Kanazawa hit the travel sections in March 2015 with the opening of a new shinkansen (bullet train) line going there from Tokyo. It cut the travel time to less than two and half hours. I’d never heard of it before, but that coverage led me to add visiting Kanazawa to my plans.
Kanazawa, I read, has a spectacular garden, considered one of the best in Japan, especially at cherry blossom time, and also a pretty castle. Right across the road from each other, both sounded like pleasant places to visit, even if I wouldn’t be there at cherry blossom time.
Kanazawa Castle Park
Kanazawa Castle isn’t actually a castle. A reconstruction of some other castle compound buildings, it was completed as recently as 2015. A litany of fires and earthquakes have repeatedly destroyed buildings here through its history. The last of them burnt down in 1881.
The new buildings, the largest of which is a long, massive workshop, were rebuilt using the original techniques and materials, except for modernizations such as concrete foundation, elevators and ramps for the disabled, fire prevention systems, and so on.
I was disappointed, though. The resulting buildings are interesting from an architectural point of view, but they have no life in them. They’re too new and neat to feel real. Walking barefoot through the buildings, my feet didn’t feel the history in the floor as I did, for example, at Matsumoto and Himeji. It was too hard and smooth and solid.
Exhibits along the walking route inside give more detail than anyone but the most fanatical construction hobbyist would ever need about the reconstruction. For example, you can see models, cross-sections of walls, a display about the roofing tiles, and so on.
I’m not an architecture maven. I’m more interested in the end result than the process of getting there, so I gave most of these exhibits a miss.
Kenrokuen Garden is the main draw of Kanazawa. It’s right next to the castle, connected by a bridge over a road. The gate over the bridge dates to the 18th century, and it’s one of the only original structures that remain.
Originally, Kenrokuen Garden was the outer garden to the castle. It is said to combine
six attributes of a perfect landscape garden: spaciousness, seclusion, artifice, antiquity, watercourses and panoramas.
It’s true; it’s got all six, except maybe the seclusion part. I’m sure it had that originally, when only the royals and their guests could enjoy it.
This is a very extensive Japanese-style garden, comprising arbors, ponds with teahouses, an orchard, shrines, and pretty much everything else you can think of for a garden. Especially if you are a gardening enthusiast, you could easily spend a whole day here.
I visited on a Sunday, and Kenruoken is clearly a family destination as well: crowded and not particularly peaceful. If you want peace and quiet to contemplate the garden and its design, I’d suggest a weekday during school time.
Kenrokuen Garden is also home to Seisenkaku Villa, an “important cultural asset.” This upper-class villa dates to 1863 when Maeda Nariyasu, the 13th lord of the Kaga clan, built it for his mother. While their personal history isn’t particularly interesting, the house differs from other historic houses I visited in Japan—either royal or otherwise—in terms of the interior design. The layout is traditional, with wood-floored rooms separated with shoji screens, the typical wood sliding doors with rice-paper panels. But this villa contains detailed paintwork and woodwork so that each room carries a subtly different theme. Upstairs each ceiling has a different pattern and some are painted in quite startling colors.
Outside Kenrokuen Garden
Kanazawa is a very spread-out city if you want to see some of these other worthwhile sights:
- Nagamachi: I visited Nagamachi, the neighborhood where the Samurai lived, briefly. Surrounded by neat, high, mud walls, it’s a pleasant place for a stroll, though because of the walls you can only catch occasional glimpses of the houses themselves.
- Higashi Chayagai: This is the old district where the geisha lived and entertained. Many former homes are now shops and a few are small museums.
- The Omi-cho market is a warren of covered alleys, each section selling different produce and products: fish, fruit, vegetables, cloth, and everything else you can imagine.
- Myoryuji Temple: I didn’t get there, but it sounds interesting. Containing hidden defenses, this temple could warn the castle in case of attack.
Fortunately, you don’t have to waste lots of time catching buses between sights. You can rent a bike in Kanazawa for almost nothing on their shared-bike scheme. You pay 200 yen per day, then nothing more as long as you return the bike to one of their parking stations within 30 minutes. Otherwise it’ll cost you another 200 yen per additional 30 minutes. The parking racks are scattered around the city, so I never ended up paying more than that initial 200 yen, and was able to get around quite easily. In most places you’ll have to bike on the sidewalks, sharing with the pedestrians.
The only disadvantage to this scheme, though, is if you’re tall. I’m about 5’7” or 170 cm, and the bikes weren’t quite high enough for me, even when I set the saddle as high as it would go. Since Kanazawa is fairly hilly, this could be hard on your knees!
Since I only had one full day in Kanazawa, I didn’t exhaust all the tourism possibilities. Quite a few museums are nearby Kenrokuen Garden and Kanazawa Castle:
- Prefectural Museum of Art,
- Prefectural History Museum,
- Prefectural Museum for Traditional Products and Crafts (right next to Seisenkaku),
- 21st century Museum of Contemporary Art, and
- Kanazawa Noh Museum: about traditional Japanese Noh theater.
Is Kanazawa worth visiting? It depends. If you love Japanese gardens or have a particular interest in architecture, then definitely, yes. Even if you don’t, I enjoyed my day there, but felt like that one day was enough. If you don’t have much time, I’d skip it and see other more impressive sights like Nikko or Himeji instead.