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A day in Kanazawa—is it worth the hype?

A day in Kanazawa—is it worth the hype?

So you have been to Kyoto. Loved it, but maybe not too much of a fan of all the tourists? Have you heard of Kanazawa City (金沢市 Kanazawa-shi)


Ishikawa Prefecture (石川県 Ishikawa-ken)’s Kanazawa is abundant in its traditional charm, from magnificently sculpted gardensamong the best in Japanto its historical entertainment and samurai districts. Even though I’ve been to Japan many times (8 times actually), Kanazawa was one of those places I’ve never gotten the chance to but always wanted to visit (very badly), no thanks to the number of people (Japanese and international tourists alike) hyping it up for me since my second trip to Japan.


During my time in Japan last December, the window of opportunity to explore Kanazawa finally emerged. With a day to spare before meeting a friend in Tokyo, I decided to head up east via the “New Golden Route”, stopping by Kanazawa on the way from Osaka to explore, and see whether the cityaffectionately known as “Little Kyoto”is truly worth the hype.


Shadow no more 

Located in the Hokuriku Region (北陸地方 Hokuriku Chihō), and serving as the capital city of Ishikawa Prefecture, Kanazawa, while popular amongst locals, largely stayed in the shadows amongst international travellers. With the opening of the Hokuriku Shinkansen in 2015, interest in the city started to pique, and visiting Kanazawa has never been easier. 


(Image credit: John Ong)


Taking the Limited Express Thunderbird up from Kyoto (京都府 Kyōto-fu), I arrived at Kanazawa Station (金沢駅 Kanazawa-eki) late into the cold, winter’s night. Being situated along the Sea of Japan, Kanazawa can get pretty cold during the winter months. Unless you would like to become a popsicle (more on that later), I would recommend some warm clothing.


(Image credit: John Ong)


Regardless of whether you are arriving from Tokyo (東京都 Tōkyō-to) or Kyoto by rail, Kanazawa Station will most likely be your point of entry into Kanazawa. Considered one of Japan’s most beautiful train stations, Kanazawa Station combines contemporary and traditional designs. 


I should have taken a better photo… (Image credit: John Ong)


The Tsuzumi-mon Gate (鼓門) is based on traditional Japanese hand drums or tsuzumi (鼓) and is entirely made of wood. It’s no surprise if you see a crowd just in front of the gate taking photos, as this impressive gate has become synonymous with Kanazawa itself. 


For my exploration the next morning, I decided to stick with the good ol’ method of walking. Unlike cities like Tokyo or Kyoto, Kanazawa is a compact city, and many of its attractions are near one another. If walking isn’t your cup of tea, the Kanazawa Loop Bus (城下まち金沢周遊バス Jōkamachikanazawashūyū basu) is a good alternative. 


07:00 – Omicho Market

(Image credit: John Ong)


Not too far away from the station lies Omicho Market (近江町市場 Ōmichōichiba), or the “Tsukiji of Kanazawa”. Dating back almost 300 years, the market opens early to the sounds of vendors calling out from inside the market’s tightly packed shop, and merchants hauling fresh seafood and produce from across the Hokuriku Region.


(Image credit: John Ong)

A master and his craft. (Image credit: John Ong)


Omicho Market isn’t as big as Tsukiji, but don’t let its size fool you to think that it isn’t as energetic. Come noon, and that is when the crowd really builds up. I didn’t stay all the way till noon though as I am not a fan of crowds myself.


(Image credit: John Ong)

Look—I said the rice bowls were good, but the sushi though... (Image credit: John Ong)


The restaurants open a bit later, with the earliest recorded to be around 8am. The restaurants here are some of the best places to have breakfast in Kanazawa. The restaurants at Omicho are known for their seafood rice bowls (海鮮丼 kaisendon), and the seafood used is guaranteed fresh!


(Image credit: John Ong)


If restaurants aren’t your thing, the food stalls around the market premises will be sure to delight, selling a variety of street food like grilled squid, oysters, and fried croquettes, to name a few. 


Omicho Market (近江町市場)
Address: 50 Kamiomi-cho, Kanazawa-shi, Ishikawa, 920-0905
Nearest station: Kanazawa Station (金沢駅)
Opening hours: 09:0017:30
Admission fee: Free
Tel: +81-76-231-1462


09:30 – Kenrokuen 

Magical. (Image credit: John Ong)


Perhaps one of Kanazawa’s most notable hallmarks, Kenrokuen (兼六園) is widely considered today as one of the Three Great Gardens of Japan (日本三名園 Nihon Sanmeien). Built and maintained across generations next to Kanazawa Castle (金沢城 Kanazawa-jō) by the Maeda clan (前田氏 Maeda-shi), Kenrokuen is visited by many and a must-see when in Kanazawa. 



(Image credit: John Ong) 


Wandering around in the garden, you will find yourself completely immersed in this calm and beautiful setting—I found myself spending about 2 hours here. Unless there are a lot of travellers around you, to which I suggest an early morning or late afternoon visit, this garden is a place for you to relax, either before starting or ending the rest of your itinerary.


The Kotoji-toro lantern. (Image credit: John Ong)


From the garden’s famous Kotoji-toro (徽軫灯籠) lanterns to the yukitsuri (雪つり) pine trees, all aspects of Kenrokuen are in harmony with one another and offers travellers extraordinary views year-round. 


Dreamy and mesmerizing views all year round. (Image credit: John Ong)


It is no wonder Kanazawa-natives call Kenrokuen their pride and joy. 


