to explore, but you must pay to visit the interior. There are free tour guides provided at tourist information, if you ask nicely. They are very knowledgable and speak excellent English.
  • The D.T. Suzuki museum costs ¥300 (about £1.70) per person.

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