If you want to experience the rich culture of Japan without following the typical tourist trail, the prefectural capital of Ishikawa, Kanazawa, may just be the place for you. Often referred to as “little Kyoto”, Kanazawa rivals the popular town with its rich culture, preserved historic neighborhoods and beautiful gardens- minus the overwhelming crowds of tourists. You can spend your day entranced by a mighty castle or a modern art gallery, eating gold-leaf soft-serve or sushi made from the freshest local fish, walking through a neighborhood that samurais used to inhabit or one where geishas still entertain esteemed guests.
If you are planning to visit this fascinating city, you can opt to get a tour guide to show you around, or simply follow this list of my top things to do in Kanazawa…
1. Kenrokuen Garden & Kanazawa Castle
One of the highlights of Kanazawa is its castle and the surrounding Kenrokuen Gardens. Every season sees the gardens transform into a new landscape, whether that is cherry blossoms blooming in spring, or trees boasting magnificent shades of orange, yellow and red during autumn. The Kanazawa Castle is a partially-restored castle located across from Kenrokuen Garden, originally built in 1583. You can still walk around the castle grounds, although much of the original castle remains.
2. Kanazawa Chaya (Kaiseki dining experience)
The French might be known for their degustations, but the Japanese have their own version of a multi-course dining experience called Kaiseki. With Kaiseki, there is a great emphasis on using fresh, seasonal and local produce, meticulous preparation and impeccable presentation. It may not be a cheap experience but it certainly is a memorable one.
3. Do a gold-leafing workshop
One of Kanazawa’s biggest productions is gold-leaf (which is gold that has been hammered into extremely thin sheets), and actually produces over 99% of Japan’s supply. Head to Hakuich if you want to learn about the intricate process of how gold leaf is formed. As well as learning about the craftsmanship of the product, you can also take part in a gold leafing workshop, or browse the extensive gift shop for unique gifts such as gold-leafed ceramics or beauty products that draw from the beneficial properties of gold.
4. Eat gold-leaf soft serve
Carrying on with the gold theme, Kanazawa is also known to serve up some of the fanciest ice cream in the world. Look out for shops selling soft-serve cones featuring nothing less than a sheet of gold-leaf hanging off the side.
5. Visit the Nagamachi Samurai District
The Nagamachi neighborhood in Kanazawa was once home to the mighty samurai. It is now a beautifully preserved historic area filled with canals, winding cobblestone lanes and earthern walls to explore. You’ll even find former samurai houses and gardens open for public viewing if you’d like to get a deeper understanding of how the samurai used to live.
6. Visit the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art
If you’re a fan of contemporary art, be sure to pay a visit to the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa. This isn’t just any boring art gallery. It is full of interactive installations, ever-changing exhibitions and permanent collections that will keep you entertained for hours. If you don’t want to spend your time inside, there are also outdoor installations in the picturesque surrounding park for anyone to enjoy.
7. Explore Higashi Chaya District
If you’ve ever been curious about Geisha culture in Japan, Higashi Chaya District is worth a visit. Historically, this area was a famous district where Geishas entertained esteemed guests with song, dance and traditional games. Geisha culture still flourishes today. Although most of these establishments only come alive in the evenings (to their exclusive members), some tea-rooms open up to the public during the day so you can learn more about Geisha culture first-hand. Either way, the beautifully preserved wooden chaya streets are lovely to wander down at any time.
8. Get sushi at the Omicho Markets
If you want to see where locals eat and shop, head to Omicho Market, Kanazawa’s largest fresh food market. The market has been around for hundreds of years, and today over 200 shops and stalls still line the streets. Best known for its excellent local seafood, it’s a popular place to go to eat sushi (just be prepared to cue up- many of the restaurants attract quite the crowd!)
To get more inspiration from this incredible country, check out my top 5 places to get off the beaten path in Japan.
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