Kanazawa is the capital of the Ishikawa Prefecture in the Hokuriku Region. It is located between the Sai and the Asano rivers at the border of the Japanese Alps. Kanazawa is relatively a modern city that was founded in 1889, however its history is closely linked to the era of when samurai fought bravely and shoguns were making history.
One of the main attractions of the city is the Kanazawa Castle.
The castle was built by Sakuma Morimasa, a general under Oda Nobunaga, a powerful Japanese warlord and a Daimyō (a domain lord) who in the late 16th century attempted to unify Japan (known as the Sengoku period).
Serving Nobunaga, Morimasa overthrew the Peasants Kingdom (the ruling order at the time) and took control in Kanazawa. He was supported by Nobunaga and started construction of the Kanazawa castle as a military stronghold. Very short time after, Kanazawa was conquered again and the Maeda Clan became the ruling family. Under the Maeda ruling, the castle and the town continued to grow. The samurai built houses to live on the fringes of the town, creating some kind of irregular shape, with many labyrinth style streets that survive until today.
The Kanazawa Castle itself has changed over centuries – it has been destroyed in battle and by fire many times, and then re-built. The oldest parts of the castle visible today, are the Ishikawa gate from 1788 (part of the Kanazawa Castle park) and it’s today’s shape is a current reconstruction from 2001, using traditional methods and restoration to its 1809 form (including the Gojikken Nagaya warehouse and the Hashizume-mon Tsuzuki turret).
The size of the castle is quite impressive, however it is clear this was mostly a military stronghold, so it lacks the design of other more beautiful castles in Japan. The main distinctive feature of Kanazawa Castle is the white roof tiles which are made of led. Apparently the led could be used and melted down and cast into bullets, in times of siege.
More famous than the castle, is the Kenrokuen garden, which was initially the outer garden of the Kanazawa castle and opened to public in 1875. The garden is considered as one of the most beautiful in Japan. This sits on 25 acres of well manicured trees, waterfalls and landscape. I loved very much the Karasaki pine trees, which are extensively present. Because I visited during the winter, the vegetation, especially the big trees, are being protected from the snow and the heavy weight this can put on the branches, with yukitsuri (which literary means snow hanging) – ropes attached conically to the trees to protect them from breaking.
And if you visit Kanazawa you should not miss the Myoryuji temple known as Ninja dera (Ninja temple – although it is not related to any Ninja history). This is a Buddhist temple belonging to the Nichiren sect, built by the Maeda family around 1585. The building is very bland on the outside, however it has been built as a house of traps, more for tactical purposes rather than prayers.
You can have guided tours here (for ¥800) to show you around the twenty-three rooms set on three floors, with under floor traps, collapsing bridges at the touch of a finger, double doors and false ceilings with hidden spaces in between etc. The passage doors and hidden routes were purpose built for samurai to be able to hide and protect their lord during prayers or military missions.
It’s highly likely this place will steal your imagination and transport you through times of adventure and childhood bound excitement.
And the story says it that Ninja-dera is linked to the Kanazawa Castle through secret tunnels. But I can’t vouch that is true – I have not seen it!
Another place of interest is the Higashi Chaya District (one of the three geisha districts). This is easy to access by bus, with the Kanazawa Loop Bus – the journey is only ten minutes from the Kanazawa Station to the Hashibacho station (bus stop RL5). The district is a five minute walk away.
The Higashi Chaya District was built during the Edo period, starting the 1820s, when the hanamachi (the geisha districts) was built over the Sai river to regulate the flourishing sex trade that was happening at the time (caused by the sharp rise in population numbers – samurai brought in by war and merchants trading during the times of peace). The geisha district has been beautifully preserved and remains pretty much unchanged since the Edo era. Architecturally, the geisha houses (known as teahouses or chaya), are very similar to the period merchant houses, but they have much higher second storeys, used as main entertainment areas (unlike merchant houses that are much lower and used second floors for storage purposes only). The teahouses are also known for their more intricate décor and wooden shutters which are open daytime and when there are parties. At night, the entire area is lit with Taisho – period street lamps, which take you back in time and gives the whole place the past centuries glow.
There are still open teahouses that you can visit on the main street: the Shima Teahouse (which has been converted into a museum where you can see all instruments and various things used by geishas) and the Kaikaro Teahouse (where you can still have tea), which are currently open to the public with an admission fee of ¥500 – ¥750. The other buildings in the district now accommodate cafes and shops.
Among the shops, you’ll find the Hakuza Gold Leaf store (next to Shima teahouse), which sells gold leaf (or Kanazawa-haku). Gold leaf is gold thinned into paper like layers. This is famous in Kanazawa, as the craft masters have a special technique in producing it, playing a very important role in the Kanazawa crafts industry. This gold leaf has been used to cover the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto (which I’ll be telling you about next week).
Kanazawa produces about 99% of the gold leaf in Japan, used not only to adorn buildings, tapestries and laquerware decorated with gold dust (known as Kanazawa shikki), but more famously used in food consumption. The tea with gold flakes is very well known and it is considered by Japanese to be good for health and long prosperous life.
The Hakuza store sells gold leaf by the jar (yes, you heard me right) and gold leaf embellished cakes and luxurious sakes glittering with gold. You can also have tea in their tea ceremony room which is completely covered in gold leaf.
And if you are wondering, as a souvenir, I bought myself a jar of gold leaf which now sits pretty in my kitchen cupboard, waiting to be mixed with some amazing, decadent food or liquor! It’s highly likely it will go in the tequila bottle that has been the focus of my wet bar for quite a while! We are just waiting for the appropriate occasion 🙂
I hope you enjoyed what I have shared with you this week and you’ll have the chance to visit yourself!
Run fast, run strong, run free! And don’t try to hide in Ninja-dera (like I try sometimes)… It doesn’t work like that… Have a great week 🙂
The Running Blogger
1-2-12 Nomachi, Kanazawa, Ishikawa 920-0858, Japan, Ph.: +81 (0) 76 241 0888
Kanazawa, Marunouchi, 920-0937 Ishikawa Prefecture, 1番1号 Japan