Places of Magic and Wonder: Kanazawa, Japan

25-28 January, 2017

Before leaving for Japan, I watched an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown in which he traveled to Japan with celebrated sushi chef Masa. This particular episode was much more than a normal food/travel show, and became a retrospective of Masa’s life through the different places he lived in Japan. One of the cities they visited was Kanazawa, a small, historic city on the north of Honshu island on the Sea of Japan. There was something about Kanazawa in this show that really captured my imagination, and it became one of the places that I most wanted to visit during my time in Japan. For some reason my job had no classes scheduled for the end of January, so I jumped on the opportunity to venture north for a few days, days that were to be filled with magic and serendipity.

Kanazawa is due north of Nagoya, about 3 hours by train. I changed trains in Maibara, a place that is nothing special, but with the recent snow it had been magically transformed into a winter wonderland that only got more wondrous as I traveled further north. The train pulled into Kanazawa station, and I walked from there to my hostel. The walk was cold, but delightful. I passed old buildings, niche museums, antique shops, a local brewery, and felt the crunch of snow underfoot. I could tell I was going to like this place already. My hostel, Guesthouse Stella, was beautiful and quiet and run by Shuji-San, the nicest man on the planet.

On the train to Kanazawa
The beautiful river

The first night of my stay, I went out looking for some dinner, figuring I’d have a quiet solo evening. I found a sushi place and sat down at the bar. There was a group of women in the corner, but otherwise I was the only person there. Not too long after I ordered, a blonde guy came in and sat down a couple seats down the sushi bar from me. Something compelled me to break the spell of my solo evening and talk to him. My sake arrived, and I asked him for a favor. “It’s bad luck to pour your own sake, do you mind?” That simple question started an hours-long conversation that would take us from the sushi bar to the street outside where a light snow was falling (pursued by the sushi chef who, pleased at the presence of foreigners in his shop, presented us each with a sake glass as a souvenir) to a small local bar where we drank green tea and vodka to my new friend’s hostel, until I finally dragged myself away at 23:30 so I could get some sleep before sightseeing. David is 23, German, and quite interesting. He studied hotel management in Amsterdam but his passion is cooking, and he spent a year in Florence doing an internship in a restaurant. He had just moved to Japan when we met, on a one-year working holiday visa, and was going to try to find work in Tokyo. We made plans to meet again the next night, and I walked through the cold, snowy streets to my waiting bunk.

The next day I took in many of the historic sights of Kanazawa by myself. That’s how I prefer to do solo travel: solitary days of wandering and sightseeing, nights filled with new friends, booze, and endless conversation. My first stop of the morning was Omi-cho Market, a large covered market where the city has done it’s shopping for nearly 300 years. All kinds of sundries and food stalls can be found there, but the market is most famous for it’s fish, especially the soft-shell crab that is famous in Kanazawa. I adore seafood, so I had to try something in that market! I bought an oyster and watched the vendor shuck and thoroughly clean it for me. He placed it on a small tray and pointed to a plastic bottle of lemon juice and another of ponzu sauce. Hint taken. I doused my oyster, and tipped it out of the shell and into my waiting mouth. It was the best damn oyster I’d ever eaten, and I walked out of the fish market floating on a cloud. If it’s true that oysters are aphrodisiacs, then I’d just fallen head over heels in love with Kanazawa.

Omi-Cho Market
Fish for sale!
The best damn oyster of my life, fresh from the Sea of Japan

I walked over to the Castle Park, which houses the ruins of a castle from the 16th century, and on this day was a vast wonderland of snow, glittering in the sun. I marveled at frozen ponds, smiled at families making snowmen, and was baptized in snow melt dripping off of the high gates surrounding the ruins. Next to the Castle Park is Kenrokuen Garden, easily the most popular attraction in Kanazawa. Japan likes it’s gardens, and this one was exceptionally beautiful, filled with tea houses, frozen ponds, groves of plum trees, and endless paths for wandering. Every tree, building, and path was covered in snow, and sparkled in the sunlight. There were plenty of visitors, to be sure, but the park was pretty big, so it didn’t feel overly crowded. I saw some tourists sitting on benches drinking tea, and suddenly it occurred to me how hungry I was. I ordered some noodles, and the old proprietress beckoned me inside a small, empty tea house, the kind with sliding doors where you have to remove your shoes at the entrance. That meal was so divinely perfect, one of those “Oh shit! I live in Japan” moments: I was seated at a low, lacquered table on a tatami mat, with a steaming cup of tea and bowl of soba noodles before me, a view of the frozen pond out the window and a soundtrack of birdsong and dripping snow.