Kenrokuen (兼六園)
Address: 1 Kenrokumachi, Kanazawa-shi, Ishikawa, 920-0936
Nearest station: Kanazawa Station (金沢駅)
Opening hours: 07:0018:00 (Varies by season)
Admission fee: ¥310
Tel: +81 76-234-3800


11:30 – Hakuichi 

Kanazawa is not called the “Marsh of Gold” for no reason. Aside from a legend where a farmer around the area found gold while digging for potatoes, Kanazawa has a deep history in the art of gold leaf crafting. I will not “gold” into too many details (another article has already touched on that), but in Kanazawa, one must try eating gold, and what better way than to try it on some good ol’ soft-serve ice cream?


A bit of bling. (Image credit: John Ong)


Called “gold leaf soft-serve,” a sheet of gold leaf is placed on top of the ice cream like a clad of armour. Rest assured that the gold is completely edible, and like any other soft-serve, it's great for those summer days. Speaking from personal experience, there’s absolutely no harm in trying it out during winter too. Remember when I said Kanazawa can get pretty cold in winter? It’s the perfect way to send chills down your already-cold body and spend the remainder of the day frozen like a popsicle. You’ve been warned.


Hakuichi is just down this street. (Image credit: John Ong)


Just outside Kenrokuen, shops like Hakuichi (箔一) are one of many in Kanazawa where you can try out this glittering treat. While at it, admire the well-preserved shophouses around—they are some of the most aesthetically-pleasing ones you will see. 


Hakuichi (箔一)
Address: 2-10 Kenrokumachi, Kanazawa-shi, Ishikawa, 920-0936
Nearest station: Kanazawa Station (金沢駅)
Opening hours: 09:0017:00
Pricing: ~¥1,000
Tel: +81 76-260-0891


13:00 — Higashi Chaya District

(Image credit: John Ong)


Another of Kanazawa’s hallmarks are its Chaya (茶屋) districts. A throwback to Kanazawa’s past, Chaya districts were designated entertainment districts where geishas (芸者) and chayasthus the namesakeonce populated the streets, entertaining guests wealthy or free enough to patronise


Untouched by time, there are three Chaya districts in Kanazawa. Most notable among the three is the Higashi Chaya district (ひがし茶屋街 Higashi Chayagai), which is the largest in size. Often called Kanazawa’s “Old Town”, Higashi Chaya features continuous rows of wooden townhousesnow converted into restaurants, cafes, and shops selling gold-leaf products. 


(Image credit: John Ong)


But perhaps the district’s main draw is its intricate setting. Wandering through its labyrinth of alleyways, the townhouses are charming and discreet, and one might be surprised what they may find in the interior. Advertisements and brand names are kept to the minimum to avoid being too loud, and the only way to know what the shops are is to venture in.


(Image credit: John Ong)


In the morning, the town is serene and solemn, perfect for appreciating its quiet charm and snagging a few photos. Noon is when more people will start to trickle in, and the district slowly transports you back in time with kimono-clad visitors and rickshaws along its alleyways. 


(Image credit: Kanazawa City Tourism Association / Instagram)


At night, one might be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of wandering geishas. Along the illuminated townhouses, hearing the sounds of traditional Japanese instruments playing in the background is when you know that the district has truly come to life. 


Higashi Chaya District (ひがし茶屋街)
Address: 1-13 Higashiyama, Kanazawa-shi, Ishikawa, 920-0831
Nearest station: Kanazawa Station (金沢駅)
Opening hours: 24 hours (Varies by shop)
Tel: +81-76-232-5555


15:00 — Kanazawa 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art / Katsura

(Image credit: Kanazawa City Tourism Association / Instagram)


Alongside Kanazawa’s cultural and historical sites, the city is home to a growing contemporary arts and cafe scene. Museums like the Kanazawa 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art (金沢21世紀美術館 Kanazawa 21 seiki bijutsukan) bridges the gap between the art and the viewer by exhibiting interactive pieces that baffle, or even amaze. One of such art exhibit is the famed swimming pool by Leandro Erlich. 


(Image credit: Kanazawa City Tourism Association / Instagram)


Another scene of Kanazawa that has remained largely a local secret is its coffee and the cafes scattered throughout the city that serve them. Junkissa (純喫茶) shops like Katsura (桂珈琲店) pride themselves in curating a personalised blend of coffeeright down to details like the type of cup usedbefitting of its taster, and offering a place where visitors can unwind and have a chat. 


Katsura is located just 10 minutes away from the Kanazawa 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art. Stepping inside, you will feel as if time has come to a standstill, which adds to the overall experience. The owner is very friendly, too. 


Kanazawa 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art (金沢21世紀美術館)
Address: 1-2-1 Hirosaka, Kanazawa-shi, Ishikawa, 920-8509
Nearest station: Kanazawa Station (金沢駅)
Opening hours: 09:0019:00
Admission fee: ¥1,200
Tel: +81-76-220-2800


Katsura (桂珈琲店)
Address: 1-14 Kenrokumotomachi, Kanazawa-shi, Ishikawa, 920-0931
Nearest train station: Kanazawa Station (金沢駅)
Opening hours: 13:0018:00
Pricing: ~¥1,000
Tel: +81-76-262-8448


Worth the hype?

The journey continues. (Image credit: John Ong)


The short answer? Yes.


My time in Kanazawa was short. A day was truly not enough to explore all the city has to offer. After spending a day wandering in its historical neighbourhoods and magnificent garden, I finally understood why Kanazawa is so well-lovedit is truly a city steeped in rich history and culture without all the overcrowding. 


Kanazawa is not just a “Little Kyoto”. It is a city remarkable in its own right, and one that is worth including into your itinerary. Kanazawa is what I would call a hidden gem (or gold, in this case). 


As the Shinkansen service taking me to the eastern capital began to move, it was time to say goodbye—but goodbyes are not forever and I will definitely be back. 


Header image credit: John Ong


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