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The best things to do in Kanazawa, Japan
Travelling through Japan, you will constantly hear about the Edo period and its significance to the country that you see today.
The Edo period is best described as the ‘early modern’ part of Japanese history when, between 1603 and 1868, the country’s economy and culture blossomed in an environment of peace of international isolation.
The strongest and wealthiest clan during the Edo period was the Tokugawa family and it effectively ruled Japan. The second-wealthiest landowner was the Maeda clan – and it was based in the city of Kanazawa.
Understanding this quick little bit of history is important to understanding what I’m going to recommend as the best things to do in Kanazawa.
The Maeda clan was not only wealthy, it was also an ally of the Tokugawa shogunate. This meant that Kanazawa was able to prosper during the Edo period – and it became one of the greatest cities of Japan, rivalling Tokyo (then called Edo) and Kyoto.
After the Edo period, in what we can call ‘Modern Japan’, Kanazawa was still a major city but it had lost its political clout. However, there was one major event in the 20th century that has had a huge impact on how we see the the city today – World War II.
Kanazawa was Japan’s second-largest city to escape destruction during the war (the largest was Kyoto). Many experts believe that both of them, along with Nara, were intentionally avoided by US air raids because of their cultural significance.
So, what does that mean for a visit to Kanazawa? Well, it means that you will find one of the best-preserved historical cities in Japan. Amongst the modern urban development are wonderful examples of Edo period monuments and neighbourhoods.
Kanazawa might not be as striking as Kyoto which, as the capital at the time, has much larger temple complexes. But Kanazawa has a lot less tourists and so feels much more authentic. I think it gives you a much better idea of the real history of the critical Edo period of Japan.
To help you explore it yourself, I have put together this list of the best things to do in Kanazawa. I have marked my suggestions on the map below.
As you can see, everything is quite close to each other. Kanazawa may now have a population of about half a million people, but go back a few centuries and the centre was relatively compact – and that’s the bit worth exploring.
The jewel of Kanazawa is Kenrokuen Garden, a large landscaped area that’s been declared one of Japan’s three most beautiful gardens.
It was developed during by the Maeda clan during the Edo period and wasn’t open until the public until 1871, a few years after the start of the Meiji restoration.
As you walk through, you’ll see the different elements of the garden that are designed to all sit in perfect harmony – lakes, water features, trees, flowers, and teahouses. The more you explore, the more you’ll appreciate each of the little details.
Kenrokuen Garden obviously looks different in each of the seasons. I visited in summer and thought it was wonderful but it is even more vibrant with the cherry blossoms in spring of the red and orange colours in autumn.
At one edge of Kenrokuen Garden, you’ll find the Seisonkaku Villa. It was a private home, built by one of the Maeda lords as a retirement home for his mother in 1863.
The Seisonkaku Villa has two levels. The ground floor is designed as an area for guests and it can have partitions that create separate rooms or it can be opened up as a large hall.
The top floor is more private and so the design is more colourful and less formal. I particularly love the blue colour in the reading room.
It’s worth having a look at the Seisonkaku Villa to get a sense of how the rulers decorated their family homes. Make sure you check out all the artistic details on the walls and ceilings.
Kanazawa Castle Park
On the other side of Kenrokuen Garden is the Kanazawa Castle Park. In many cities, the castle would be the highlight but unfortunately here in Kanazawa, there’s not much to see.
That’s because the last original castle burnt down in a fire in 1881. The only things you can still see from before that are some storehouses and the Ishikawa Gate, which you’ll come in through from the garden.
There are a few restored buildings that you can pay a small fee to enter but, if you’re not interested in that, there’s enough to see around the grounds and from the outside of the castle structures.
Teramachi Temple District
As you would expect from such an important historical city, there are a lot of temples in Kanazawa. As I mentioned, they are not as large and impressive as the ones in Kyoto (or Nara or Kamakura, for that matter). But there’s still something special about the Teramachi district.
In Kanazawa’s Teramachi district, you’ll find about 70 temples packed together into a very small area. Wander the streets and you’ll find one on almost every block. It’s great to pop your head into some of them as you explore.
But there are two in particular that I would recommend.
