One of the most overlooked destinations in Japan is Kanazawa. Although it is the capital of Ishikawa Prefecture, many tourists have not heard of the city or use it only as a quick stopover to other places. In reality, Kanazawa has a legacy in the arts, a rich cultural heritage, and many unique offerings that can’t be found anywhere else in the country. To help you learn a little more about the area, here are 10 reasons to visit Kanazawa, Japan.
A vibrant art culture
Kanazawa has a long history as a town of artisans, originally invited into the area by the Maeda clan during the Edo period from 1603 to 1868. Some traditional art forms still found in the area include:
- Lacquerware and maki-e, which is lacquerware decorated with gold leaf or gold powder. You can see an example of lacquerware, created by artist Masaru Nishimura, above.
- Pottery, including suzuyaki, a naturally occurring black “glaze” on pottery, and kutani-yaki, a five-colored glaze painted in flower and nature patterns
- Silk weaving thanks to the production by silkworms that live in pairs in the same cocoon
- Kaga yuzen silk dyeing, which involves the complicated but beautiful processes of pattern transfers, paste coating, coloring, steaming, and rinsing
- Kaga-nui embroidery, the delicate stitching technique used to create kimonos
- Zogan wood inlay, where different materials are laid on top of one another
- Mizuhiki craft, which is comprised of paper-string weaving
One of the unique aspects of Kanazawa’s art culture is that there are so many types of local art and artisanal crafts in a relatively small area. If visiting the region, one good idea is to visit a studio and see a craftsman at work, which you can learn more about by clicking here.High gold leaf production
Kanazawa literally means “gold marsh,” and 99% of Japan’s gold leaf is produced here. In Ishikawa, gold leaf has historically been used to decorate artisanal crafts, particularly lacquerware, since the sixteenth century. Both the gold leaf and lacquer industries in Kanazawa boomed during the Edo Period (1603 to 1868) under the Maeda clan of daimyô (feudal lords), who encouraged the development of artisanal crafts in the region. Kanazawa gold leaf was used to repair the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto in 1987, and Marie Antoinette reportedly owned lacquer boxes and small objects from Japan decorated with gold leaf produced here. Gold leaf can also be used to decorate textiles and to gild Buddhist altars, and edible gold leaf can be found on local cuisine.
Teichiami, or fixed-net fishing, began in the seventeenth century and is still practiced in several areas of Japan, including Kanazawa. The nets, which never change position, stretch over 300 feet in diameter and are composed of several compartments. Fish enter through a hole that stretches many yards below the surface and are led through a maze of progressively smaller compartments until they reach “the vault,” which is the smallest compartment located at the end of the net. Fishermen visit the net each morning to pull up the fish.
Although commercial in scale, the practice is sustainable because the catch’s volume is determined by natural migration patterns instead of aggressive trawling. Furthermore, because migration patterns are seasonal, so is the catch. Like fruits and vegetables, the fish caught varies throughout the year: spring is known for squid, summer sees much mackerel, the fall catch has katsuo and giant squid, and winter is the season for Ishikawa’s famed buri – large yellowtail prized for their fatty flesh that many argue rivals even the finest tuna. If interested, visitors can opt to ride on the boats and try the fishing method for themselves by contacting Discover Kanazawa. In addition, you can watch a sushi chef prepare your catch before you enjoy it with a sake pairing.
The area surrounding Kanazawa is very mountainous. Mount Hakusan in southern Ishikawa is one of Japan’s three sacred mountains along with Mount Tateyama, in the neighboring Toyama prefecture, and Mount Fuji. Hakusan, whose name literally means “white mountain,” rises to 8,865 feet. The summit remains snowy throughout the year, and the mountain was once revered as the dwelling place of the gods. The Shirayama Hime Shrine, located in Hakusan City, is the main shrine of over two thousand Hakusan Shrines throughout Japan, including several near the summit of the mountain. From a practical standpoint, Hakusan protects Ishikawa from the typhoons that sweep along the prefectures south of the mountain in the late summer. There are some excellent hiking trails in this area, now designated as a national park, and the flora and fauna from late spring to early fall are especially beautiful. To learn more, click here.
