Kanazawa, the capital of Ishikawa Prefecture is one of the most historically significant cities in Japan. Owing to the fact that it was spared from Japan’s extensive firebombing during the Second World War, the majority of its pre-modern architecture remains intact. The city has some of the best-preserved examples of Edo Period geisha houses, teahouses and samurai residences.
Following the tumult of the warring states period, general Maeda Toshiie wrested control of the Kanazawa settlement and founded the Kaga domain with the town at its centre. During the Battle of Sekigahara (1600), Toshiie wisely sided with Tokugawa Ieyasu, who subsequently became the founding Shogun of the Tokugawa dynasty. Ieyasu therefore allowed Toshiie to hold onto the Kaga domain, which later became the largest and most powerful domain in Japan.
During the Edo Period (1603–1868), the Maeda clan succeeded in growing Kanazawa from a small town of 5000 to a city of over 100,000. They offered financial incentives for merchants and craftspeople – required to serve the growing population of samurai – to move to the city. They also expanded Kanazawa castle, making it one of the country’s most grand and impressive. In order to stave off any suspicions that Kanazawa had become too powerful, the city invested its wealth in the arts. The domain bought up valuable art works and other treasures from all over Japan and promoted its local gold and lacquer-work industry. The city is still famous for its handicrafts, particularly its ornate Kutani ware ceramics and gold leaf products.
Things to do
Those interested in traditional Japanese culture will be spoiled for choice of activities in Kanazawa. If you’re travelling on our 19-day Budget Japan Tour, you’ll be exploring the city on a bike – stopping off first at Kenrokoen, officially classified as one of Japan’s three most beautiful landscaped gardens. Formerly making up the outer grounds of Kanazawa Castle, the garden is a visual feast of flowering fruit trees, water features, teahouses and finely manicured hedges. You’ll then go on to explore the castle itself: an elaborate maze of elegant turrets and out-buildings set within intimidating castle walls.
You’ll also stop off at the Higashi Chaya geisha district, the largest of the three chaya areas in Kanazawa. Chaya are teahouses – the establishments in which geisha would entertain their guests by performing the arts of dance, tea ceremony and conversation. The area’s Shima Teahouse and the Kaikoro Teahouse are still in operation, while other old chaya have been converted into shops and restaurants.
If you find yourself with some free time, head to the Nagamachi Samurai District, an area of pre-modern houses that were once inhabited by samurai. The houses have distinctive earthen walls, which are still maintained using traditional methods. The Nomura-ke house operates as a museum and has had its interior restored to accurately reflect a samurai household.
What to eat
Kanazawa is near the coast and located in an area famous for its excellent rice, so sushi is definitely a solid choice if you’re visiting the city. There are lots of affordable sushi restaurants to choose from, including plenty of kaiten (conveyor-belt) restaurants. It’s also worth checking out the Omicho Market, where you can sample an incredible selection of seafood at the same time as browsing homeware, clothing and other food stalls. If you’re at the market, look out for kagayasai 加賀野菜 products – which use 15 vegetable varieties indigenous to the area.
Kanazawa is also well-known for the quality of its wagashi – traditional Japanese sweets. Browse the hundreds of varieties in the amazing food hall located in Kanazawa station, they make great omiyage (souvenirs) to bring home with you.
When to visit
Kanazawa lies to the west of central Japan and experiences a temperate climate for most of the year, with the exception of its hot, humid summers and cold snaps during January and February. The city – like much of Japan – is at its most attractive during the spring and autumn months but remains a great place to visit year-round.