Visiting Kanazawa? Today we’ll take you around the beautifully restored Chaya Districts and Samurai residences in this historic Japanese city, and enjoy the beauty of Kenrokuen, one of Japan’s 3 great gardens.
My family spent a week traveling to north western part (北陸地方) of Japan, and our first stop was the historic city of Kanazawa (金沢). What makes this city special? Many of its buildings are still original as it’s one of the few large Japanese cities not damaged during the war.
As a Japanese, I want to share the historical part of Japanese culture with my family so I looked forward to the trip very much. Before talking about Kanazawa, I want to give you a tip on traveling in Japan and that’s Japan Rail Pass.
How to Purchase and Use Japan Rail Pass
If you are doing extensive traveling in Japan during your visit and especially if you know you are going to be taking Shinkansen (新幹線), Japan Rail Pass could be a great deal for you. You can purchase 7, 14, or 21-day pass. The current pricing is below.
Since the passes are priced in Yen, depending on the exchange rate the prices could fluctuate in your currency. There are different prices for adult vs. a child (6-11) and regular vs. green (business class) cars. Children 5 or under do not need a ticket but also do not get a seat. You will have to pay if the child requires a seat.
The most important part about Japan Rail Pass is that you have to purchase it outside of Japan and it is not available for purchase within Japan. A few more quick tips about the Japan Rail Pass:
- It is not a ticket and you will need to bring your pass to a JR office in Japan to exchange it for actual tickets.
- The exchange process is painstaking slow. It took over 1 hour to exchange our 4 passes and book tickets for our trip. For a single person, it will take about 20 min. You will need your passport during the exchange. For Japanese living aboard that’s using the Japan Rail Pass, you need to remember your foreign residence card or proof you live abroad.
- I highly recommend pre-planning your trip beforehand and know which day and train # you are going to take, and then book the entire trip at 1 time at the JR station. Use Google maps to plan out your trip (my tip on how to use Google Maps in Japan).
- You will need to show the Japan Rail Pass itself when entering and exiting stations along with your train ticket so keep it somewhere convenient to grab when traveling.
- You can always cancel and reschedule your tickets.
Now on to Kanazawa! One reason we selected Kanazawa is because a new Shinkansen line Kagayaki (かがやき) just opened in March of this year (2015), making the trip from Tokyo a quick 2.5 hrs. Before this new line was available, going to Kanazawa from Kanto area would have required over 6 hours (from Yokohama to Nagoya, then Toyama and Kanazawa).
At the Tokyo Shinkansen station, my son saw the connected Shinkansen and he was super excited! He has the Plarail (プラレール) for the connecting trains and has been wanting to see them in real life. If you are interested, here’s a YouTube video of the trains connecting.
The Kagayaki train looks super futuristic with modern amenities that’s not on the N700 Shinkansen, including adjustable headrests. The sinks were also pretty cool, with 1 spout for soap, 1 for water, and the last one is the hand dryer. There’s also a baby diaper changing station inside the bathroom.
There are plenty of electric plugs on the train for those of you who need to recharge your devices.
We enjoyed our bento we purchased at the Shikansen platform right before we hop on the Shinkansen. The scenery on the ride is mostly Japanese country side and lots of tunnels towards the end.
As you arrive at the station, you exit into a large indoor plaza with stores and restaurants. There are 2 sides to the station and the main entrance is quite beautiful. It was voted one of the world’s top 15 station in 2011 and the only one from Japan.
The main entrance is a covered dome called “Motenashi” (meaning to entertain guests wholeheartedly) and in front of it are wooden structures called “Tsuzumi-mon” (Japanese drum gate).
In case your forget any souvenirs on the trip, no worries, you can probably find it at the station when you leave. You can also pick up delicious bento for your Shinkansen ride home.
Kanazawa Loop Bus
Unlike other large Japanese cities, Kanazawa doesn’t have a subway that takes you to different parts of the city. However there are 3 city bus routes that will take you to most tourist spots, the RL (right loop), LL (left loop), and S (Kenrokuen Shuttle). Click on the bottom image to enlarge.
You can either pay
100 yen 200 yen per ride for adult (100 yen for child) or 500 yen for a day pass (price updated). For the day pass you scratch off the silver markings for the day so make sure you don’t make a mistake on which day you scratch off.
