Visit Kanazawa

Visit Kanazawa, where ancient Japan meets the modern art

If you ask me what my favourite place in Japan is, I would hardly be able to give you a straight answer, but if you ask me what my favourite city is, I would answer Kanazawa without the slightest hesitation.
Kanazawa is a little jewel on the west coast of Japan, at the gateway to the Noto peninsula, which still retains the traditional charm of medieval Japan, including samurai houses and quarters where geishas still live. Like Kyoto, you can still find these unique atmospheres because Kanazawa was spared the bombings of World War II but unlike Kyoto, you can experience these atmospheres without the overcrowding of tourists.
However, the things to see in Kanazawa are not only limited to these time-crystallised districts, but also include one of the three most beautiful gardens in Japan (which is personally my favourite), culinary delicacies such as oden, or the freshest fish, and a focus on art in various forms. 
Although Kanazawa does not fit into the most classic of itineraries for a first trip to Japan, it is a destination that has been becoming more and more popular lately and being excellently connected to both Tokyo and Kyoto, it is also easy to fit it into an itinerary, perhaps even stopping off in and around Nagano!

What to see and do in Kanazawa

Being a smaller city compared to other Japanese cities, the things to see in Kanazawa are all quite close to each other, reachable by walks of 30 minutes at most. There is, however, an excellent bus network covering the city and even taxis have lower fares than in Tokyo.
Although Kanazawa’s main attractions are close to each other, I still recommend staying overnight in the city for at least one night, so that you have enough time to enjoy the city by walking around its districts and breathing in the magical atmosphere of this city. If you have more days available, from Kanazawa it is also possible to spend half a day in the Unesco World Heritage village of Shirakawago, go to Wajima and the Noto Peninsula or indulge in some relaxation in the thermal waters of Kaga Onsen.

Visit Kanazawa: Kenrokuen garden


Kenroku-en Garden, one of the three most beautiful gardens in Japan

“The Garden of the Six Elements” where the six attributes of the perfect garden come together in harmony. Space, tranquillity, artifice, antiquity, waterways and views combine and amalgamate to create the perfect environment. And harmony is precisely the feeling that is released in the heart and mind when visiting this enchanting garden, selected as one of the three most beautiful gardens of Japan along with the Kairakuen in Mito and the Korakuen in Okayama.
Allow at least a couple of hours to stroll through the different environments of the Kenrokuen, following paths that branch out among pine trees, small bridges and tea rooms. Kenrokuen should be experienced in peace, without haste, leaving space for the thoughts that so much beauty conveys.
The famous Kotojitoro lantern, with one arm longer than the other and stretching out over the water is a bit of a symbol of the park and, to quote Will Ferguson, is a bit like Japan: poised but perfectly balanced.
I have visited Kenrokuen both in summer, with the trees full of greenery, and in winter, with a few snowflakes falling on the special wooden structures to protect the pine branches, and both times it was magnificent….I can only imagine in autumn and spring how much the beauty is further amplified!
Hours: 07:00-18:00 (opening and closing one hour earlier in winter)
Price: 320 JPY


Gyokusen-en Garden and tea ceremony

If your craving for Japanese gardens has not yet subsided, I also recommend visiting the Nishida family’s Gyokusen-en Garden, just outside Kenroku-en. This garden is definitely smaller than its renowned neighbour, but it is a real gem that houses the oldest tea room in Kanazawa, where you can join the traditional tea ceremony. The ceremony is conducted in Japanese, but there are written explanations in English and to participate you need to book at least three days in advance and the cost is JPY 3,000 per person
Hours: 09:00-17:00, closed on Wednesdays and from 25 December to the end of February
Price: 700 JPY

Visit Kanazawa: Kanazawa Castle


Kanazawa Castle

Right at the end of Kernokuen Garden stands Kanazawa Castle, built by the Maeda Clan, one of the richest in feudal Japan, and burnt down several times. The present castle is a reconstruction and access to the park is free and allows you to get an idea of the grandeur of this rich castle. It is also possible to join a free guided tour by contacting the information office near the Ishikawamon gate, the one you enter from the Kenrokuen.


