Canals, Rain, Gardens, and Castles welcome to the Seattle of Japan

Travel ?? Comments Mon 18 May 2015

A bit 'off the beaten path' (I use inverted commas, because, let's face it, Japan is extremely well connected, and here 'off the beaten path' basically means 'there is no Shinkansen connection'1 - oh god the horror, I have to catch a bus), Kanazawa is not often frequented by overseas travellers. Or so, many online travel guides seemed to assure me. Nevertheless, I had 2 days to kill before heading to Nagano, and visiting Kanazawa seemed like a nice stopover. Furthermore, considering the time of year (28th of December), it would be pretty nice to be stranded in a larger city rather than a tiny rural village on the off-chance that everything would be closed (one of my biggest worries).

Rain, mist and moats

Kanazawa certainly has a different feel from other Japanese cities I'd visited - perhaps it was its smaller size, relative isolation (and I use the term very weakly), and coastal location, but everything seemed a bit slower and more relaxed. The entire time I was there there was a constant drizzle, which didn't bother me too much - I was kind of expecting it, given Kanazawa's reputation as the Seattle of Japan.

'Even if you forget your lunchbox, don't forget your umbrella.' - local Kanazawa proverb

What I wasn't expecting however were the complex network of tree-lined canals permeating the city, ensuring wide, open public spaces that left a small-town feel in the middle of a bustling city street. Even cooler, I later found out that these canals are remnants of 'enclosure moats' built during the Edo period to strengthen the cities defences, and are the only remaining enclosure moats in Japan.

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Two of the larger canals are pictured here - the black dot in the bottom left near the train-station is Guest House Pongyi

Even better though - the canals provide an excellent navigational tool, especially when you arrive after dark and are delirious from hunger.

'Just go out the hostel exit, turn left, and follow the canal until you hit the CBD. They'll be tonnes of food there!' - Yuu at the reception

(Somehow I still managed to get lost - 'oh shit the canals are diverging' - and ended up getting take-out yakitori at a local Lawson. But let's not dwell on that).

The next day, by randomly meandering along the canals, I also chance upon some amazing food, including Saint Nicolas, a French Patisserie.

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Hands down best dessert I had in Japan

Kanazawa Castle Park

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Situated in the center of Kanazawa, Kanazawa castle park is a sprawling complex containing remains of Kanazawa's original castle (first built in 1580) and the surrounding castle grounds and gardens. Of course, being a castle in Japan is a perilous undertaking (bizarre personification unintended), and I wasn't surprised to discover Kanazawa castle was no different.

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Let's have a quick run down.

  • Built 1580
  • Rebuilt in 1592 after the invasion of Korea
  • Ravaged by fire and rebuilt in 1620
  • Ravaged by fire and rebuilt in 1631
  • Ravaged by fire and rebuilt in 1759
  • Ravaged by fire and earthquakes in 1881

After the last fire, all that remained were the Ishikawa-mon Gate (dating from 1788) and two storehouses - amazingly, the site was then occupied by Kanazawa University until 1989 (and hopefully fared better in the 20th century than Shuri Castle in Naha, despite being used as a military base during the second world war)!

I shouldn't complain, really, it's amazing than Kanazawa has been able to save the site after so many centuries of natural disasters, and I was kind of expecting something similar due to the other castles I had visited so far.

However, I wasn't prepared for the fact that the reconstruction effort was still in full swing and you could see additional buildings and structure being built right before you.

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Behind the scenes of the previous photo

The work is definitely impressive, with traditional construction techniques and materials being used in order to replicate the 1850's era facade as closely as possible. And perhaps I'm just crazy, but the stark minimalistic interiors along with simply the knowledge of the contemporary construction robbed the site of some of the atmosphere you feel, for example, at the Tower of London, or the numerous castle ruins of Okinawa.

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The background scenery was definitely stunning, however

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And the frozen outer moats were definitely impressive

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Kenrokuen Garden

Directly next door to Kanazawa castle park is Kenrokuen (and no coincidence either, considering it used to be a private external castle garden). However fate was kinder to Kenrokuen, and it by and large survived the many fires to ravage the castle grounds (the tea houses on site date to the early 18th century). Worked on continuously from the 1620s, it's renowned for it's numerous streams and ponds (as you would expect, for a garden in Kanazawa) before they all coalesce into the castle moats.