Kenrokuen Garden
The view from the tea house
Soba noodles and tea

I lingered over my meal, and took my time leaving the garden, then meandered south to the Naga-Machi Buke Yashiki District, aka, the Samurai District. Kanazawa was a castle town from 1583 to 1868, and many samurai lived in the surrounding areas. Sometimes in Kanazawa, it felt like every time I rounded the corner I was confronted with something beautiful, and this neighborhood of preserved, old samurai houses bordered by serene canals was just that. I went inside the Nomura Family Residence, one of the few houses that’s been turned into a museum open to the public, and it was interesting but a bit sparse. But that’s the Japanese aesthetic: minimal, clean lines, open space, but oh man, the details! The smallest, most functional features of the house had been lavishly detailed, with open-work carving on the wood, decorative metal nail covers, and delicate, beautiful enamel designs on the circular door catches in the sliding screen doors. I also checked out a ceramics shop nearby, as Kanazawa is famous for it’s ceramics.

House in the Samurai District
Fountain in the garden of the Nomura Family Residence
Details. The Nomura Family Residence.

My last stop on my tourist trail of Kanazawa was an area I’d really been looking forward to: Higashi-Chaya, the geisha teahouse district. This district has also been well-preserved, and in the golden afternoon light was a delight to stroll through. I toured one of the old geisha tea houses and loved it. The interior was all delicate screens and laquered wood and lit by lanterns, with red walls and gold-leaf partitions that glowed in the low light. It truly felt like stepping back in time. I particularly enjoyed the glass case of geisha accessories such as decorative hair combs, shamisen picks, long cigarette holders, and sake glasses that you could take a closer look at through a magnifying glass thoughtfully left on top of the case. Many of the other chayas (tea houses) in the area still retain their original layouts, but now function as shops, so I poked around in a few and looked at local sake, cosmetics, and gold leaf products. Gold leafing is another famous craft tradition from Kanazawa, and one large famous gold leaf shop even sells gold-covered golf balls and soft serve ice cream decorated with a sheet of edible gold!

Tourists who wish they were geisha. Higashi-Chaya District.

The next day I took a day trip to Kaga Onsen, which was special enough that it deserves its own post, so I’ll tell you about this next time. However, Kanazawa still had one final experience to offer me. Accompanied by Shuji-San and my new friends from the guesthouse, Lu from Hong Kong and two adorable girls from Taiwan, we headed back to Kenrokuen Garden at night for the annual winter illumination. These “illuminations” are basically light installations, and immensely popular in Japan. I admit, I didn’t really get the appeal before I went, but it was incredible. Seeing the garden lit at night presented a completely different world from the daytime, a place that was more magical, mysterious, and other-worldly. As we explored, many times I caught myself standing completely still, barely breathing, transfixed by the parallel universe I saw before me. Most impressive were the illuminated pine trees with their traditional rope tents to protect them from the snow around the ponds. The surface of the water was so smooth and mirror-like that looking at the reflections of the trees was like peering into a portal of another dimension.

The mysterious and magical Kenrokuen Garden at night.

After, Shuji-San took us to his local izakaya, a traditional Japanese pub, and ordered plates of yakitori (skewered grilled meats) and beer and sake, and together the five of us rang in the lunar new year, a perfect meal with perfect company, and the perfect end to my visit to Kanazawa.

Happy lunar new year!

It’s a good thing I liked Kanazawa so much. In exactly one month, I will be saying goodbye to ho-hum Nagoya and moving that fair city on the Sea of Japan, beginning a new job and living my Japanese dream life. Much more on this to come!

Happy Travels,



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