Oyama Shrine

Go through Kanazawa Castle Park and cross the causeway bridge leading to the Oyama Shrine, also linked to the Maeda clan and in particular to Maeda Toshiie, the first lord of this rich and powerful clan, and his wife Maeda Matsu, also a key figure in the growth of the Maeda clan. The peculiarity of the Oyama Jinja is its unusual western-style portal: it was in fact designed by a German architect and originally marked the entrance to Kanzawa Castle, but was later moved to the entrance of the Oyama Jinja


Nagamachi, the Samurai district

A short walk from the Omiya shrine and you reach the Nagamachi district, the old Samurai quarter where many samurai residences of different ranks can still be found. Many residences have been renovated and are still inhabited today, in many cases by direct descendants of the original families. Paved streets, rammed-earth walls, wooden houses and small canals line the street… and in an instant, you are far from the modernity of nearby Katamachi, the central shopping and nightlife street just a few steps away.
Some old dwellings are open to the public, such as the elegant Nomura Residence (500 JPY), with its lovely inner garden that once belonged to a higher-level samurai, or the dwellings of the ashigaru (the lower-level samurai, who did not have a horse) with free admission.
Visit Kanazawa: Nagamachi Samurai District
The whole district retains a unique atmosphere and there are several small shops selling handicrafts and traditional sweets, and it is an absolute pleasure to stroll calmly through the narrow streets of Nagamachi!
If you are interested in Samurai residences, I also recommend visit also Kitsuki and Sakura 

Geisha districts: Higashi Chaya, Kazue-Machi and Nishi Chaya

To continue travelling through time, the walk continues through the streets of the geisha districts, past two-story wooden houses, cobbled streets and rice paper walls glimpsed inside the buildings. Although the place par excellence associated with Geisha is the traditional Gion district in Kyoto, Geisha existed, and still exist even if in smaller numbers, in other cities, such as Tokyo or Kanazawa, where there are no less than three districts where these Japanese artists live and work.
Nowadays, in addition to the classical events and receptions in the Chaya -the traditional teahouses where guests are entertained by the performances of the geisha- the geoshas take part in some city events and celebrations, and it is also possible to attend some of their performances dedicated to the general public. You can find the calendar on the Kanazawa Tourist Board website.
The most famous, most visited and also largest district is Higashi-Chaya, with two Chaya open to the public for visiting. In many other buildings there are delightful cafés and sophisticated souvenir shops, mainly made of gold leaf, a product for which Kanazawa is renowned. In this regard, I would like to point out Hazuka Gold Leaf Store, which has two locations: the more modern one has a gold bath, while in the traditional location you can admire the traditional warehouse with the wall entirely covered in gold leaf!
Crossing the river, you arrive instead at the Kazue-machi district, a precious little treasure chest where it is not rare to hear the sound of a koto or a shamisen that some maiko is practising to play. This district is the smallest and since there are no buildings accessible to the public, it is generally ignored by most tourists, but personally it is the one I preferred, precisely because of the cosy and real atmosphere.
Finally, Nishi-Chaya, further away and in the western part of the city, is basically a street overlooked by some tea houses and where there is a small museum on the history of the area. Personally, it is the one that fascinated me the least and if you don’t have enough time, you can skip it.

Visit Kanazawa: Geisha Districts

Teramachi and the Ninja Temple

A stone’s throw from the Geisha district of Nishi-Chaya is Kanazawa’s Teramachi, or ‘city of temples’, where there are over 70 temples, mainly lined up along the main street. The most famous temple is definitely the Myoryuji Temple, also called the Ninja Temple, although it has nothing to do with ninjas! The nickname comes from the special features built inside the building such as secret tunnels, hidden passages and hidden rooms. In fact, the temple was actually a kind of military outpost, which had above all a defensive function and provided a warning inside the castle in the event of an enemy attack and at the same time could be turned into an escape route.
Myoryuji Temple can only be visited by pre-booking (call in advance or register on the spot for the first tour with availability) and the tour is in Japanese, but a booklet with an English translation is provided.
Hours: 09:00-16:00 (to book call 076-241-0888)
Price: 1,000 JPY

Art & Architecture

But Kanazawa is not only past and tradition, it is also a modern city and a must-see destination for lovers of architecture and modern art. So much so that the first impact with the city, on arrival at Kanazawa station, is with the imposing Tsuzumimon Gate, the great portal inspired by the tsuzumi drum, which merges with the Motenashi Dome behind it, recalling a samurai’s helmet, in a perfect architectural fusion of tradition and modernity.
Another noteworthy site is the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, a complex consisting of a building that often hosts exhibitions and shows and the surrounding park, dotted with numerous art installations. A space to experience art from all directions, without a precise explanation, following the stimuli that come to us as we walk among the installations, a bit like what happens at the Hakone Open Air Museum.
Access to most of the installations at the 21st Century Contemporary Art Museum in Kanazawa is free of charge, but for temporary exhibitions and access to the ‘submerged’ part of Leandro Erlich’s famous pool an entrance fee is required.

