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Offering the wonder of Kyoto with none of the crowds, Kanazawa is an under-the-radar destination that’ll immerse you in authentic cultural experiences, from gold-leaf craftsmanship to contemporary art museums and traditional izakaya.
Kanazawa, which is known in Japan as “Little Kyoto” for its hundreds of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, has been passed up by foreign tourists for years. But with some of the best-preserved Edo-period architecture in Japan, one of the country’s top three gardens, some of the freshest seafood, and abundant arts and crafts, Kanazawa is the site of a few too many “bests” to pass up any longer.
Here’s how to catch a little bit of everything Kanazawa has to offer – with plenty of time to soak up the spectacular craftsmanship and cultural depth that makes the city shine.
Morning: Visit one of the top three gardens in Japan
Kanazawa perfectly balances the old and the new. When you get off the train at Kanazawa Station, your first impression will be that of a modern city – glassy towers and sparkling-clean streets – until you realise that the funky, twisty wooden architecture of the station towering over you is modelled after a Shinto shrine. The fusion between past and present starts at the station and never lets up.
Hop on the 12 or 7 bus (Kenrokuen Shuttle) in front of Kanazawa Station, which will take you to Kenroku-en. The journey there will show off Kanazawa’s modern side, but the destination is a captivating 400-year-old garden.
Kenroku-en, which is considered one of the three great gardens of Japan, is an expansive strolling garden, which means visitors can move freely throughout the lawns, hills and beautifully curated landscapes. Featuring colourful flowers, winding creeks and traditional cottages and teahouses, you can easily spend three hours exploring Kenroku-en.
Kenroku-en is also built for all four seasons. With verdant lawns in summer, cherry and plum blossoms in the spring, fiery autumn colours and occasional winter snowfall, you’re in for a treat no matter the time of year.
Afternoon: Pick your choice of postmodern art or Zen Buddhism
The juxtaposition of tradition and cutting-edge in Kanazawa continues when you exit Kenroku-en; turn right to see the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art straight ahead. But before going in, fill up on Japanese curry for lunch at Kanazawa Nanahoshi Curry, right in front of the museum, or Turban Curry, which is a short walk down the street.
After finishing your meal, choose to either learn about contemporary art at the 21st Century Museum or admire Zen architecture and get an education in Buddhist philosophy at the DT Suzuki Museum, which is a 10-minute walk away.
The 21st Century Museum has child-friendly interactive exhibits, cutting-edge works by contemporary Japanese and international artists, and plenty of Instagram-worthy moments. Meanwhile, at the DT Suzuki Museum, learn about the critical role that Daisetsu Suzuki played in spreading Zen Buddhism to the West, and admire the museum’s harmonious Zen mirror pond, which was designed by Yoshio Taniguchi (who also redid MoMA).
Evening: Enjoy an izakaya-style dinner before bar-hopping in Katamachi
No matter which destination you choose for the first afternoon, you’ll still be near the most happening dining and nightlife district in Kanazawa, Katamachi. Just a few blocks west of the 21st Century Museum, Katamachi has narrow alleys overflowing with old-school watering holes and glossy cocktail bars alike.
Why not experience both? Check out either Hanagumi Izakaya or Kabuna for classic Japanese pub food and plenty of beer and sake. These two restaurants offer Kanazawa’s twist on izakaya (casual Japanese pubs), with an emphasis on sushi and seafood, but also serve tempura, karaage (deep-fried meat or fish) and delicious soups and sides for sharing.
The fun continues after dinner. Wandering across Katamachi’s colourful back alleys will present a plethora of enticing bars. While you could go all night roaming from tiny bar to tiny bar, Kanazawa Music Bar is recommended for a curated vinyl experience. After that, try Bar Spoon for sophisticated and stylish cocktails.
Pro tip: Most bars in Kanazawa have a cover charge, so don’t be surprised to pay between ¥500 and ¥1,500 (£3.65-11) to get in. Don’t worry, though, as they tend to more than make up for it with aesthetic interiors and carefully curated drinks menus.
Morning: Try Kanazawa’s speciality seafood at Omicho Fish Market and get a glimpse of the sea
Tired from a night out drinking in Kanazawa? Or if you refrained, are you bursting with energy? Utatsuyama Park fits either mood – treat it as a small mountain’s worth of hiking trails and views of Kanazawa and the Sea of Japan, or simply a relaxing stroll through nature.
But first, breakfast. Take the same 12 bus from Kanazawa Station and get off after just two stops at Omicho Fish Market (opens daily at 9am). Omicho has a different vibe than the crowded auctions of the Toyosu Fish Market in Tokyo. As well as being a place to buy high-quality fish, it’s also an all-round local market with fresh produce and plenty of captivating breakfast and lunch stands. Enjoy the morning bustle of the market and try kabura-zushi (sushi with turnip and carrots) or jibune (hearty duck soup) for breakfast.
Following your meal, get back on the 12 bus and alight three stops later at Hashiba-cho. Turn right after you cross the river and you’ll get a sneak peek of the relaxing afternoon to come as you walk across Higashi Chaya toward the park, taking in handicraft and tea shops along the way.
Once you have passed several Buddhist temples, you’ll arrive at the park entrance and iris garden. Continue up the mountain and stop at your preferred temple, lookout point or teahouse to relax along the way. Utatsuyama Park is particularly spectacular in June when the mountain wildflowers are blooming.
Pro tip: As with the rest of Japan, the weather can affect your experience in Kanazawa, which is a step cooler than Tokyo but two steps rainier. So expect rain and wear boots and a good, light jacket. And don’t let the weather get you down!
Afternoon: Travel back to the Edo period – and experience its luxuries
Allow yourself a full afternoon to stroll through and explore the quaint pedestrian streets of Higashi Chaya, the largest of Kanazawa’s three preserved Edo-period districts. Higashi Chaya has geisha shows, speciality sake and craft shops, luxury and low-key gift stores, top-tier handicrafts and tranquil teahouses.
For afternoon tea, check out Amanochaten, where you can sit on traditional cushions and enjoy a hot cup of tea and beautiful matcha sweets. If you need something more substantial, consider heading to Fluffy for puffy pancakes or Mitsukawa for sushi.
Within the Higashi Chaya district, the Kanazawa Yasue Gold Leaf Museum is a must-visit. While Ishikawa prefecture is famous around Japan for a variety of crafts, including lacquer and glassware, its gold-leaf tradition is a great place to start appreciating Ishikawa’s rich artisan culture. The museum also offers some surprisingly affordable souvenirs, including tableware and handicrafts.
Evening: A Michelin-star restaurant awaits you
Top off your Kanazawa trip with some of the best food the city has to offer at Hazama or French Makino, which was awarded one Michelin star in 2019. Both restaurants are back in the Katamachi area, so you’ll need to take a bus or taxi from Higashi Chaya. You won’t want to miss out on either of these meals.
Hazama is a cosy hideaway offering reasonable prices for upscale set meals and private tatami rooms. The restaurant offers a range of quality food from hotpot to teppanyaki and delectable steamed vegetables. Otherwise, for a real treat, you’ll need a reservation for French Makino. The menu is limited, but the creative French-Japanese fusion cuisine is a gourmet culinary experience.
This article is an updated version of a story originally created by Lucy Dayman.