Almost due West from the mountainous escapes of the Japanese Alps, and flanked by the Sea of Japan, lies the historic and cultural gem that is Kanazawa, within the Ishikawa Prefecture. The name ”Kanazawa” itself translates to “Marsh of Gold,” which it a very fitting name for the city which, due to centuries of bountiful rice harvests, became an exceedingly wealthy area. As such, the families of note – led by the Maede family — found themselves with both the means and time to explore and nurture artistic and cultural pursuits, and ever since, Kanazawa has been on the Japan’s leading artistic and cultural hubs. The city itself is has a variety of well-preserved samurai and geisha districts, dozens of exquisite gardens and temples, a thriving arts scene led by the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, a decided slant towards the tea ceremony and its various artistic and cultural components (including pottery and tea sweets), and specialty craftsmen focusing on such time-honored trades as lacquerware and gold-leaf.
Additionally — though it is sometimes referred to as “Little Kyoto” — Kanazawa has never been an Imperial town, in that unlike Kyoto and Edo (Tokyo), the Imperial Family has never lived here nor ruled from here. The town, however, has still been thrust to the forefront by the significant presence of the samurai class, many of which made Kanazawa their home. And as such, many of the houses of this noble elite — often quite lavish — still remain and are open to the public:
The highlight of any trip to Kanazawa, however, is a visit to the Kenroku-en Gardens, near the center of the city. What originally started as private garden for a personal villa in the late 1600′s and was later opened to the public in the late 1800′s, eventually blossomed into what is currently recognized as one of the top three gardens in all of Japan (though I’m curious what type of criteria they use to rank these). Despite the large size, one can walk the entire garden in a half hour or so, but doing so would clearly be missing the point — the time spent in the garden is meant to be a solemn, contemplative time, where one can enjoy the natural surroundings, appreciate the layout and beauty of the design, and ponder any deep mysteries they happen to have on their mind at the time.
The beauty of a Japanese garden is something that can be appreciated on its own merit and enjoyed for simply what it is, however, for the full experience, the views of a garden are best enjoyed over a frothy bowl of matcha tea. Traditionally, gardens and the tea ceremony (also known as “the way of tea”) have gone hand in hand throughout history, so it certainly makes sense that Kanazawa (known for its gardens) is also well-known for its confections, too. Although I had the pleasure of enjoying the tea ceremony while in Tokyo, the process seemed a bit more intimate and unique while touring through Kanazawa — perhaps it is more conducive to a smaller, slower-paced town than the hyper-active entity that is Tokyo. Regardless, it is still a unique experience anywhere you happen enjoy it:
In addition to the Kenroku-en Gardens, another nearby attraction is that of the Gyokusen-en Gardens. Although this private garden is significantly smaller, it also is much less crowded than its big brother and offers a much more personal, intimate experience:
Beyond the tea ceremonies, the tea confections, and the beautiful gardens, Kanazawa’s position along the Sea of Japan means that they are also with incredibly fresh seafood. And as such, I made a point to find my way to one of the local markets (Omicho, in this case) to check out what was up for sale:
To experiment with yet another commonly featured aspect of Japanese culture, I decided to try my hand at Origami, or the art of folding paper. Given that I’m about as dexterous as a manatee, I figured I should stick with something basic and beginner-level, so I continued the trend started by my hostel owner in which each guest first writes out a message of peace on one side of a piece of colored paper and then folds the paper into a crane. The cranes will then be collected until the New Year, when they will all be taken to a shrine and ceremonially burned, sending the peace messages up to the heavens in the form of smoke.
While on the road, I relish the fact that I get to enjoy the delicate tastes and subtle aromas of new cuisines, experience the chaotic atmosphere of the local markets, and relive the environment and place in which each dish was born. One thing I do miss, however, is actually jumping into the kitchen and cooking something up myself. So when I was presented with the opportunity to not only participate in, but actually prepare for, a Japanese summer tradition, I was all smiles. Unfortunately, the ”cooking” was confined to simply boiling up a huge pot of Somen noodles (thin, wheat flour noodles), but the method we used to eat them made it all worth while. Afterall, this was my first experience with Nagashi Somen:
Seeing that we’re still in the midst of the hot and humid days of the late summer, I had to pop out to try a few icey, sweet treats in an attempt to cool myself down:
Finally, given that, as previously mentioned, Kanazawa is famous for the freshness and quality of their seafood, I felt obliged to indulge in yet another sushi feast (translation: another parade of sushi photos for you, I hope you don’t mind). Although I didn’t catch the name of everything that I was served — I usually let the chef take the reins for me, after all – it was another experience to remember. In this particular sushi bar, the pieces of nigiri were served to you straight on the black marble countertop, and eating with chopsticks (as opposed to the more traditional method of using fingers) was sternly frowned upon – my kind of place:
After Kanazawa, the so-called “Little Kyoto,” I’m headed off to check out the “Big Kyoto,” in that of…uhhh…Kyoto. Ha ha. I can’t wait! Until then, Kampai from Kanazawa!