Into the heartland
Why the Hokuriku region is the place to go in 2014
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.
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.
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