In fact, Kenrokuen has far eclipsed the castle site to become the premier 'must-see' site in Kanazawa, and is today considered one of the Top 3 gardens in Japan (I won't name the others because I'm tired and can't remember so here have this Wikipedia article).

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To be honest, I was a bit underwhelmed. Perhaps it was the hype (The top three gardens of Japan you just can't miss! Number 2 will make you go OMG), the pictures I had seen the day before on Facebook when Kenrokuen was buried in snow and looked magical (don't judge I'm from Australia), or just the the dreary, overcast day.

Or maybe it was the remnants of snow on the ground, reminding me of my time in Takayama (Hida beef I miss you already).

Regardless, I did find the Yukitsuri - the rope and bamboo pole tree supports - pretty cool. Ubiquitous around Kanazawa in winter, these are essential to ensure that trees and shrubs do not collapse under the ridiculous amount of snow common in the region.

Or perhaps people just enjoy the illusion of giant tree marionettes. Who knows!

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Nagamachi Samurai District

Apparently one of the better preserved samurai districts in Japan, this neighborhood is quite scenic with narrow alleyways, wooden ceilings, and mud brick walls - albeit somewhat historically dubious according to Wikivoyage (I haven't been able to find any similar sentiments online).

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Most of the remaining Samurai houses are private residences, almost making it feel like you're intruding into suburban neighbourhoods, but a couple are open to the public. Nomura Samurai House in one such example, and displays Nomura family artifacts spanning from 400 years ago until they were bankrupted by the Meiji Restoration.

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'We are very happy that you brought us his head'

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'We have been very busy these days, feeling sorry for such a simple letter like this'

The house itself is also pretty amazing (regardless of it's authenticity), and perfectly juxtaposes the typically minimalistic interiors with one of the most eclectic 'zen' gardens I'd seen. It almost seemed like there were more Yukitsuri than plants.

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On the way to the zen garden

Higashi-Chayamachi

My last stop was Higashi-Chayamachi. After failing to properly explore the geisha district of Kyoto (and ending up in an Irish pub), what better place to make amends than the geisha district of Kanazawa. Kanazawa is known as Little Kyoto, after all, did I not mention that?

Probably because 'the Seattle of Japan' moniker seemed so dead on - as soon as I crossed the Asanogawa River and reached Higashi-Chaya, it started pouring.

First stop: buy an umbrella.

Luckily for me, I didn't need to! How serendipitous that the bus stopped right next door to a Minna no eRe:Kasa (free umbrella rental station).

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Unfortunately, I didn't notice the sign until I left the shop, and endured a hearty laugh and repeated urgings of 'just take! just take!' as I kept trying to pay the shop owner.

But jokes on him! I never actually returned umbrella (as I later found out you were supposed to - apparently 1000 went missing the month after the trial started), and instead donated it to the hostels overflowing umbrella stand for the next patron to use.

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The umbrella that I may or may not have stolen

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Typical Kanazawa rainy day in the geisha district

Whilst some of the traditional two-story Chaya houses continue to be used for geisha events and entertainment, quite a few of them have been converted into museums, tea-houses, restaurants and speciality shops, which actually makes for quite a lively neighbourhood during the day.

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One of the more awesome museums is Ochaya Shima, which allows you to explore the various rooms of a traditional geisha house (the waiting room and guest rooms dating from ~1820) before finishing at the tea house for some matcha and dessert (of course).

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19th century, meet the 21st century

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I think I was so exhausted at this point, and the tea house was so utterly relaxing, that I spent almost 40 minutes here

And that was my time in Kanazawa complete! The next day I was up at 5am to catch the train (the non-shinkansen type, unfortunately), for a 4 hour + trip to Nagano/Yamanouchi to meet up with Tania and gawk at some snow monkeys.

Yuu, of course, was up at 5am to help me check out and set off (did I mention how much I loved my accommodation here?), and off I went in the darkness, hoping against all odds for rain-free walk to the train station.

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Kanazawa Train Station: half wooden temple, half skyscraper


  1. A massive development since my visit is the opening of the Nagano-Kanazawa leg of the Hokuriku Shinkansen on March 14th, 2015 - travel to Kanazawa from Tokyo now takes as little as 2 and a half hours! 

Tags: japan kanazawa



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