Into the heart­land

Why the Hokuriku re­gion is the place to go in 2014

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Japan - BENE­DICT WALKER

THE TRAINS ARE COM­ING

HOKURIKU, on Hon­shu’s west coast, bor­dered by the Sea of Ja­pan and the mag­nif­i­cent Ja­pan Alps, com­prises four pre­fec­tures — Fukui, Ishikawa, Toyama and Ni­igata — sat­u­rated with cul­ture, his­tory and strik­ing nat­u­ral beauty. The city of Kanazawa, cap­i­tal of Ishikawa pre­fec­ture, is king. Once the rich­est in the land, it was ruled by the Maeda (one of Ja­pan’s most pow­er­ful samurai fam­i­lies) for al­most 300 years from 1583 to 1868. The wealthy Maeda pa­tro­n­ised cul­ture and the arts and left be­hind an ar­ray of metic­u­lously pre­served cul­tural at­trac­tions, fate­fully spared in World War II.

Even so, Kanazawa is of­ten over­looked by time- poor visi­tors who favour the more ac­ces­si­ble sights to the east. That’s all about to change. In March 2015, the first of the lon­gan­tic­i­pated Hokuriku Shinkansen ( Bul­let Trains) will roll into town, slash­ing travel times from Tokyo and boost­ing vis­i­tor num­bers.

Un­til they ar­rive, beds are cheap, cheer­ful and plen­ti­ful. The lo­cals are ready — they’ve been build­ing the in­fra­struc­ture to sup­port their re­turn to the spot­light for years: homely back­pack­ers, shiny new ho­tels epit­o­mis­ing func­tion­al­ity, and at­mo­spheric ryokan. Pho­to­genic dis­tricts ra­di­ate from the site of the for­mer Kanazawa Cas­tle and Ken­roku-en, one of Ja­pan’s finest gar­dens. Edo-pe­riod streetscapes and mod­ern ar­chi­tec­ture co­ex­ist; the 21st Cen­tury Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art is one of the most pop­u­lar in Asia. It’s easy to ride loop buses or rent bikes from the machi-nori (town ride) sta- tions dot­ted about. Rent a car and ex­plore the dra­matic scenery of the Noto Penin­sula. Jagged cliffs, sandy beaches and ter­raced rice pad­dies give way to the high- al­ti­tude spec­ta­cle of the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route and the sa­cred wilds of Mount Haku­san.

Dis­solve your­self in the sump­tu­ous waters and in­com­pa­ra­ble ryokan of the Kaga Onsen area.

This is the time to ap­pre­ci­ate the Maeda dy­nasty’s fore­sight, artis­tic vi­sion and at­ten­tion to de­tail, be­fore the trains start rolling in and you have to share your own sa­tori ( sel­f­re­al­i­sa­tion) with every­body else.

FEEL­ING FES­TIVE

ONthe first weekend in June, folks line the streets for the year’s big­gest fes­ti­val, Hyaku­man­goku Mat­suri, fea­tur­ing a pa­rade re-en­act­ing Lord Maeda’s ar­rival in Kanazawa, cos­tumed danc­ing in the streets and fire­works.

The best bit hap­pens at dusk on Fri­day when ex­quis­ite Kaga Yuzen silk lanterns are floated down the river; it’s breath­tak­ingly beau­ti­ful.

Known through­out Ja­pan, Noto’s Abare Fire and Vi­o­lence fes­ti­val (first Fri­day and Satur­day in July), fu­elled by sake and the pound­ing of taiko drums, takes place to de­light Su­sanoo-noMikoto, a de­struc­tive de­ity. The bolder and louder, the bet­ter it is. Colour­ful lanterns and por­ta­ble shrines are car­ried through the streets with much ram­bunc­tious­ness, be­fore a dozen dudes smash them up, set them alight and throw them into the sea. It’s a pho­tog­ra­pher’s dream.

Dur­ing Wa­jima Tai­sai (Au­gust 22 to 25), in­tri­cately lac­quered 10m-high lanterns and colour­ful floats are car­ried from four dif­fer­ent shrines to the ocean at Wa­jima, with much mer­ri­ment and danc­ing, cli­max­ing in a sea­side bon­fire.

LIFE-CHANG­ING EX­PE­RI­ENCES

BREATHE in your spir­i­tual self in the his­toric heart­land of Zen Bud­dhism. Hokuriku boasts some of Ja­pan’s old­est and most beau­ti­ful tem­ples. Find them in Kanazawa’s Tera­machi tem­ple dis­trict, and on the Noto Penin­sula — My­oji-ji, with its five-tiered wooden pagoda, and Soji-ji, founded in 1321.

Get some con­text at the won­der­fully min­i­mal­ist, ar­chi­tec­turally strik­ing DT Suzuki Mu­seum, opened in 2011 and hon­our­ing the man who in­tro­duced Zen to the West. With its Wa­ter Mir­ror Gar­den and Con­tem­pla­tive Space, it’s a tem­ple in its own right. If you’re ready to get se­ri­ous with Zen, head to Ei­hei-ji in Fukui Pre­fec­ture, dat­ing from 1244 and present home of the Soto sect of Zen Bud­dhism. Both Ei­hei-ji and Soji-ji ac­cept dis­ci­plined as­pi­rants for res­i­den­tial med­i­ta­tion prac­tice.

GET FRESH WITH FISH

IF fresh is best and Ja­pan is the home of sushi, Kanazawa’s Omi­cho Mar­ket is up there with Tokyo’s Tsuk­iji. Seafood lovers might find tran­scen­dence in Hokuriku’s seem­ingly end­less iza­kaya (pub-eater­ies). If you don’t do raw, try shrimp tem­pura, soba (buck­wheat

ALAMY noo­dles), ap­ples the size of base­balls, or ji­buni (soy-fried duck stew). Kanazawa’s Hi­gashi-chaya-gai dis­trict is the per­fect place to drop a few hun­dred bucks on an au­then­tic kaiseki (mul­ti­course haute cui­sine) ex­pe­ri­ence. This is an edited ex­tract from Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2014 ($24.99).

The Drum Gate at Kanazawa Sta­tion; Bul­let Trains will start rolling into town in March 2015

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