Ninja Temple (Myoryu-ji)
The most famous temple in this part of Kanazawa is the ‘Ninja Temple’, which is officially called Myoryu-ji Temple.
It actually has nothing to do with ninjas but got its name because it’s full of clever traps and hidden areas. As you’ll realise, it’s much bigger than it appears from the outside!
You can only visit this temple with a guided tour and you should book ahead because there are limited places.
You don’t need to make a book at the Korin-ji Temple, another very important one in the district.
Inside, you’ll find a large Jizo statue with some beautiful decorations, as well as a room with an excellent display of Noh theatre masks.
But the main part of the temple is the garden outside. It’s said that if you walk around the path three times and then stop at the statue representing your Chinese zodiac animal, your wish will be answered.
Many people think of ‘samurai’ as Japanese warriors, because that’s how they started. But in the Edo period, it’s more accurate to think of them as a ruling social class (who happen to also be in the military).
In Kanazawa, many of the samurai and their family lived in a district called Nagamachi, which was right at the foot of the city’s castle, which they were to protect.
Because the samurai were wealthy and powerful, they had large houses with beautiful gardens. And one of the best examples here is the Nomurake residence.
It’s worth going inside to get a sense of how the elite of Kanazawa would have lived during the Edo period. The garden is particularly photogenic.
You can also have some traditional matcha tea served in one of the upper rooms.
One of the other neighbourhoods that you would expect to find in a typical Edo period city is the geisha district. Well, in Kanazawa there were actually three of them – and they’ve all been well-preserved. Visiting them is one of the best things to do in Kanazawa.
At Nishi Chaya St (translated as West Teahouse St), you can see the traditional buildings where geishas would’ve entertained their high-class customers.
Many of these have now become shops and cafes but you can go inside the Shiryokan Museum to see what the rooms would’ve once looked like.
The biggest geisha district is at Higashi Chaya St (East Teahouse St) and there are teahouses here where you can sometimes see Geisha shows. You can also try the famous gold leaf ice cream at quite a few stores.
There is also the small district called Kazue-machi which has significantly less to see but has a charming atmosphere.
You may have seen some examples before of a special type of Japanese craft called ‘mizuhiki’, which is made with thin colourful threads of paper.
In Kanazawa, there is a regional form of this art called ‘Kaga mizuhiki’. It’s quite amazing to see what you can make by tying these threads together.
You can even try it out for yourself at some of the shops in Kanazawa, like Tsuda Mizuhiki. Have a look at what I made (with a lot of help from the instructor!).
Kanazawa Noh Museum
Speaking of arts and culture, Noh theatre is said to be the world’s oldest theatrical tradition that is still performed and it holds a special place in Kanazawa.
The city’s feudal lords encouraged the theatrical form and one of the five schools of Noh, the Hosho School, was so popular here, it became known as the Kaga Hosho.
Noh is a slow and simple performance where the story is told through subtlety, like masks and the placement of characters. If there’s a performance while you’re in town, it’s worth seeing.
Otherwise you can go to the Kanazawa Noh Museum and learn more about it. You can also get dressed up in a costume and mask.
21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art
Right near the Noh Museum is the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art. I think this is one of the best things to do in Kanazawa – a real highlight – and I’ve only left it until the end of the list because it’s so different to everything else.
In a city full of history, a museum of modern art would always stand out, but the architecture and pieces dotted around the outside make it even more noticeable.
Inside, there is a permanent exhibition but most of the space is taken up with temporary shows that change regularly and show an interesting mix of Japanese and international artists.
But the most famous part is always there – the ‘swimming pool’ that you can stand inside, making it look from the outside like you’re trapped under water.
I would highly recommend you take the time to check out the museum when you visit Kanazawa, even if there’s a long line for tickets.
Kanazawa is not usually on the itinerary for first-time visitors to Japan and part of the reason is that, until recently, it didn’t have great transport links. But with a new direct shinkansen (bullet train) link from Tokyo, that has changed.
Sure, head to Kyoto or Kamakura for the big flashy temples, but if you’re really interested in an authentic historical insight into Japan, Kanazawa is the place for you!
Time Travel Turtle was supported by the Kanazawa City Tourism Association but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.