Often referred to as Kyoto’s younger sibling, the compact city of Kanazawa is an excellent place to head if you are looking to experience a well-preserved Edo-period town, which has managed to retain an authentic atmosphere and charm. Similar to Kyoto, Kanazawa managed to completely escape the destruction of aerial bombing in WW2, meaning large parts of the town have remained intact and unchanged for many years. The way in which it differs from Kyoto, is the lack of crowds and tour buses – Kanazawa is relatively quiet, even in peak season, meaning it’s a great place to explore at a leisurely pace.
Today, Kanazawa remains an important city in the region and serves as the capital of Ishikawa Prefecture. It is home to several popular attractions including what is considered one of the best Japanese gardens in the country, several historic districts and a handful of interesting museums.
Higashi Chaya Area
Perhaps Kanazawa’s most iconic attraction is a neighborhood referred to as Higashi Chaya, which translates in English as The Eastern Teahouse District. It consists of a network of streets on the outskirts of the city, made up of beautifully preserved teahouses and geisha houses. During the Edo period this area was frequented by feudal lords and other high-ranking officials who visited to be entertained by geisha and other talented performers.
Some of the buildings have been discreetly converted into restaurants and shops selling a variety of local goods, but many remain intact as teahouses that one can visit and enjoy. Some of the more upmarket establishments continue to provide entertainment with real geisha even, although these places cost a fair penny meaning your average visitor doesn’t get to see inside!
The back streets of the Higashi Chaya district
The district oozes style yet remains modestly old -ashioned and rustic
Buildings in the Higashi Chaya district
The Higashi Chaya area can, on occasion, become busy with both international and domestic tourists on weekends and during the middle of the day, but the mornings and evenings see the streets empty out a fait bit, making for a great place to stroll around and take in the atmosphere. You can also escape the masses by heading away from the main area and exploring the backstreets around the perimeter of the area, which are full of nice little teahouses and other hidden surprises.
There is also a Nishi Chaya (Western Teahouse District) over on the westside of town, although it is much smaller and sadly hasn’t been as well-preserved as the east one. It is still worth checking out though if you happen to be on that side of town though!
Kenrokuen Japanese Garden
If Higashi Chaya is takes the number one spot in Kanazawa, then number two most definitely belongs to Kenrokuen Garden! This sprawling (29 acres) traditional Japanese garden forms the large green space in the center of the city, and is generally considered one of the top three Japanese gardens (alongside Kairakuen in Mito and Korakuen in Okayama) in the country. It is a fine place to relax and unwind while taking in the beautiful scenery.
Looking out across the lake at Kenrokuen towards a teahouse
Kenrokuen is full of potential photo opportunities around almost every corner!
A small waterfall in Kenrokuen
Kenrokuen used to be the outer garden to Kanazawa Castle, constructed by the ruling Maeda family over a period of almost two hundred years, it was finally opened to the public at the end of the Edo period in the late 1800s. It features a large variety of flowers and trees which provide the landscape with a very different look and feel for each of the four seasons.
A teahouse on stilts at Kenrokuen
Detail of another teahouse in Kenrokuen
Although there are ample places in Kanazawa to enjoy a nice cup of green tea, Kenrokuen’s teahouses are a great place to sit and sip on a hot brew while taking in the magical atmosphere and spectacular scenery that surrounds you.
Kanazawa Castle and Castle Park
Just across the way from Kenrokuen Garden sits Kanazawa Castle and the Castle Park. Although very little remains of the original castle here, a handful of meticulously reconstructed buildings give a good idea of the layout of the castle in its heyday, and are well worth visiting to enjoy the surrounding greenery and views, as it is located on a hilltop overlooking the town.
The castle which was reconstructed in the 20th century closely resembles the original design
It is surrounded by a small moat
The castle park is also a great place to stretch your legs and admire the spectacular structure
Detail of Kanazawa Castle
The original castle was completed in the 1580s and was used for several hundred years, right up until the end of the Edo period. It was constructed and owned by the powerful Maeda Clan, who were considered the second most powerful domain in the land at the time, with a considerable amount of influence and wealth. Sadly, the original castle burnt down in the 1880s, leaving just two storehouses and the Ishikawa-mon gate standing.
Inside the reconstructed castle there is a museum that details the history of the Maeda Clan, the castle itself and the wider area.
Once you are done in the castle grounds, you can descend the hilltop to the southwest and see the beautiful Gyokuseninmaru Garden, which features several bridges over a small body of water, and a large stone wall from the original castle grounds as a backdrop. There is also a small rest-house here with a wooden deck, allowing for a peaceful view over the garden.
Gyokuseninmaru Garden as seen from the edge of Kanazawa Castle
Gyokuseninmaru Garden has several beautiful traditional style bridges
Omicho Fish Market
The Omicho Fish Market has been a firm favourite for the locals for over two hundred years now! There have been vendors gathering here since the middle of the Edo period, selling and trading an assortment of fish and seafood, most of which is freshly caught from the Sea of Japan, located a few miles to the north of the city. Many of the vendors also set-up shop inside the market operating restaurants that specialize in local seafood dishes, meaning you can grab breakfast, lunch or dinner here, depending what time you choose to visit!
Similar to the infamous Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo (now moved to Toyosu in Tokyo) arriving early in the morning allows you to see the vendors dealing with the fresh hauls of fish, with an array of local chefs vying for the best bits. The atmosphere is electric, and it allows interesting insight into a local industry.
Locals line up to get the day’s fresh catches
Whole crabs for sale at Omicho Fish Market
Locals have been selling fresh seafood here for centuries
In recent years other market stalls have emerged along the same strip, selling a whole host of food items including fruit, vegetables, pickled goods, Japanese sweets and even hot noodles.
Nagamachi Samurai House Area
Last, but by no means least, located on the westside of the city is the Nagamachi Samurai House Area. Here you will find a fine collection of very well-preserved Samurai houses nestled between two canals that run parallel through the neighbourhood. Many of these houses are private residences now, but several of them have been restored to their original state and you are allowed to enter them to see how the samurai class lived during feudal times (for a small fee). There are also a couple of museums in the area detailing the story of samurai in historic Kanazawa.
The streets of the area have been preserved to closely reflect life in the area during feudal times
The Nagamachi Samurai House Area
Most of the houses are privately owned but the exteriors are something to marvel over!
The interior of a Samurai house
Koi carp swim in a pond in the garden of one of the residences
Some of the buildings have been converted into museums
Others are used as private businesses
For more on the fascinating city of Kanazawa be sure to check out our piece on The Non Traditional Side of Kanazawa too! It’s not all Edo period houses and historic sites here, there are plenty of other things to see and do as well!