Kanazawa: Worth a Visit?

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.

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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.

Kanazawa Castle isn't actually a castle; it's a reconstruction of a very large out-building.
Kanazawa Castle isn’t actually a castle. It’s a reconstruction of some out-buildings of the castle that used to be there.

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.

a closer look at one end of the warehouse building at Kanazawa Castle
a closer look at one end of the warehouse building at Kanazawa Castle

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.

Some remnants are still visible of the original structures at Kanazawa Castle. This was a section of the moat.
Some remnants are still visible of the original structures. This was a section of the moat.

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.

This display in Kanazawa Castle shows how the walls are constructed with sticks, mud, straw and rope.
This display in Kanazawa Castle shows how the walls are constructed.

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

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.

The Kenrokuen tea garden in Kanazawa was only recently opened, so it projects a somewhat bare appearance.
The Kenrokuen tea garden only opened recently. It needs to mature a bit.

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.

A very old tree in Kenrokuen Garden, Kanazawa, has poles under its branches, keeping them up and off the ground.
a very old tree in Kenrokuen, with supports

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.

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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.

a street in the Nagamachi neighborhood of Kanazawa
a street in Nagamachi
  • 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.
a girl in traditional clothing takes a picture with her mobile phone in Kanazawa
a girl in traditional clothing takes a picture
  • 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.
The seafood section of the market in Kanazawa
The seafood section of the market
  • 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!

Other things to see in Kanazawa

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.

Information for visiting Kanazawa

Getting there: The easiest and quickest way to get to Kanazawa from Tokyo is to take the Shinkansen (high speed) train from Tokyo Station. Read my article on navigating Japan Rail for help with figuring out how to get there.

Getting around: As mentioned above, the shared bike scheme is probably your best bet, rather than trying to figure out the local bus system. Or, assuming you don’t mind a walk, Kanazawa Castle Park is about a half-hour walk from the train station.

If you don’t want to bike or to have to deal with the bus system, GetYourGuide offers a number of tours in Kanazawa.

Kanazawa Castle Park: Open March 1-October 15 from 7-18:00 and October 16-February 28/29 from 8-17:00. Admission to the grounds is free, but to enter the buildings costs ¥310 (€2.50 or $3).

Kenrokuen Garden: Same hours and days as the castle park. Admission: ¥310 (€2.50 or $3).

Both Kanazawa Castle Park and Kenrokuen Garden have early admission hours which are free of charge. However, you then have to leave before the regular opening time. Hours: In March, September and October from 5:00; April-August from 4:00; November-February from 6:00.

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    • Rachel

      August 22, 2015 at 9:23 am

      I wish more cities had a system like that! And this one was really easy to sign up for at the machine at one of the bike stations. It took me a while to figure out that I needed a local telephone number (I used my Airbnb host’s number.) but otherwise it was very straightforward.

  • noel

    August 24, 2015 at 3:01 pm

    I loved my visit to Kanazawa and I agree, the castle even though it was done to precise reconstruction, lack character and something authentic about it. But it does look striking in the distance.

  • Carole Terwilliger Meyers

    August 24, 2015 at 11:46 pm

    I’d say Kanazawa is definitely worth a visit. The castle looks interesting even if new, though I did particularly like the image of the moat, and how convenient to have Kenrokuen Garden right across the way. The town looking charming as well. All good for at least an overnight.

    • Rachel

      August 25, 2015 at 7:19 am

      Only certain parts of Kanazawa are so charming. A lot of what I bicycled through to get to, for example, the market or Nagamachi, was a typical modern, busy city and not attractive. The interesting sections, outside of the castle and the garden, are far separated from each other.

  • Donna Janke

    August 25, 2015 at 4:11 pm

    I’ve not heard of Kanazawa before, but it sounds to me like it is worth a visit even if one might want to bypass the castle. I would definitely enjoy the gardens, although I might prefer them on a quieter weekday.

    • Rachel

      August 25, 2015 at 6:30 pm

      I had never heard of it until they opened that shinkansen train line, which I think was last spring or winter. There were several blog posts and newspaper articles about it at the time which made me want to see it. Definitely try for a weekday during their school year!

    • Rachel

      August 28, 2015 at 6:15 pm

      Thanks, Lesley! I agree, Kanazawa might be worth it for the garden and the villa, but not so much for the castle, or, rather, not if you have the time to see Himeji or Matsumoto!

    • Rachel

      August 30, 2015 at 6:20 am

      You’re welcome, Doreen! I’m actually not in Japan anymore. I decided to stick to my twice-a-week schedule of posting even though I was writing much more than that. So I have posts about Japan and Korea lined up and scheduled well into October! I’m home in the Netherlands and back to my “real job” now!

  • Mac

    March 23, 2018 at 6:16 am

    Hi Rachel,

    I really love your blog about Kanazawa. I plant to visit Kanazawa especially the Kenrokuen garden with my wife and a young daughter but I am not sure is it worth to stay in Kanazawa just for the garden? Should we just do a day trip from Kyoto instead? Or should I just forget it.


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