Kanazawa has grown out of its previous status as one of Japan’s best under-the-radar destinations and is now a must-hit stop for arts, crafts, culture, food and history. This ‘Little Kyoto’ located just three hours by bullet train from Tokyo and Osaka also serves as the gateway to the Noto Peninsula’s scenic seacoast.
Look beneath Kanazawa’s sleek urban surface and you’ll find dozens of sophisticated, delightful and thought-provoking crafts and traditions. Offering – and in fact specialising – in sushi and sake, gold leaf and ceramics, as well as modern art, architecture and Zen Buddhism, Kanazawa and the adjacent Noto Peninsula are hands-down the best places to discover Japan’s world-famous craftsmanship.
Conveniently located on the Hokuriku Shinkansen from Tokyo and the JR Thunderbird from Osaka, Kanazawa is a strong candidate for a prime two-to-four day trip after Tokyo and Kyoto.
An afternoon spent in the preserved Edo Period architectural district of Higashi-chaya is an unmissable Kanazawa activity. Located a 20-minute walk or just five stops on the 12 bus from Kanazawa Station (less than 15 minutes), Higashi-chaya is the largest of Kanazawa’s three preserved historic districts. The other districts are Nishi-chaya near Katamachi and Kazuemachi on the other side of the river from Higashi-chaya.
The area was established in the early 19th century as an entertainment district for aristocrats and wealthy merchants. Back then, the quaint streets were lined with chaya – sophisticated teahouses with geisha performances, drinking and games. Even in 2020, you can experience the same sights, sounds, textures, aromas and tastes, with pleasant teahouses, geisha shows, and excellent handicraft and gift shops. Coffee and tea goes for about ¥500 (£3.60), with souvenirs such as handicrafts, tea sets and Japanese sweets available at all price ranges.
Kenrokuen, considered to be one of the three great gardens of Japan, is an expansive strolling garden featuring colourful flowers, winding creeks and traditional cottages and teahouses (The other two top gardens are Koraku-en in Okayama and Kairaku-en in Mito).
Kenrokuen is located right in the heart of Kanazawa – just 15 minutes via bus from Kanazawa Station and right next to Kanazawa Castle, the 21st Century Art Museum, the Ishikawa Prefectural Museum, shopping at Korinbo Tokyu Square and the bustling dining and nightlife district of Katamachi. Entry to the garden is just ¥320 (£2.30).
Kagaya Onsen has been rated the best ryokan (traditional guesthouse) in Japan for more than 30 years. Close to 100 attendants greet you as you enter the luxurious, cosy interior. Spacious traditional Japanese-style rooms and natural hot spring baths overlook the bay and ocean. Upon arrival, you’ll be served steaming matcha and fresh cakes and your stay comes with a gourmet, multi-course dining experience. A room is pricey – about ¥50,000 (£360) per night – but with visitors including the Swedish royal family, if you’re willing to binge, you’re in for a once-in-a-lifetime pampering experience.
The best way to get to Kagaya is to take the express service on the JR Nanao line from Kanazawa Station to Wakura Onsen. Kagaya offers a shuttle bus from Wakura Onsen station to the ryokan. Staying overnight at Kagaya (or a cheaper, nearby ryokan) is also the perfect launching point to explore the Noto Peninsula.
The Senmaida Rice Terraces on the northern coast of the Noto Peninsula are one of the most scenic destinations in Japan, especially in summer when the hills turn a brilliant green. While buses run from Kanazawa Station, Nanao Station and Wakura Onsen Station, they can be infrequent and difficult to access, so we recommend booking a tour guide or private vehicle through your hotel. You can also learn about traditional rice-planting methods, and in winter, the fields are set aglow with LED lights.
Located downtown just two minutes from Kenrokuen, Kanazawa Castle and Katamachi, the 21st Century Art Museum is a contemporary museum featuring acclaimed Japanese and international artworks. The exhibits run the gamut from edgy, social critiques in visual, sculpture and multimedia formats all the way to kid-friendly interactive exhibits and fun pieces that make excellent Instagram-bait, like translucent multicoloured walls and a false pool. Admission is just ¥450 (£3.60).
Katamachi is Kanazawa’s prime dining and nightlife district. A far cry from the flashy lights of Shinjuku or Dotonbori in Osaka, Katamachi is a winding network of secluded back alleys packed with excellent restaurants, old-school izakaya (Japanese-style pubs) and trendy, glossy cocktail bars – many of which are locally owned hole-in-the-wall establishments with just a few seats available. The low-key atmosphere of the relaxed, hidden streets creates the ideal environment for endlessly wandering from bar to bar, enjoying a cocktail and some appetisers, and heading back into the night to see what’s next.
Be aware that many bars will have a cover charge (about ¥500) but they tend to make up for the cost with cool and eclectic interior decorating. Beer usually goes for less than ¥500 (£3.60) and cocktails aren’t much more. The main streets of Katamachi can be found between Korinbo Tokyu Square and the river.
Located just off the Sea of Japan, Kanazawa is renowned for its delicious, fresh seafood. A brief list of seafood to consider trying while in Kanazawa includes: sushi and sashimi, sasasushi (smoked sushi), kano or snow crab (especially in winter), kaisen-don or sashimi rice bowl, and kabura-zushi, a traditional dish made from yellowtail and fermented turnip.
Top seafood and sushi restaurants are located near Kanazawa Station, Higashi-chay and Katamachi, and include Otomezushi, Gyoshoan and Kifune. Also check out the Omicho Fish Market for high-quality fish and plenty of local stalls and lunch stands, just a 10-minute walk from Kanazawa Station. Note that gourmet, top-quality seafood isn’t cheap – a set-course meal ranges from around ¥6,000–12,000 (£43.50–87) per person.
Ishikawa Prefecture is home to high-quality artisanal crafts such as gold-leaf, lacquerware, wood crafts, ceramics and glassware. A great place to start is the Ishikawa Prefectural Museum of Traditional Arts and Crafts, which is located directly beside the 21st Century Art Museum (first floor free, second floor ¥260 (£1.90)).
There are also deeper dives into each and every speciality craft in the region at dedicated museums, with beautiful artefacts exhibited and handicraft souvenirs available to buy. For gold leaf, try the Yasue Gold Leaf Museum in Higashi-chaya; Ohi Museum, just on the other side of the river from Higashi-chaya, displays pottery; there’s lacquer at the Wajima Lacquerware Museum near the Wajima rice fields; and origami at Nippon Origami Museum in Kaga, a delightful onsen town an hour south of Kanazawa via JR Thunderbird.
Kanazawa’s largest annual festival is held on the first Saturday in June, featuring thousands of dancers, drummers and performers vibrantly costumed in Edo Period attire. The festival commemorates the establishment of Kanazawa City, when Maeda Toshiie, one of the leading generals of Japan’s Warring States Period, arrived at Kanazawa Castle on 14 June 1583.
The main parade leaves Kanazawa Station around 2pm and marches all the way to Kanazawa Castle. But even after the official parade winds down around 6pm, hundreds of groups of local businesses and associations (accounting for as many as 10,000 participants) join dressed in traditional yukata and kimono to dance across the streets of Kanazawa. If you’re in Japan in the month of June, making a trip to Kanazawa can be worth it for this epic scale of this festival alone.