Shaped like a massive hook reaching symbolically into the fertile fishing grounds of the Sea of Japan, the Noto Peninsula is the most prominent geographical feature on the long northeastern seaboard of Japan’s largest island of Honshu. That peninsula is notable for its ruggedly attractive coastline. It is also notable for having at its southwestern base the city of Kanazawa, one of the country’s most remarkable cultural centers.
As visitors to this city in Ishikawa Prefecture cannot but be aware, Kanazawa of old was no threadbare spot. Wealth in Japan used to be assessed in terms of rice, and the Kaga feudal domain, of which Kanazawa was capital, possessed more of the stuff than anywhere else. Rice wealth was measured in terms of koku—around 180 liters and theoretically sufficient to feed a person for a year. Kaga possessed 1 million koku—hyakumangoku. And Kanazawa is so inordinately proud of this fact that it is rather fond of flaunting its former wealth: the name hyakumangoku is constantly encountered around the city today.
Hyakumangoku-dori is one of Kanazawa’s main thoroughfares, and this skirts around the city’s most celebrated feature—Kenrokuen, which only the rarest first-time visitor doesn’t put high on their itinerary. Covering some 10 hectares, Kenrokuen is a rambling delight of a place that basks in its status of being listed as one of Japan’s Three Finest Gardens. Velvety carpets of moss mold themselves around undulating, gently sculpted landscapes; tea pavilions perch over ponds of olive-green waters, where even an island 10 meters across sports a name; ancient gnarled pines are helped across ponds on elaborate systems of stilts; black butterflies the size of a hand flap lazily through the air; short stone bridges force visitors to make a detour so as to savor the simple pleasure of crossing.
For photographers of all stripes, the de rigueur spot is the bipedal stone lantern known as Kotoji—so famous it serves almost as a symbol of the whole city. Nearby, small herons stride confidently around, clearly used to handling big crowds. And Kenrokuen is indeed a thoroughly popular spot—so much so that at times it can require some effort to screen out the explanations of the surrounding scene being megaphoned by a uniformed tour group leader to her dutifully attendant gaggle of tourists.
The one name inseparable from the development of Kanazawa is that of the Maedas, whose thirteenth lord did much to expand Kenrokuen in the mid-nineteenth century. His clan’s association with the city began in 1583, when the first Maeda lord, Toshiie, entered Kanazawa Castle. It was the vast territorial holdings of the Maedas that made Kaga Japan’s wealthiest province. And it was thanks to the Maedas’ patronage that Kanazawa produced its refined culture. Recognizing the pivotal importance of these lords, the city commemorates the entry of Toshiie to Kanazawa Castle with the Hyakumangoku Festival—the biggest event on Kanazawa’s calendar.
Toshiie quickly set to work transforming his castle into a formidable fortress, and though subsequent Maeda generations felt similarly motivated, fate had different plans. The donjon burnt down in 1602, and it was never rebuilt. Without this central feature, Kanazawa Castle never came to be regarded as one of Japan’s truly great castles. Five subsequent conflagrations through the centuries inflicted varying amounts of damage, but thanks to modern reconstruction efforts visitors can gain an excellent impression of the castle’s former grandeur. The restoration work was carried out using basically the same materials as those employed in the original construction. That includes the wonderfully aromatic cypress, which lends its fragrance to the air as you inspect the slots in the restored turret that were designed for feeding massive stones onto the heads of any attackers unwisely wishing to clamber the walls.
In contrast to the samurai atmosphere, beyond the city’s Saigawa river is the rather different world of the geisha district known as Nishi Chaya. This “tea district,” as chaya translates into English, is an area where geisha carry out their age-old entertaining arts of refined music and dance, and the district consists of an attractive single line of buildings in honey-colored wood with wooden shutters and the agreeable tinkling of furin wind chimes.
Nishi Chaya is one of Kanazawa’s three geisha districts, but the one that attracts the greatest interest among tourists lies on the other side of town, beyond the city’s other main river, the Asanogawa. Much more extensive than Nishi Chaya, Higashi Chaya is rather more effective at conveying a sense of what Kanazawa would have looked like in a less frenetic age, with its grille-fronted two-story houses and streetlights like the gas lamps of old. Beloved of tour groups, Higashi Chaya is the place where women visitors get into the traditional mood by coming dressed in kimonos for the all-important photo in front of a teahouse.
As in many other city districts, Higashi Chaya is a place to sample the fine local cuisine, which is known as Kaga ryori, considered by many the finest of Japan’s regional cuisines. The classic Kaga ryori dish is jibuni, which is best in late autumn or winter and consists of a hearty stew of duck meat and seasonal vegetables. It is thus the perfect fare for the inordinately heavy winters that descend along the Sea of Japan side of the country.
The excellence of Kaga ryori hinges on utilizing a wide variety of ingredients at their seasonal best. And with the proximity to the sea and mountains, Kanazawa is admirably well supplied. The place in Kanazawa where fine restaurants do their shopping is Omicho Market. Even for those not planning a meal, the market is an exciting place to visit. In addition to deep-green varieties of seaweed and colorful assortments of fruit and vegetables, it is possible to view everything from trays of sweet-smelling fish, giant oysters, rows of crabs and baskets of squid to all manner of shellfish, octopuses dolefully surveying the world from within a suspended water-filled plastic bag and a tuna head the size of a beer barrel.
Here, the mood is bright, breezy and cheerful. And the warm character of the people in this fascinating, often-overlooked, Japanese town comes across as the ebulliently good-natured stallholders do their best to get customers to part with their cash—in the friendliest fashion possible.
Tom Midwinter is a freelance writer and editor living in Tokyo.