Places to Visit in Kanazawa
We didn’t visit every spot in the city since we only had a day and half there, but I’ll give my best recommendation in order that I think that works out the best if you only have a short time there (highlighted by the stars in the map).
- Omicho Market
- Kanazawa Castle Park
- 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art
- Higashi Chaya (Eastern Tea House District)
- Myoryu-ji Temple
- Nishi Chaya (Western Tea House District)
- Nagamachi Samurai District
- Oyama Jinja Shrine
Omicho Market (近江町市場)
If you are coming from Tokyo area, the train ride takes about 2.5 hours. If you leave in the morning you’re likely to arrive around lunch time. Let’s go grab some food at Omicho Market (近江町市場). From the main entrance of the Kanazawa station, you’ll want to board the LL route at Bus Stop #7 and get off the first stop at LL1.
Omicho market has been around for close to 300 years and carries a huge variety of seafood and produce.
The seafood stands had all types of fish we don’t usually see in the U.S. As Kanazawa is close to the Japan Sea, it is known for its abundance of seafood varieties. One really cool thing we saw was when the fishmonger scraped tuna meat off its bone to give to the crowd.
Besides food stands, there are also flower shops and various stands that carried local specialty.
For lunch, we went to the highly reviewed Yamasan (山さん) and the sushi was fantastic.
The seafood was super fresh and the fish tasted sweet. Kanazawa is famous for its seafood and we weren’t disappointed.
By the time we left the restaurant, there was a line with over 10 people waiting to get their fill. If you are not looking for a full meal, there are stalls in Omicho market that sell little bites.
One of the unique skewer we had was blow fish! My son’s been fascinated with blow fish since he was a little boy so he was super excited to try, and definitely a bit worried about being poisoned.
Kanazawa Castle Park (金沢城公園)
From Omicho market, you can easily walk over to the Kanazawa Castle Park (金沢城公園).
There is no actual castle on the ground today, as it was built and burned down many times throughout history. However the Ishikawamon Gate (石川門) and the Gojikken Nagaya (五十間長屋, 90-yard-long warehouse) are both structures built over 100 years ago.
One unique thing about the castle is its white lead tiles compared to black tiles you typically see on Japanese castles, which gives it more strength against snow.
Many of the building recreated on site was built using the traditional method by specialized craftsmen, and you can see the example of the castle wall dissected.
There are free guides in English available on site and I highly recommend using them, as they can tell you about the history of Kanazawa and the powerful Maeda family that ruled it during Edo period.
The castle and the garden are connected by a sky bridge. After walking on the grounds of the castle, let’s move on to one of Japan’s 3 great gardens, Kenrokuen (兼六園). Kenrokuen was Maeda Family’s private garden, started sometime in the 1600’s.
The garden got its name from having all 6 characteristics of a a great garden. It’s a large garden at 25 acres and the signature icon is the 2 legged lantern in the corner of Kasumigaike (霞ヶ池) (see the picture below).
There is quite a bit of history to the garden itself so I won’t go into in detail, but you can read more here for details.
21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art (金沢21世紀美術館)
After browsing the garden, head over to 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art (金沢21世紀美術館) right next door. The unique circular museum functions both as a gallery and community space.
It was closed on the day we visited but we still enjoyed some of exhibits inside the building and the outdoor displays.
Besides running around the yard, my family thought the Men In Black glass elevator was super cool.
You can learn more about the exhibits on display on the museum’s website.
By now it’s getting late so head back to Kanazawa station and find a delicious izakaya to enjoy your meal. I’ll talk more about the meals we had later on in the post.
For day 2, I recommend starting at Higashi Chaya first, as it’s really popular and gets crowded with tourist early.
Higashi Chaya – Eastern Tea House District (東茶屋街)
From Kanazawa station, get on the RL bus and get off at RL5 for Higashi Chaya (東茶屋街).
What is a Chaya? Chaya are traditional tea houses where Geisha used to perform since the Edo period (and still do).
As you walk on these streets between the machiya-style structure (traditional wooden townhouses), it takes you back in time.
There are a few buildings where you can pay and enter such as the Ochaya Shima (志摩) to see what a Geisha’s life was like working in these buildings at that time (we didn’t have time…).
Majority of the buildings have been turned into restaurants and stores which you can browse through. Most of them showcase the art and crafts of Kanazawa.
