Spared being flattened in World War Two and out on the edge of ‘Japan’ (as far as I can tell), Kanazawa is known as a “Little Kyoto”. Of course, I should mention there are plenty of towns that call themselves a “Little Kyoto”. I haven’t been to them all, so I can’t say how apt this sobriquet is.
We did find Kanazawa smaller than Kyoto, pleasant enough, and like Kyoto mostly grimly modern with some quaint alleys in some beautiful neighborhoods. Perhaps due to its smaller size, it felt like it would be easier to access and learn about the traditional arts here, but I could also say that impression might only be because we’re getting used to being in Japan and being both more nosey and less intimidated by the language barrier.
There are several things worth doing in Kanazawa. The most obvious is the garden in the center of town, Kenroku-en. We were there with plenty of cherry trees still in bloom and it was busy (and free), so I can imagine an alternate time where the tea houses might be more contemplative and serene. The more amazing garden and the one that made me think about the poverty of modern home design was the garden at Nomura-ke, a Samurai house in the Nagamachi Samurai District. The garden is the best example we’d seen of the ability of the Japanese designer to create encompassing worlds in small spaces. Why else would the first word I would use to discuss the second pond, sitting no more than 3 feet below the first, be as a ‘gorge’? It’s the only garden I’d have truly exchanged my garden for.
We also went to Kanazawa Castle and spent perhaps longer than we needed to there, being tired, a bit worn down mid-way through our vacation, and knowing we weren’t going to make it to Himeji. It’s right next to Kenroku-en. We didn’t explore all the grounds, but the main buildings are recent reconstructions and quite empty. However, it makes sense that they’re empty, as the focus (at least for English readers) isn’t on the history, too convoluted for me to understand anyhow, but on the joinery and construction techniques. Fascinating and a great space to be in socks.
Also located around Kenroku-en, were several museums. We were practically dragged into the Ishikawa Prefectural Museum of Traditional Arts and Crafts. That was fine. Heading into our third week of being in Japan, it was clear that one of the cultural legacies of Japan (and something so much rarer in the United States) was the relevance and honor given to localized arts and crafts. It reminded me of traveling in France where one town might be known for its copper pots and other for its fried pig feet. I was also trying to find something unique to bring home besides the easy to bike with stationary I’d been obsessing over in Kyoto. I loved this dingy-postwar museum. The folks were kind, Vic and I got to weave with an cheerful master weaver, the displays were informative and objects lovely. The specialities of the prefecture beside Washi paper, include Wajima Laquerware, pottery (I think every prefecture includes some specialized pottery), gold leaf, candles, flies for fishing and fireworks. I could tell the Noto Peninsula was going to be my kind of place!
Just to the south of the garden, but still along the tourist friendly “bus loop”, was the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art. It’s contemporary art: so either one of the most interesting museums in all of Japan or a complete waste of time. It was in between installations, so we paid too much money to see a juried “show of the people” which included the worst painting I have seen since October’s First Thursday. But I did enjoy resting my feet in a James Turrell room (in need of repainting so that no leaking water blurred the sky!) and watching people interact with the it.
Here’s a few functional notes for the traveler through Kanazawa:
1. We stayed at the Dormy Inn near the train station (our first of three of these) and perhaps the best of them. While I am sure you could find more compelling stays cheaper, we used our limited Internet to find it and thought it reasonable for $125 for two twin beds. It has free laundry conveniently located on the top floor next to the public baths, manga lending library and vending machines filled with beer. If that’s not traveler’s heaven, I don’t know what is. Breakfast here was quite nice and got these bike tourers on the road feeling good.
2. Being next to the Station, it’s also close to department stores! I can’t recall the specific one across the street, but we ended up at an oyster/gumbo joint across the street. Based solely on pictures, I didn’t order the “gumbo”..but we did enjoy the raw oysters, including the most expensive oysters I’ve ever eaten at $8 a pop. But here’s the deal with that dozen of oysters, “When in the hell am I ever going to eat oysters from the Inland Sea, the Sea of Japan and Hokkaido again on the same raw plate?” Not likely. Worth it and recommended.
3. Did I mention I did laundry? While drinking beer with 8 Japanese people in pajamas reading manga? This makes me very happy.