Kanazawa is the Japanese city you’ve never heard of. Nestled alongside the Sea of Japan, Kanazawa boasts one of the country’s best modern art museums, a vibrant geisha district, and fresh, delicious seafood. Less popular with tourists than Kyoto or Tokyo, it’s most definitely a destination to watch. Here are the top things to eat, drink, see, and explore there.
Stroll Through Kenrokuen Garden
Considered one of the Three Great Gardens of Japan, Kenrokuen is at the center of Kanazawa sightseeing. Many gardens in Japan demand that you view the landscape from a certain spot — but not this one. Kenrokuen is a “strolling garden,” meaning that you’re meant to enjoy the grounds as you leisurely walk through small thickets of trees, over streams, and around picturesquare man-made hills. The garden is gorgeous at any season, but it’s especially worth a visit in the fall or spring.
Submerge Yourself in Modern Art
The 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art is an absolute must-see. It’s perhaps most famous for one particular work in its permanent collection — Leandro Erlich’s “The Swimming Pool.” When first viewed from above, it looks like any other chlorine pool. But appearances deceive: this pool is not filled with water at all. Visitors can enter the concrete chamber and look up at the shimmering expanse above, or gaze down into the “waters” at their bewildered counterparts.
Sip Tea in a House of Geisha
For now, forget Kyoto’s Gion — Kanazawa’s Higashi Chaya-gai district, while less impressive in color and size than that of the old capital city, is one of the last vibrant preserved districts in Japan. Chaya means teahouses, places where customers are entertained with traditional song and dance by real geisha. Kaikaro is one old teahouse that is still in operation today. Marvel at the golden floors, and enjoy a hot cup of matcha and alongside a traditional Japanese sweet.
Enjoy Sashimi & Sake at Omoicho Market
Kaiseidon is a heaping portion of raw fish over a hot bowl of rice. It’s a delicious Kanazawa speciality, and the best place to eat it is at Omoicho Market. It’s best to get here early to avoid the long lines that start to form before some shops even open their doors. Rest assured, it’s totally fine to have sashimi for breakfast here! Also make sure to sample some jizake, or local sake. Kanazawa’s access to exceptionally clean water (gathered from the melted snow of the nearby mountains, and consistent rainfall) makes for some of Japan’s finest rice, from which high quality sake is made.
Tour the Ninja Temple
Myoryuji temple was founded as a Buddhist temple in 1643, but the religious site also had a covert function as a secret gathering spot for then-rulers the Maeda lords. There’s no connection to real Japanese ninjas, but upon visiting you’ll understand why Myoryuji has earned the moniker of “ninja temple” — there are hidden stairways and corridors, and whole secret chambers. It’s a good idea to book a tour in advance.
Visit Kanazawa Castle
Adjacent to Kenrokuen Garden, Kanazawa Castle is probably the city’s most important site. Although it's currently undergoing some construction, there’s a lot to see here. As you walk through the gates and cross moats, you’ll learn not only about the history of castle-building but also about Japan’s many rival clans, who continually battled for power over hundreds of years. If you find yourself battling hunger pangs, try some hearty Japanese-style curry at nearby Nanohoshi.
Discover the Meaning of Zen
D.T. Suzuki is the Japanese philosopher who brought Zen Buddhism to the West. In Kanazawa there’s an entire museum dedicated to his life, which is a delight for people who want to learn more about the enigmatic concept that is Zen. The architecture here, by Taniguchi Yoshio (the same person who redesigned the MoMA), most certainly induces a serene mind-state. There’s also a “contemplative space” where you can meditate while overlooking a minimalist garden.
Explore the Nomura Samurai House
Not far from Kanazawa Castle is the Nomura Samurai House, located in the historic Nagamachi district of the city. This neighborhood was once populated by samurai families, and luckily many of the buildings and cobblestone streets have been preserved by the city. The Nomura House was at one time owned by a wealthy clan, and today you can view many old artifacts on display, including a full set of samurai armor.
Shop for Souvenirs
The shopping streets of the Kakinokibatake and Musashigatsuji areas are definitely worth a stroll, especially if you’re hankering for some interesting treats and trinkets to bring home to your friends and family. There are also some veritable vintage shops in Kakinokibatake. In the Musashigatsuji area is the above mentioned Omoicho market, and the spectacular Meitetsu M'za department store, which sells both standard retail and traditional goods.
Marvel at the Sacred Gate
Kanazawa station is defined by the presence of the Tsuzumi-mon Gate, which has become a symbol of the city itself. The tsuzumi-mon resembles a massive torii gate, the sacred demarcations that designate Shinto shrines in Japan. Before you leave for the next leg of your journey, stop by the restaurant Kuroyuri for some soul-warming oden.