Kanazawa (金沢) in Ishikawa Prefecture is sometimes called “Little Kyoto” (小京都). And with good reason too: it’s an old city, rich in traditional crafts and culture, where the blooming cherry blossoms are stunning, where you can still see a geisha, and where the food is exquisite. In fact, the only things they differ in are that Kanazawa was never home to the Japanese emperor, and that slightly fewer tourists visit Kanazawa compared to Kyoto. Their loss – but it doesn’t have to be yours!
A Little Bit about Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture – Weather, Travelling There and More
Kanazawa City is located on the main island of Honshu, on the Sea of Japan coast. The weather there is temperate, but prone to rain, so keep an umbrella just in case – there’s even a local saying that “You can forget your lunch, but you must not forget an umbrella”. However, don’t be discouraged. All four seasons in Kanazawa are beautiful and very distinct: the winters are picturesquely snowy and the summers just as hot and humid as in other places, with rather warm and colourful springs and autumns in between.
It is very easy to get there, regardless of your mode of transport.
- Travelling by plane you can go straight to the nearby Komatsu Airport, and then take a bus to the city. This option will almost always involve changing at the Haneda Airport in Tokyo.
- Travelling by bus you can reach Kanazawa from all three nearest major cities: Nagoya, Osaka and Tokyo, with journey times varying from about four hours (Nagoya) to eight hours (Tokyo) in normal traffic. There are also night buses from both Osaka and Tokyo, offering a slightly longer, but more comfortable journey. Check discount bus operators as well, especially for travelling from Tokyo.
- Travelling by train is now easier than ever before, as from 2015 the Hokuriku Shinkansen Line operates between Tokyo and Kanazawa. Direct limited express trains run from Osaka (Thunderbird) and Nagoya (Shirasagi), and it’s also a stop on the overnight trains going to Sapporo and Aomori.
When is the Best Time to Visit Kanazawa?
You’ll be happy to know that regardless of the season of the year during which you visit Kanazawa, its major tourist attractions are always beautiful. Of course, winter is the least popular season for a trip there, although if you prefer colder temperatures and want to pop out for a skiing trip as well, you should definitely consider it.
The Main Places to Visit in Kanazawa
The main four things are the Kanazawa Castle, the Kenrokuen Garden, the two geisha districts: Higashi Chayamachi and Nishi Chayamachi, and the so called Ninja Temple.
I’d recommend starting with Kanazawa Castle (金沢城). Be prepared for a little climb to reach the top of the hill where the castle is, but the views are worth it. It’s free to walk around the castle grounds, which are breath-taking during the cherry blossom season, and entrance fee is only for the inside of the castle, which houses an exhibition of how the castle was built and used at the time, as well as some of the items found around it.
From the castle you can take the Ishikawa Gate to directly reach the Kenrokuen Garden (兼六園). The name means “The Garden of Six Attributes”, and is a reference to the six attributes of an ideal garden as named by a Chinese poet. It’s is considered one of the most beautiful parks in all of Japan, and depending on the time of your visit you will see a different side to it. While it’s crowded during the cherry blossom blooming season, it’s equally stunning in autumn, when the trees start turning red and gold, and in winter, when the pine trees are suspended to prevent breakage under the weight of snow and they resemble Japanese umbrellas.
After you are done with strolling around Kenrokuen, you will be closer to Higashi Chayamachi (東茶屋街), probably the more famous of the two geisha districts in Kanazawa, as this one often features as a filming set for historical films. But regardless of whether you go there or take the tourist bus to Nishi Chayamachi (西茶屋街), both evoke the feeling of Japan from the past. If you are lucky you may spot a geisha going to or out of her appointment, although to guarantee seeing one you are better off either spending money on an expensive dinner in a tea house with a geisha (try the Tourist Information Office for more details) or attempting to book a ticket to a geisha performance.
If you decided to go back to the Nishi Chayamachi, you will find yourself within walking distance of the Myōryu-ji Temple (妙立寺), better known as the Ninja Temple. You can only enter on a guided tour, which is better booked in advance (although individuals may be able to get in on the spot if there is a slot available); booklets with a translation of the tour into English are provided upon request. Be prepared to spend an hour on this tour, and don’t go if you know that you might have to rush someplace else afterwards. The secret traps and ritual suicide rooms are better enjoyed when you give them the time they deserve.
Eating and Drinking in Kanazawa
Even the Japanese people in different parts of the country will tell you that fish simply tastes better in Kanazawa. This translates onto incredibly tasty sushi, with sweet prawns, amaebi (甘えび), being a particular local delicacy. If you’re in a hurry or only just arrived, try any sushi place around the Ōmichō-ichiba market (近江町市場), and you’re guaranteed the freshest produce.
Kanazawa also sports its own variety of curry. It is served with raw shredded cabbage on the side, the sauce is a little thicker than other kinds, and you will often be given a spork to eat it with (good news for those who haven’t quite mastered using chopsticks). A relatively cheap is Champion’ Curry (チャンピオンカレー), who have branches all over the city and who specialise in Kanazawa curry.
But probably the food that Kanazawa is famous for is Japanese confectionery, the so called namagashi (生菓子) in particular. You can find them in the food courts of any department store and most big shopping centres, as well as both of the geisha districts. You can also go to a traditional Japanese teahouse, where you will be served tea accompanied with some namagashi. Different shops will specialise in different kind of Japanese sweets, but if you don’t know what you’d like to try, go to Kawamura (かわむら), a shop with adzuki sweet bean sweets in Nishi Chayamachi.
However, to get the best taste of local cuisine you may want to set some money aside, as that kind of experience may be on the pricey side. Whether you stay in a traditional ryokan slightly outside of Kanazawa itself (for example in the hot spring resorts of Yuwaku, 湯涌) or visit one of the izakaya drinking parlours to combine savouring local food with tasting local sake (like you could do in Umihiko, 海彦), food in Kanazawa is very much about quality and local produce, and spending a little extra to taste it pays off.
Thus prepared, you are ready to set off on your adventure while travelling and sightseeing. But bear in mind that this is only the tip of the iceberg called Kanazawa and there is far more to be discovered – if you care to look.