ONE PERFECT DAY The easy life
Alistair Jones finds much to enjoy in the relaxed Japanese city of Kanazawa
S it a bird, is it a plane? No, it’s a girl in a kimono bouncing on a trampoline and there’s a queue of others waiting for a turn. It’s all part of a Saturday afternoon of street music in Kanazawa, capital of Ishikawa prefecture and a lively provincial city of 457,000 residents nestled between two rivers on the Sea of Japan coast, about two hours by train north of Kyoto.
Musical acts are all over town during my visit: a cheesy boy band chirps a Billy Joel song in the rain and a choir of children sings Consider Yourself One of Us in Japanese as I head for the main stage in the park below Kanazawa Castle. Here a pageant of interpretive dancing is entertaining an amiable crowd scoffing takeaway food.
Everywhere there are bright costumes in red, purple and black, colours that feature in kagayuzen silk-dyeing and the glazes of kutani porcelain for which the city is renowned. Kanazawa was an economic powerhouse during the feudal centuries, allowing the local Maeda shoguns to patronise arts and crafts, including kutani and ohi ceramics, silk-dyeing, gold leaf and lacquerware. All are featured in specialised museums, most offering hands-on experiences for visitors.
Kanazawa was spared bombing during World War II, so much of its street layout is original with examples of Edo-period architecture in the Teramachi temple district, the former geisha area of Higashi and the Nagamachi samurai quarter. Kanazawa’s fortunes have waned but it remains a popular tourist city, not just for cultural history, fine rice, seafood and shopping, but because it feels less socially constrained than many parts of Japan, more relaxed in its welcome. Best orientation: The staff at the tourist office inside Kanazawa station speak English and supply maps, brochures, advice and directions. There are two loop buses meandering the city by day, making it easy to reach most places. Best attraction: Kenrokuen is a grand-scale garden for strolling in, an uplifting 10ha that warrant a couple of hours rambling about. All the favourites are here: moss, murmuring streams lined with irises, stone bridges, Shinto lanterns, ponds, teahouses, clipped azaleas, waterfalls. And there’s an impressive variety of trees in a hilltop location that blends open spaces with secluded areas, linked by diagonal paths to best hide and reveal unfolding man-made landscapes.
Hordes of giggling visitors feed the carp and ducks, photograph each other and enjoy a breathing space with views over the city, but Kenrokuen is large enough to still be enjoyable. The crowd thins an hour before closing time and, as the sun’s last rays make the moss glow and the lanterns are switched on, it’s possible to have a moment in peace. As an added surprise, the closing English-language announcement comes from a woman with an Australian accent. Open 7am-6pm, March to mid-October; 8am-4.30pm, mid-October to February. Admission Y=300 ($5). Best stickybeak: It’s rare to be permitted inside an aristocratic villa, much less to poke about unescorted. The Seison-kaku overlooking Kenrokuen was built by the then shogun for his mother’s retirement in 1863. Fine craftsmanship and elaborate detail using imported materials frame tatami-matted areas the size of tennis courts in the state style of the ground floor, along with corridors lined with glass cases of miniatures and gosho dolls. Exotic paintwork is a feature of the private quarters upstairs: bright red, black and an ultramarine from France. Open 9am-5pm. Admission Y=600. Best sense of scale: My first glimpse of a samurai’s suit of armour is like seeing Napoleon’s bathtub: can a feared soldier have been so small? Samurai may have been as lightly built as most Japanese men but the swords in the glass cases at the site of the Nomura family’s house in the Nagamachi quarter leave no doubt that limbs could be hacked off in their expert, if slender, hands. The Nomuras were loyal retainers for 12 generations and the surviving remnant of their estate was renovated in the 1930s by a wealthy industrialist, who transplanted a prized cypress-wood drawing room, with exquisite inlays and beautiful screens, from a grand house in the south of the prefecture. The tranquil garden with waterfall and cherry granite bridge was also improved, but a myrica tree has been here for 400 years. Open 8.30am-5.30pm. Admission Y=500. Best modern attraction: Opened in 2004, the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art is the pride of the region, a vast white disc with glass walls and stark cubes stacked on top. An attendant asks me to put my pen away and proffers a pencil as I take notes, perhaps to thwart any temptation to defile the whiteness with ink. The permanent collection is mostly large figurative paintings by Japanese modern artists and visiting drawcard exhibitions range from the wonderfully esoteric to the internationally renowned.
