The small city of Kanazawa is one that deserves more than a quick day trip or overnighter.
It’s known as having one of Japan’s Three Great Gardens – definitely one of the best I’ve visited – but it also has well-preserved heritage that escaped the destruction during WW2.
Kaname Inn – 41 Tatemachi
We based ourselves at the Kaname Inn in the vibrant Tatemachi district, which centres around a 430 metre-long retail strip that’s full of restaurants and shops and isn’t too far from any of the city’s major sights.
A short walk away is the Hirosaka district – which holds many of the city’s cultural venues. Indulge in Japan’s most ancient performance art at the Kanazawa Noh Museum or marvel at the works of Japanese and International artists at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art. The open spaces in Hirosaka are beautiful to wander through, and come spring, it’s filled with cherry blossom.
21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art – 1 Chome-2-1 Hirosaka
Kanazawa’s botanic jewel is none other than Kenroku-en Garden, which was originally built by the powerful Maeda Clan as an outer garden for Kanazawa Castle.
Getting in before 9am allows you to enjoy the 10 hectares of utter beauty before the tour busses dump their human cargo. Winding paths, seasonal plantings, waterfalls, ponds and pavilions – there’s much to enjoy.
One of the garden’s notable features – and one you’ll see around town – are the yukitsuri. These ropes are suspended from a central bamboo pole and support the weight on branches when snowfall is heavy.
Entry to the garden is ¥350 per adult.
Kenroku-en Garden – 1 Kenrokumachi
Nearby Kanazawa Castle served as the seat of the Maeda samurai clan from 1583 to the end of the Edo Period. Over the centuries most of the castle burned down, leaving just two storehouses and the Ishikawa-mon Gate. Everything else you see today has been meticulously rebuilt using traditional materials and techniques.
The park in which the castle stands is big and it can be accessed from many sides, although Ishikawa-mon Gate (above) on the east side is the most popular. Shuttles and the Kanazawa Loop Bus stop here, as well.
Entry is free, but the Gojukken Nagaya Storehouse and Turrets will set you back ¥310.
Kanazawa Castle – 1-1 Marunouchi
Chuo Park – Hirosaka
The historic Nagamachi (Samurai) District was once the residential area for the samurai of the powerful Maeda clan. Winding flagstone laneways, canals and earthen walls add a real charm to this small district, which is now mostly residential.
A couple of the restored bukeyashiki are open to the public, showcasing artefacts and a glimpse into the lifestyle of the samurai and their families that once lived there during the Edo Period.
An interesting note: during winter the earthen walls are cleverly protected with komogake (rice straw) to prevent erosion.
Nagamachi, or Samurai District
The Nishi Chaya District – one of three teahouse districts in Kanazawa – is a compact strip of preserved wooden houses just over the Sai River. It’s much quieter than Higashi Chayagai, and has just one building open to the public – the Nishi Chaya Shiryokan – a museum and traditional tearoom set-up.
Nishi Chaya District
Higashi Chayagai – Geisha District
The largest and most popular chaya (teahouse) district is none other than Higashi Chayagai by the Asano River. Most of the traditional wooden buildings are now restaurants, cafes and shops selling souvenirs, jewellery and food – although two teahouses are open to the public.
Plenty of gold leaf, too. It’s pretty much everywhere – especially draped or dusted over food.
We didn’t indulge too much in the edibles, but one that made the cut was delicious sorbet and ice cream from Tea House – served up in a cone, cup or sandwiched between two crispy Monaka wafers containing bamboo charcoal. I’d recommend trying one of the piping hot chayu curry bread sticks. Divine!
The other was a gold leaf affair at Ville de Croquette. This tiny shopfront pumps out a variety of croquettes, but the most popular is the one that’s had the kawaii treatment – shrimp and gorojima sweet potatoes (¥520) topped with cream and gold leaf.
Tea House – 1-chome-7-8 Higashiyama
Ville de Croquette – 1-Chome-7 Higashiyama
You can take a breather from the heavily touristed laneways of Higashi Chayagai at Oriental Brewing, the city’s very first brew pub. Eight regularly-changing local beers – brewed in-house – are available on tap, plus a bunch of bottled imports.