There is also the Yasue Gold Leaf Museum (金沢市立安江金箔工芸館) where you can see how gold leaves are made. 99% of gold leaves in Japan are made in Kanazawa today, including the ones used on Kinkakuji (金閣寺) in Kyoto. At the museum, you can see how the artisans make the golf leaf. Here is a video on YouTube showing their work.
If you like to experience dinner with Geisha, you can check out more details at Kaikaro (懐華樓).
The highlight for the Higashi Chaya for us? Gold leaf covered ice cream! How did it taste? Just like regular ice cream! But it’s a nice way to feature what Kanazawa is famous for.
Myoryu-ji Temple – Ninja Dera (妙立寺)
Time for more exploration! Jump on to loop bus at RL5 and get off at RL12 to visit Myoryu-Ji (妙立寺), aka Ninja Temple.
The temple was built in 1585 by Lord Maeda Toshiie and moved to current location by his son. Besides being a praying location for the Kaga Family (founded by Maeda Toshiie), the temple also served as a military outpost. Due to this reason, there are quite a few hidden trap doors and mechanisms built to confuse intruders.
I recommend making a reservation beforehand because it’s a guided tour and they only accept certain number of visitors per tour.
To be completely honest, the temple was a strange experience for us. When you arrive, there is no reception area or a place to purchase ticket. You walk towards the temple from the main entrance and make a left at the end to find a small white intercom. You let them know you’re there for your appointed time and they’ll ask you to wait if you’re early.
At your appointed time, you’ll remove your shoes and enter the temple. They’ll collect the admission fee from you at the time (cash only). If you have young children, you will need to bring their passports to prove they are elementary school age to qualify for children’s price. They asked me 3 times (during the phone reservation, on the intercom, and when purchasing the ticket) about the children’s passport which I thought was strange.
There are no photos allowed inside during the tour and they said no translation of Japanese to English is allowed during the tour to my children (weird right?).
For each time slot, they break the large group into smaller groups so folks can fit in the various spots during the tour as some areas are quite small. The tour is in Japanese only but they do give English speakers a binder with the explanation of each interesting spot.
My children really enjoyed it and it was fascinating to think of why there was a need to build such deceptive mechanisms at the time.
Nishi Chaya – Western Tea House District (西茶屋街)
After the temple, it’s a short breeze to Nishi Chaya (西茶屋街). This is another tea district but much smaller than Higashi Chaya (東茶屋街). The bright spot however is that there are also less people around so you can take some good pictures.
We stopped by a chocolate boutique and cooled off by enjoying chocolate ice cream.
Check out the shoe made out of bitter chocolate and gold leaf!
You can visit Nishi Chaya Shiryokan Museum (西茶屋資料館) on the street, where you can see what a Chaya was like inside. Admission is free!
Nagamachi Samurai District (長町武家屋敷跡)
After visiting the Chaya, how about seeing some Samurai houses in Nagamachi Samurai District (長町武家屋敷跡)? Jump back on to RL12 and get off at RL14.
Back in the feudal days, the very top is the Shogun, who ruled the Daimyo from each region. Under each Daimyo are samurai warriors, and in Nagamachi area, there are several Samurai houses that are restored.
The Onosho Canal (大野庄用水) runs through the Samurai District. This oldest canal of Kanazawa was an important waterway that carried goods from the harbor to the castle town.
Of the samurais’ houses, the one we visited was the Nomura-ke (Nomura Family’s Residence, 野村家).
We can walk inside the house to admire the Edo artifacts of the Nomura family, who lived here for ten generations. The house has ceilings made of Japanese cypress and exquisite paintings on sliding door panels were painted by the Maeda family’s personal painter.
The Nomura house has a beautiful garden that was ranked one of the best in Japan by Michelin Guide. The garden is small, but features many characteristics of Japanese gardens, including a 400-year-old Japanese bayberry, waterfall and pond, and various stone features like bridge and lanterns.
As you walk around between the mud walls of Nagamachi and tour Nomura House, you can imagine the life of a samurai during that time.
Oyama Jinja Shrine (尾山神社)
You can either walk to the Oyama Jinja Shrine (尾山神社) or take the loop bus at RL14 and get off at RL15 and walk backwards.
Oyama Jinja Shrine is known for its unusual gate. The towering gate was designed by a dutch architect back in 1875, with a mixture of Japanese, European, and Chinese elements.
