A local's guide to Kanazawa

20th October 2016 | by Annie

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Selective Asia's Japan expert Tom tells Annie what it's like to live in Kanazawa, and how you can make the most of this historic Japanese city when you visit.

Why should I visit Kanazawa?

Since the bullet train link to Tokyo opened in 2015, visitors have been crazy to get to Kanazawa. Quite rightly, too - it’s an extraordinary place, a 21st century castle town of modern buildings in a feudal layout. The city is still dominated by its vast castle grounds. Where the feudal lord once lived is now where all the tourists go to see one of the most famous gardens in Japan - Kenrokuen.

There's mix of the traditonal arts in the Geisha and Samurai districts, and the modern art in the 21st century art museum. Kanazawa is sometimes nicknamed little Kyoto, but at times Kyoto appears the imitation - a little Kanazawa. The city is small enough to walk around, and large enough to spend several days exploring. Not just a place to pass through, it can be a base for your whole stay, with the dramatic landscape of the Noto peninsula and mountains and ski resorts in Nagano all nearby.

What's it famous for?

Gold, geisha and gardens. Almost all the gold in Japan comes from Kanazawa - even the city’s name Kanazawa means 'stream of gold'. Flakes of gold are sprinkled onto ice-creams and into coffee cups across the city, and lavish decorations show it off as one of the wealthiest cities in the country.

Also, the geisha culture. Two geisha districts either side of the city still attract crowds of visitors to see the preserved buildings, as well as for live shows such as dances and shamisen performances. The gardens are a big draw too; the most famous one, Kenrokuen, is up on the hillside, commanding views over the city and filled with things to see.

If I had one day here, how should I spend it?

Start with the Nomura house, as early as you can to avoid the crowds. Walk over the Saigawa river to the Nishi Chaya geisha district and the ninja temple. Cross back over the river to view the gardens in the late afternoon - going in when the crowds are coming out. Then head through the castle remains, through the new Gyokusen-inmaru garden, into the bizarre Oyama Jinja Shrine, then down to the Katamachi district for the shops and nightlife district.

Is there anything in Kanazawa that's overhyped or touristy?

The ninja temple, Myoryu-ji. It has nothing to do with the ninjas, even the official guides tell you that, but still hundreds of people cram into the temple at reserved times for their guided tour. But I should say, although overhyped and touristy, the interior complex of the 17th century Edo-period building is fascinating, with trapdoors, hidden doors, hidden rooms and even hidden levels. Making reservations is tricky though - perhaps that’s the ninja part. And the guides - who you have to stay with throughout - only explain in Japanese. Timing is strict. Don’t be late, or not even a ninja will be able to break in.

How do locals like to relax here?

Riverside walks, strolling the shopping arcades, eating and drinking in the numerous cafes and bars.

Kanazawa has many historic buildings and districts. Which should I visit?
The eastern Geisha district, Higashi Chaya, is particularly brilliant around 9am and 5pm when the crowds are thin. Spend time looking at the buildings - go inside the extraordinary Kaikaro chaya geisha house, a real artist's residence. The Nomura Samurai House is also a must, with a fabulous garden and artworks inside. Go early or late to avoid the crowds.

Where might I find a good meal in Kanazawa these days?

In the daytime, the Omicho fish market for seafood lunches. The Katamachi district down by the Saikawa river has a huge range of places, from cheap burger joints to expensive traditional tatami-mat dining. For a safe bet, there are many good restaurants on the 6th floor of the Forus Department Store, the big building by Kanazawa station, which includes a branch of the immensely popular Mori Mori conveyer belt sushi chain.

Is there a special local dish that I should try?

Kanazawa is home for the best seafood on the Japan Sea Coast. The large Omicho fish market has many restaurants serving seafood, but please note most are closed at night. For a conveyor belt sushi experience, try the Mori Mori chain. Alternatives to seafood include the local lotus root, or a dose of duck simmered in a rich broth, If these don’t interest you, why not try the gold flakes sprinkled over ice-cream?!

And what about a late night drink? Does Kanazawa have much nightlife?

Yes, perhaps one of the best in Japan for foreign visitors. The best late night / early morning drinking options are down in the Katamachi district, where you can get craft beers, cocktails and local Ishikawa sake in a rabbit warren of colourful drinking dens catering for locals, expatriates and visitors. Many venues charge a seating fee of around 500yen, which is included in your bill and payable when you leave.

If I wanted a souvenir that really represents Kanazawa, what would it be and where can I find it?

Kutani Pottery kiln, where you can do a workshop and paint your own patterns onto your souvenir. The gold leaf lacquered boxes and silk dyed fabrics on sale around Korinbo and Katamachi. There is wealth of small stores inside the train station selling textiles and pottery.

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