Food-wise, cheese, olives and charcuterie are there to nibble on with your brew, plus Neapolitan-style pizza. So anyone that wishes to give local food a momentary rest – like us – something like the Genovese pork or teriyaki chicken pizza (both ¥1350) are ok choices.
Oriental Brewing – 3 Chome-2-22 Higashiyama
Kanazawa’s largest food market – Omicho Market – is a magnet for anyone up for some seafood, fresh produce and eating action. The Hokuriku region is known for its crabs, so visitors can expect to see a hell of a lot of them here at the city’s oldest market.
There are so many places that offer grilled foods like squid and oysters, plus golden croquettes and deliciously sweet urchin roe – straight out of its shell! If you like your oysters jumbo-sized, you’ll get them here, for sure.
Many small seafood, sushi and sashimi restaurants are dotted about, and come midday, they’re packed with hungry punters. Another one to try is Kanazawa oden – a hot soup of vegetables, fish cakes, shellfish and ring-shaped fu – a rusk-like crouton that soaks up the broth.
Regional specialties like dried fish and shellfish can be seen hanging about – and depending on the season – more crustaceans in winter and white fish and squid in the warmer months.
Omicho Market -5 0 Kamiomicho
The only downside to Omicho Market is there’s nowhere to grab a coffee, but the good thing is you only need to walk five minutes up the road to get one.
Curio Espresso is nothing short of outstanding, and the service is bang on, too. The pulled pork sandwich and homemade soups seem to be go-to menu choices, should sustenance be a requirement, and they even have beer and vino.
Curio Espresso – 1-13 Yasuecho
For more outstanding espresso, you need to seek out Blue Monday in the Porte shopping arcade located in the B1 level beneath towering Hotel Nikko, across from Kanazawa Station.
The cafe is simply a small kiosk in the underground walkway that links back to the train station – no seating and standing room for four, at most. Give the coffee soft cream a go. It’s a winner.
Blue Monday – Porte 2 Chome−15−1
Evenings drinks kicked at Kanazawa Music Bar, conveniently located in our hotel. It’s a comfy spot with a decent drinks list and some ripping signature cocktails. We couldn’t go past the yuzu mojito and yuzu gin & tonic!
Kanazawa Music Bar – 4 1 Tatemachi
The streets behind Kaname Inn are filled with quirky shops and plenty of restaurants, so there was no need to walk far to find something.
Our first choice was Itaru Honten, a very popular little izakaya joint that already had a queue out its door. We were so hungry that, after 45 minutes of impatiently waiting, we bailed and settled on Full of Beans instead.
It’s a mix of yōshoku (Western-style) and Japanese dishes at this two-storey eatery, and when we saw how heaving it was on the tatami-style first floor, we were taken upstairs to regular larger tables.
Did it matter that we were in Japan ordering the likes of fish & chips ¥850) and roasted pork with fried potatoes (¥1300)? Absolutely not. Especially when you’re hangry and happy to devour just about anything in sight. At least the pork was from the Noto Peninsula, so it was technically Japanese, I guess!
Full of Beans – 41-1 Satomicho
We made more of an effort on our final night in Kanazawa to find some local food, and one that didn’t challenge the budget too much. It may be a national franchise, but Manmaru was the perfect izakaya spot to sit with beers and keep ordering plates of food until we were full.
In a country that’s big on curbing smoking in the streets, I was always puzzled that anyone can light up and smoke right next to you in a restaurant.
The waitress didn’t quite get why we wanted to sit and eat as far as we could from a table of chain smokers, but we got our wish and enjoyed every morsel of food ordered.
Horse meat yukhoe (¥490), grilled atka mackerel (¥490), assorted tempura (¥590), gyoza (¥290). My first try of Japanese-flavoured tartare was a winning one, and the horse meat was buttery and delicously tender. The smokey mackerel was great, too.
Can’t forget the kushikatsu, either. Each skewer costs ¥100, so we loaded up on a few quail eggs, sweet peppers, potato and pork.
Manmaru – 1-Chome-6-1 0 Katamachi