There’s a restaurant, a children’s program and nursery, and the gift shop is great for quirky souvenirs. Galleries open 10am-6pm (to 8pm Fridays and Saturdays); the restaurant until 8pm and other public spaces until 11pm. www.kanazawa21.jp/en/. Best produce: Omicho market is the kitchen larder of Kanazawa with vendors touting and barrow boys shouting. Under covered arcades, about 200 stalls sell seafood so fresh it’s still kicking (crabs a speciality), gleaming fruit and vegetables, flowers, pickles and more. All are welcome and it’s OK to barter. Open Monday to Saturday (except national holidays), 9am-5pm. Best museum: With 540 working phonographs and more than 20,000 discs, the Kanazawa Phonograph Museum celebrates a 30-year collecting passion by record-store owner Hiroshi Yokaichiya.
Spread over three softly lit floors and maintained with a trainspotter’s reverence for detail, the museum also offers demonstrations and tutorials, an area for audiophiles to compare formats, an automated grand piano and a whimsical sense of how Japan has embraced and adapted Western technologies. Open 9am-5pm. Admission Y=300. Best streetscape: According to The Japan Times , there are 1000 geisha in Japan (after a peak of 80,000 in 1928). Higashi was designated a high-class pleasure precinct in 1820, and though the girls have gone, an atmospheric street of largely original, two-storey, slatted wooden houses remains with two of the former tea houses open to the public. Admission is free at the renovated Kaikaro, where a glossy, lipstick-red staircase beckons to the entertainment areas upstairs. Open 9am-5pm.
Bright lights: Behind the Scrabble, a busy intersection in downtown Kanazawa, lie small streets of bars, restaurants and lively neighbourhood pubs
Small scale: Selling fish at Omicho market
Costume drama: Street music day in Kanazawa
Across the street, Shima has been faithfully restored and is a national cultural asset with its maze of little rooms featuring screens, low doorways, musical instruments and even vintage kimono. Open 9am-6pm. Admission Y=400. Best food: It’s not so gorgeous,’’ says the woman running the ryokan where I am staying when I ask about Kaga cuisine, the local slow-cooked style of eating. She produces a compressed block made from high-gluten wheat that reconstitutes into gloopy chunks when cooked with chicken and soy sauce in the most common dish. She directs me to Janome, a good restaurant where two sushi chefs slice up luscious local seafood.
There’s no English signage to find Janome so take the laneway across the road from Korinbo 109 department store and go about 100m to reach a two-storey, old-style Japanese house across a small canal on the left. Janome is the entrance downstairs on the left; it’s opposite a hotel carpark. Best nightlife: The intersection of Katamachi and Saigawa Odori streets, known as the Scrabble, is ground zero for shot bars and girlie clubs. Twentysomethings roam in harmless packs, all big hair, miniskirts and thigh-high boots for the girls; rock-rooster locks and swivel hips for the boys.
The small streets behind the Scrabble are filled with restaurants, bars and izakaya (neighbourhood pubs serving small-plate snacks). I no Ichiban is a cross between an izakaya and a restaurant with room for about 100 and is such a local favourite it can be difficult to get in. Fish is a speciality and plates of excellent food fly from the central kitchen station with a gusto even Gordon Ramsay would admire. The counter around the food station is the best spot to drink beer or sake among a convivial, casual crowd, and select dishes of the day.
The entrance is behind a screened alcove on the left as you head towards the river down Kawaramachi Street, off Saigawa Odori. Open 9pm until very late. Best tip: Pack an umbrella or a raincoat: Kanazawa is famous for frequent showers. Disposable, clear-plastic brollies are sold at newsagents.
Thunderbird semi-express trains run between Osaka and Kanazawa via Kyoto several times daily. From Tokyo take the Joetsu shinkansen (bullet train) to Echigo Yuzawa and change for the local train to Kanazawa. There are regular domestic flights between Tokyo’s Haneda airport and Komatsu airport outside Kanazawa. www.jnto.org.au www.kanazawa-tourism.com
Local knowledge: Murataya ryokan in Kanazawa FOR travellers who prefer a local buzz, the friendly, family-run Murataya ryokan in the Katamachi area offers free internet access, guest laundry, an Englishlanguage map of restaurants and bars and wry guidance to the best (and worst) of Kanazawa from the helpful proprietor.
The decor is still in the 1970s but bedding is crisp and fresh and the shared bathroom facilities are clean. It’s in Kawaramachi Street behind the APA Villa Hotel and you can nip through that establishment’s foyer and grab a passable earlymorning coffee and croissant on the run. Or sit down to breakfast at Murataya (Japanese style, $14; Western, $9). Midnight curfew. About $80 a person; credit cards accepted. Phone +81 76 263 0455; www.murataya-ryokan.com/e/index.html.
The new, high-rise Excel Hotel Tokyu, with a Starbucks downstairs, is the upmarket favourite, well situated next to Korinbo 109 in the main street. www.tokyuhotelsjapan.com. Alistair Jones