Admiring the Garden Views Over Tea in Kanazawa

The frequently photographed Kotojitoro Lantern in the Kenroku-en Gardens

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.

The first sight most visitors see when entering a new city is that of the train station — usually a drab and forgettable place. In Kanazawa, however, this opening sight turns out to be one of the most memorable

A handful of canals weave in and out of the downtown area, creating a more harmonious feel that balances the urban and natural aspects of the city

An interactive sculpture outside of the 21 Century Museum of Contemporary Art, where three walls – each being a different primary color — wrap around each other, allowing the viewer to see the outside world through a changing variety of hues as they weave in and out, allowing the different colors to combine in different ways

The Oyama Jinja Shrine

A view over the main gate of the Kanazawa Castle Park

Tsurunomaru Park, again overlooking the remains of the Kanazawa Castle

Kanazawa also has several Geisha Districts (always labeled “Chaya”), where the white-faced entertainers would make their homes. Seen here is the Higashi Chaya District

The slatted windows and reed screens keep curious eyes from sneaking a peak inside the Geisha Houses

The tiny alleyways and paths through the Kazue-machi Chaya District (another of the Geisha Districts)

A walking path through a park in the center of town

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 Nagamachi Buke Yashiki District — a series of a few small lanes — showcases many of the samurai houses that still remain today

One such house that can be toured is the Komura House, as seen here

A view over the courtyard garden of the Komura House

Kenroku-en Gardens:

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.

Reflections off of the Kasumigaike Pond

The Karasakinomatsu Pine — during the winter time, special trellises (not shown here) are set up surrounding the tree to protect the branches from the weight of the snow

The mossy surface that covers any exposed ground throughout the entire garden

The garden, which is elevated on a small hillside, offers a great view back over the city below

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:

Prior to being served your tea, you’ll first receive a small confection to enjoy beforehand (sometimes they serve both at the same time, in which case you simply eat the sweet first). Proper etiquette dictates that you pick up the sweet (plate or paper and all) with your right hand, place it in the palm of your left hand, then use the provided stick to divide it up into equal sections, only after which you can then skewer and eat each piece.

The tea of choice is always matcha, a bitter brew made from whisking up hot water and ground tea leaves (in powder form) into a frothy foam. The tea will always be served in a unique bowl with one side being the front – denoted by decorative marking of some sort (which will be served facing you). Similar to eating the sweet, you pick up the bowl with your right hand and place it in the palm of your left. You can then admire the bowl itself before turning the bowl 90-degrees clockwise twice. With the “face” now turned away from you, you can drink the tea (usually in 3-4 sips).

The views from a garden’s tea house are usually amongst the most enjoyable in the whole garden

Gyokusen-en Gardens:

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:

The entrance to the gardens

I opted to try out the tea ceremony at the Gyokusen Garden, as well, as each tea house offers its own unique confection and tea bowls, meaning each experience will be unique

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:

Aisles of the Omicho Market

Various bivalves and shellfish

I had no idea there were this many different varieties of taro (purple sweet potato)

The fruits and veggies looked pretty good, too

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.

And it’s just a box of (cranes), I don’t know who put it there
Believe it if you need it, or leave it if you dare

My finished crane, waiting to fly to the heavens

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:

After cooking the noodles and rinsing them in cold water, we rolled them into individual servings atop a large bamboo tray

Moving outside (this is a summer treat, remember), we set up a long bamboo slide with a hose hooked up to the top end

You then surround the bamboo slide, turn on the hose, and enjoy trying to catch the bunches of somen noodles as they speed down the chute.  I asked why go through the trouble of setting up the slide (expecting there to be some culinary reason), but the response I got was, “Because it’s fun, why else?”

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:

Remember at the beginning of the post when I told you Kanazawa was famous for their gold leaf? Yep, that’s right, they’ll even gold plate your matcha ice cream cone

Kakigori – similar to what we know of as a snow cone, but infinitely better with a much finer grain to the ice crystals

Well, it isn’t really “cool” and it isn’t exactly “sweet,” but I couldn’t find anywhere else to put it, so here it is. Natto – fermented soy beans that have a sticky, stringy consistency and a seriously funky flavor. Although most shy away from foods that smell this way, I’m a firm believer in the adage that fermentation makes anything better

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:

Shimesabe (vinegared mackerel)

Hamaguri, a hard-shelled clam that was in season at the time

Shaka (Mantis Shrimp)

Sayori (Needle Fish)

I never caught the name of this shellfish. I’m just glad, however, that the chef realized early on that I wasn’t the squeamish sort, and thusly brought out the good stuff such as this

It is tough for me, however, to sit at a high quality sushi bar and not order my two favorite bites: that of chu-toro (fatty tuna)….

…and Uni, of course (Sea Urchin Roe). This stuff is pretty much the ocean’s equivalent of pure butter.

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!

About andrewamiet

I'm a 29 (now 31) year-old former desk jockey who is now making my way around the world, experiencing all of the sights, sounds, tastes, people, and culture that the world has to offer.

13 Responses to “Admiring the Garden Views Over Tea in Kanazawa”

  1. Your stories and photos made me miss Japan more. The Kanazawa castle is spectacular, as expected. Japanese gardens are really incomparable. And I am craving for sushi now!

    • I can already tell that as soon as I finally move on to another country, I’m going to miss the crap out of Japan. Heck, I’m already trying to figure out ways to stay here longer!

  2. The Smile Scavenger Reply September 6, 2012 at 11:46 am

    I enjoyed going through this recollection. Thank you for sharing your adventures. Some beautiful scenery and interesting food! 🙂

  3. Your photos are breathtakingly beautiful. We love hearing from you, and wish you well!

  4. Japan was already at the top of my travel list but you are making me look for tickets with this last series of posts! 🙂 Great photos, stories and tips!

    • Obviously, everyone looks for something different in a travel experience, so not every place will work for everyone. That being said, if I had to recommend a country to visit to a friend, of all the countries I’ve been to, Japan would be the first one out of my mouth. (The only downside, however, is that is can be very expensive, but you only live once, right?)

  5. Thanks for your beautiful pictures and comments. We just visited Kanazawa a couple of days last year but you saw some different things… we’ll have to go back there again I guess…

  6. Another fantastic post! As a bonsai – ist, I have to admit, I’m a touch jealous.

    • With both the bansai trees that are often featured inside some of the houses, and the level of attention and detail paid to the foliage in the gardens outside (bonsai on a larger scale, essentially), you really would have been a kid in a candy store here!

  7. Thanks for sharing your experiences in Kanazawa. The gardens look wonderful and I’d love to enjoy some tea there. Someday soon, I hope!

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