Kanazawa: The City That Superlatives Were Made For

Kanazawa // Kenrokuen // Kanazawa-jo // Geisha Districts // Temple Districts // D.T. Suzuki Museum // Art Galleries // Crafts // Gold // Ninja-dera

Kanazawa is my favourite city in Japan. (So far.) It is amazing! Not only does it have one of the most beautiful train stations in the world, but it also has one of the Three Great Gardens of Japan and is the only place, apart from Kyoto, which still trains geishas. It is home to the most beautiful building I think I have ever seen, a massive range of museums, 100s of temples and shrines and a castle. It also holds the status of UNESCO Creative City of Crafts and Folk Art and has so many tiny boutiques selling beautiful things. Additionally, the traditional architecture is really well preserved because the city wasn’t fire-bombed during WW2: apparently this is because it’s always cloudy and the US Air Force couldn’t find it! That’s according to someone I met in my youth hostel, anyway 🙂

When I arrived late on Friday night there was snow lying, so I rushed to Kenrokuen first thing on Saturday to see it under cover of white, before it all melted. I was really excited about seeing this garden and there were many parts that I really enjoyed. However, I wasn’t able to connect to it or feel as impressed as I’d hoped: I think because it was so busy! I arrived at 9am but the place was packed; by the time I left at about 11.30, there were long queues at the entrance. I should have expected it really, it is a very famous garden.

So, Kenrokuen (兼六園) is a large strolling pond/landscape garden, built during the Edo Period. It was the private garden of the Maeda Clan feudal lords and was probably used for entertainment. Construction of it began in 1676 and it was finished in its current form in the 1840s. It has been open to the public since 7 May 1874!  It is considered to contain the 6 essential attributes of the ideal landscape garden: spaciousness, tranquility, artifice, antiquity, watercourses, excellent views; hence the name (roku 六 is japanese for six). Well, I’m afraid that my experience didn’t include tranquility and whilst there is an impressive panorama of the city, I don’t the view is as good as it was 150 years ago. So maybe it should be called Kenyonen now. Highlights of the garden include the oldest fountain in Japan, a huge pond, loads of other water, really big & incredible trees, a samurai house, tea house, lanterns & statuary, good hills and dips. Here are some photos…

 

I visited a LOT of things in Kanazawa and I can’t (be bothered to!) write about them all, so I’ll tell you my top three things. Or actually, top five things:

Ninja-Dera

This temple is actually called Myouruji and has nothing whatsoever to do with ninjas. It has this nickname because of all the intricate and sneaky defensive traps that are hidden within it: secret staircases, clever pit traps, secret rooms, tunnel etc. I won’t describe all the features because it’ll spoil it if you go to visit one day, but trust me: it’s genius! Of course I wasn’t allowed to take photos inside but I’ve now got loads of design ideas if I ever want to build a fortress disguised as a temple, or a church, or a sandwich shop.

Utatsuyama Temple District

For some reason that I’m not sure of, almost all of the temples & shrines in Kanazawa are clustered together in two districts, one in the south west of the city, one in the north east. I spent a beautiful sunny Sunday morning wandering around Utatsuyama temple area, where there are more than 50 temples/shrines. There was a large range in the size, style and, surprisingly, the level of upkeep in the temples I saw. There were several that were totally neglected! I was quite shocked. But, it made for an amazingly peaceful and atmospheric walk. My favourites were Saiyoji and Ryukokuji.

D.T. Suzuki Museum

I didn’t know who D.T. Suzuki was before last Sunday. When I was wandering around in the afternoon, I noticed this museum marked on my tourist map and remembered that it was recommended in my guide book- but I couldn’t remember why! I went along anyway and am now very grateful to my Rough Guide, because this is the most beautifully designed museum I have ever been to. And now I want to read everything Suzuki has ever written, even though I’m certain I won’t understand any of it. I’m not sure that my photos do justice to the astonishingly affecting architecture, but I never been in building that so successfully altered my emotional state just with design. I want to live in there forever.

Nomura Family Samurai House

The Nagamachi district of Kanazawa is where all the top-ranking samurai lived during the Edo Period. Amazingly, a lot of the historic architecture and traditional walls are still present. I didn’t have time to visit all the sights here but I really enjoyed visiting this samurai house which is beautifully preserved/restored with the most exquisite features and craftsmanship and houses some rare artefacts (including an amazingly brutal thank you letter). And a samurai suit. It’s an excellent view of how (rich) people lived. The house also has a lovely garden: so lovely that I think it’s one of my favourite so far in Japan, despite its small size. They also served matcha and sweets in the tea ceremony room. Win.

21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art

Just brilliant. Although probably not if you don’t like modern art. I do. I love it. The good stuff, anyway. There were a range of exhibits but the highlight was a retrospective of avant-garde calligrapher Inoue Yuichi. Who knew avant-garde calligraphy was a thing? Well, it is. Calligraphy is a significant art form in Japan in a way that we can’t really relate to in the UK: I think we probably stopped writing nicely when monks got bored of illuminating manuscripts. I’ve seen a few other really nice calligraphy exhibitions but this was amazing. A lot of his work is MASSIVE, and the brush strokes are so expressive that it didn’t matter that I couldn’t read the kanji, I could still sense the emotion of each piece. I particularly liked the effect created by using what the information said was frozen ink. Surprisingly, I was allowed to take photos, so here you go:

 

There are many more things to do & see in Kanazawa: I haven’t said anything about the castle or the three geisha districts, or any of the other museums I went to. You’ll just have to go and visit yourself. I’ll leave you with a picture of me dressed in Noh Costume in the Noh Museum (two very pushy and hilarious obāsans dragged me over, dressed me and posed me)…

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