Kanazawa’s location between the mountains and the sea provides the area with a variety of delicious ingredients. The seafood – particularly the oysters and the winter yellowtail – is considered the best in Japan. There are 15 designated heirloom vegetables known as Kaga yasai, which include varieties of squash, cucumbers, potatoes, field greens, and herbs. The area is also home to many nihonshu (sake) breweries, which use the fresh water from Mt. Hakusan to create their unparalleled products. The local rice, particularly the koshihikari type, is prized throughout Japan. Sea salt is harvested from the shores of the Noto Peninsula using traditional techniques unique to the area, while more recent culinary endeavors include dairy farming and grape cultivation for winemaking. With the bounty of the fields, sea, and mountains, Kanazawa has a lot to offer visitors looking for fresh culinary experiences.
Kanazawa is located in central Ishikawa between the Sea of Japan and the Northern Japanese Alps. The mountain range in the South of the prefecture and the rocky terrain of the Noto Peninsula in the North made the region historically difficult to access. However, during the reign of the Maeda clan from the late 16th-to-mid-19th centuries, present-day Ishikawa became one of the richest provinces in Japan, second only to the capital city of Tokyo. Rich in natural resources, the landscape boasts not only the sea and mountains, but also quiet bays, lush forests, expansive plains, and robust rivers.
The main reason that people visit Kanazawa is to stop by the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art. The museum aims to connect the region with the future of art by showcasing the “richly diverse art of our times [that] cuts across genres and transcends barriers of time and space.” People can expect pieces relating to the area of Kanazawa, newer works that propose new values, and art that can be used as a reference point for these values. Some current exhibitions include: The Swimming Pool, Blue Planet Sky, and Green Bridge.
There’s a well-preserved samurai district
Kanazawa’s samurai district is of particular interest as samurai families of varying ranks lived together in the same area. Kanazawa was spared from bombing during World War II, so the samurai residences, most of which are now private homes, remain intact. An excellent example is the Nomura House, now a museum open to the public. Although their garden is small, it contains all of the requisite features: waterfall, koi pond, stone lanterns, bridge, and pagoda. There is also an uguisubako (nightingale dovecote) displayed indoors, so the birds’ enchanting songs can be enjoyed. During winter, the mud walls of the houses are protected with komokake straw matting, making the area especially picturesque.
The city features the only active geisha district in Japan other than Kyoto
There are three historic teahouse districts: Higashiyama Chaya-gai, Nishi Chaya-gai, and Kazue-machi. All were created in the 1820s to regulate the entertainment and pleasure trades. Because the city and region were not damaged during the war, many of the original buildings have been preserved and restored. One can experience the architecture of the area with museums, geisha entertainment, or by visiting a restaurant or coffee shop housed in one of these structures. If you want to explore one with a local guide, Discover Kanazawa offers experiences with select teahouses in hopes of introducing visitors to this wonderful part of Kanazawa’s culture.
You can take part in special cultural festivals
There are numerous festivals and traditions to take part in during a visit to Kanazawa. First, there are the Kiriko Festivals. Kiriko are heavy rectangular lanterns made of wood and washi paper. The lanterns tend to be 3 to 16 feet high, built onto wooden carts or shouldered by festival participants who carry them through town streets – and sometimes into rivers and the sea. Typically held in July and August, these festivals are unique to the Noto Peninsula.
Kanazawa and Kaga in the southern region hold their own famous festivals from June-September, including light-ups, historical reenactments, dancing, fireworks, and a wide variety of lively rituals to pray for a good harvest of crops and fish. Abare Matsuri (the “fire and violence” festival) is perhaps the most famous due to wild ceremonies that include precariously maneuvering kiriko floats around bamboo stalks topped with blazing stacks of hay, and then smashing them in the river.
Another famous festival is the Hyakumangoku Matsuri in Kanazawa. The event takes place the first weekend of June and celebrates Lord Maeda Toshiie’s appointment as daimyô (feudal lord) of the Kaga province and entry into Kanazawa Castle in 1583. The festival is celebrated with a parade reenactment of residents in period costumes who march from the station to the castle. Hyakumangoku refers to the one million koku of rice that the domain was worth, which was about 5 million bushels. After sundown, hundreds of lanterns made of Kaga yuzen dyed silk are sent out to float on the river.