There is also a beautiful garden with ponds and bridges on site that dates back to late 1500’s. Oyama Jinja Shrine is dedicated to Maeda Toshiie, with a large statue of him as well as his wife’s image carved into a stone on the grounds.
Staying and Eating in Kanazawa
In Japan when you book hotels, there are usually 3 options
- Room only
- Room and breakfast
- Room and 2 meals (breakfast and dinner)
Due to our hectic travel and touring schedule and wanting to try different restaurants, we booked room only in Kanazawa.
In Kanazawa, we stayed at Hotel MyStays. It was newly remodeled so the rooms are quite modern and clean, and it also comes with free Wifi. We booked a room for 4 and they had setup 4 individual beds for us.
Compare to the US hotels, Japanese hotels provide many amenities as standard, including: toothbrush, shaving kit, PJs, and slippers. Hotel MyStay had large drawers full of different face wash and bath salt on the 1st floor for you to enjoy.
It was a short walk from the Kanazawa station, and we used underground walkways to cross the big intersection above the ground.
Since Kanazawa is known for its seafood, we ate at a local izakaya not far from the station. We actually called the top ranked izakaya one by one but they were mostly full, and was finally able to reserve a table at Kuroya. If there is an izakaya you want to eat at, I recommend calling a few days before to reserve.
So how was Kuorya? It was awesome! The menu featured a lot of local fish and kaga vegetables. It is not far from the station and I highly recommend this place. You won’t be disappointed for a fantastic meal. Majority of dishes are between 400-800 yen (see the menu).
Kuroya was a small restaurant, with only bar seats on the first floor and seating for about 30 on the second floor.
In Japanese izakaya, usually they’ll serve a small complementary dish with your drink. I don’t eat wasabi in the U.S., but in Japan, I usually eat a few dish with wasabi since restaurants use real fresh wasabi. This raw octopus in a wasabi dressing (蛸わさ) was yummy!
Fresh sashimi from the local region – everything was super sweet and fresh.
Grilled Nodoguro (のどぐろの塩焼き). Nodoguro, or Blackthroat sea perch, is a delicious fish from Japan Sea. We saw this fish offered on the menu at many restaurants in this region.
Vegetables Tempura including Kaga vegetables (加賀野菜) such as Kinji-so (金時草) and Gorojima Kintoki (五郎島金時).
I won’t go through the rest of our dishes in detail but here are some of the dishes we ordered (Feel free to ask me).
We ended our dinner with Hojicha (加賀棒茶) cheesecake and Hojicha ice cream. We were very satisfied after the meal and have no doubt to recommend this restaurant if you are staying near Kanazawa station.
One thing to note, most izakaya or drinking restaurants do not have non-smoking sections. If you have young children or are allergic to smoke, you might want to ask first if they have non-smoking sections.
This Oden shop has been around for more than 60 years and currently run by the 3rd generation of the family. The food was amazingly good, but they only allow you 90 minutes to eat since there’s a line of people waiting.
You can order Oden a la carte depending on what you want to eat. There are about 20 different kinds to select from. Besides Oden, there is a full menu offering sashimi, grilled food, deep fried assortment, salad and carbs.
The workers are serving the Oden for customers’ orders.
The dashi for Oden was very light yet flavorful. All the different Oden was really delicious and the recipe has been the same for 50+ years.
This white firm tofu (白山堅豆腐) is one of their specialty. The tofu had great texture and you dip it in a ginger soy sauce.
Japanese don’t usually eat tendons, but this tendon with miso and green onion was really good. The tendons were soft and melt in your mouth.
Kanazawa’s regional duck dish, Kamo no Jibuni (鴨の治部煮), was excellent! Majority of dishes are between 400-600 yen (see the menu).
If you are in the station and looking for good food, head on over to Kuroyuri for some authentic Japanese Oden.
Like many department stores, the shopping section in the Kanazawa station offeres many local treats. What called to our attention was the gold Castella (カステラ, my Castella recipe here), can you say exquisite!
We bought a small gold Castella to enjoy at the hotel.
Kanazawa is known for its local arts and crafts and you can see more details at the Kanazawa tourism traditional arts page. We thoroughly enjoyed our short time there and recommend that you plan 2 full days to see and enjoy the city.
Now let’s continue our trip, next stop is Toyama and a day trip to Kurobe Gorge!