You can’t go anywhere in Asia without someone describing a place as ‘east meets west’, or ‘a fusion of ancient and modern’. It’s usually the kind of people who describe somewhere as a ‘hidden gem’ that’s ‘off the beaten track’.
Sometimes though, clichés are just inescapable truths. You will find yourself (or at least a lot about yourself) when travelling. You will fall in love – with a person, a place, or a food. You will, inevitably, come across a market that’s ‘bustling’ and ‘colourful’. And in Japan, forgive us for this, Kanazawa actually is a hidden gem off the beaten track that’s a true fusion of ancient and modern.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s find out why this fishing town, on the east coast of central Honshu Island, is the perfect place to time travel through Japan.
Pull into the city on the new shinkansen bullet train and your first sight will be the curved glass-and-steel dome of Kanazawa station. This is the kind of design that has architects drooling and throwing around adjectives like ‘sleek’ and ‘ultramodern’. The dome represents the concept of omotenashi (hospitality), acting like a giant umbrella for visitors in a city where it often rains and snows.
21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art
This future-focused semi-circular glass building houses pieces by modern artists like James Turrell and Atsuko Tanaka (trust us, they’re big), with artworks breaking out from the walls and sprinkling the surrounding gardens. One of the most talked about and enjoyed pieces in this ever-surprising museum is ‘The Swimming Pool’, a construction that challenges expectations and invites involvement in art.
Kanazawa was one of the few cities spared bombing during WWII, so much of its original architecture still survives. In the Nagamachi neighbourhood you can hang out in the actual former residences of samurai; in Myoruji Temple you can avoid the traps of what legend has was a ninja hideout; in the Higashi Chaya District you can navigate the narrow streets of wooden tea houses where geishas once entertained. Samurai families still live in the city, while around 40 geishas still work here.
Kanazawa Castle and Kenrokuen Garden
You can’t miss the city’s largest relic of the age of samurai – the Kanazawa Castle, which sits on a hill overlooking the city. Built by the ruling Maeda family in the 16th century – apparently not using a single nail – its architecture is symbolic of Japan. Adjoining the castle is Kenrokuen gardens, taking pride of place on the exclusive list of ‘Three Great Gardens of Japan’. To get on this list your garden must have six specific characteristics – tranquillity, spaciousness, antiquity, artifice, aquatic elements and panoramic views.
Crafts and Folk Art
Just a few years ago UNESCO picked Kanazawa for their list of cities with an important heritage of crafts and folk art. This is a place where you can buy tradition and history and be transported every time you look at it. Pottery, kimonos, lacquerware and anything with gold leaf (around 99% of Japan’s gold leaf comes from the city) are all up for grabs. If you fancy something a little tastier. make sure to try some Wagashi sweets. As tasty to look at as they are to eat, these sweets are a sample of the city’s amazing food heritage – also found in the 300-year-old Omicho Market and 400-year-old sake breweries.
Step in your own Japanese Delorean (a Toyota?) and visit Kanazawa on an Intrepid small group tour.
Feature image c/o moonshine1219, Flickr