Visit Kanazawa: Kanazawa Station

Eating at the Omicho market

After having driven you so many kilometres and filled your eyes with its beauty, Kanazawa could not fail to think about how to satisfy your stomach too! Kanazawa, located by the sea at the gateway to the Noto Peninsula, is one of the best places in Japan to enjoy delicious fresh fish. Definitely, the best place is the Omicho Market, a huge covered market where locals go every day to buy fresh fish and vegetables. The market is open every day except Sundays, generally between 9.30 am and 5 pm, and besides the stalls where you can buy fresh fish or taste fish snacks and oysters, there are also many small sushi restaurants, both near the various entrances and upstairs. Lunch here is definitely one of the things to do in Kanazawa!
And speaking of food, Kanazawa’s cold winters have made it one of the best places to enjoy a hot oden! This sort of soup with various elements in it is a simple but very tasty dish that is said to warm the body and soul. You won’t struggle to find oden on the menu at the little eateries and izakaya drinking alleys in the Katamachi area….

Visit Kanazawa: Omicho Market

Excursions from Kanazawa

There are plenty of things to see and do in Kanazawa. I generally recommend devoting a couple of days to the city, including a half-day visit to Shirakawago, the Unesco heritage village with its typical houses with sloping thatched roofs resembling the shape of two hands joined in prayer. It can be easily reached by bus in an hour and a half or you can opt for a tour with a private driver.
Kanazawa is also the perfect gate to explore the Noto Peninsula, where I recommend you to visit Wajima, the town famous for being the birthplace of Go Nagai and for the production of Wajima Laqueware.


Where to stay in Kanazawa

Compared to other Japanese cities, I found the choice of accommodation in Kanazawa a little more limited and not always good value for money. I have stayed in Kanazawa twice: the first time, during my second trip to Japan, I had decided to try the minshuku experience (a sort of homely version of ryokan) and had opted for the Minshuku Ginmatsu, with traditional dinner and breakfast included. The inn is near Higashi-Chaya and is very simple but in perfect Japanese style, with tatami floors, futons to sleep on and a couple of lovely owners who also speak English.
The second time instead, arriving late in the evening and planning to stay two evenings, we opted for the Amanek hotel, in the Katamachi area where there are several izakaya to spend the evening. A little further from the station, but within a few minutes’ walk you can reach both the Samurai district and Kenrokuen Garden. It also offers a hearty Japanese-style breakfast, served in beautiful saucers typical of Kanazawa handicrafts, and the rooms are more spacious than the average Japanese, with a really nice modern bathroom. For those travelling by plane, it is also convenient for taking the limousine bus to Komatsu airport. 
Other hotels that I recommend and that some travellers who asked me to create their personalised travel itinerary have tried are the Tokyu Stay Kanazawa, in the same area as the Amanek and a decent alternative should the latter be unavailable, and the Soki Kanazawa an excellent hotel near the Omicho market, from where it is easy to reach both the city and other points of interest.

Visit Kanazawa: Nishi Chaya District


How to get to Kanazawa

Kanazawa is very well connected to the rest of Japan both by train and by air, so much so that the second time I went there I took a flight from Haneda airport to Komatsu airport, at a lower cost than the Shinkansen from Tokyo…this could be an interesting option to consider also in view of the little convenience that the Japan Rail Pass will have from October 2023 due to the price increase…
Kanazawa is very well connected via fast train to Kyoto and Osaka, as well as via Shinkansen to Tokyo, including via Nagano where you might decide to stop and visit Shibu Onsen and the Snow Monkey Park.
In short, Kanazawa is in an excellent location, it is full of interesting things to do and see and it is my favourite city in Japan…I would say that it has all the credentials to be absolutely included in your itinerary in Japan!
Visit Kanazawa
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