ONE PER­FECT DAY The easy life

Alis­tair Jones finds much to en­joy in the re­laxed Ja­panese city of Kanazawa

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

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.

Check­list

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

Pic­tures: Alis­tair Jones

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