KANAZAWA, Ishikawa Pref. — As orderly creatures, Japanese generally have a fondness for numbers and happily assimilate the world in neat numerical packages. Of these, the triad has always beguiled. Japan has its Three Most Beautiful Landscapes, its Three Imperial Regalia, its Three Plants of Good Fortune and — as every visitor cannot help but be aware of — Kanazawa’s Kenrokuen is declared one of Japan’s Three Finest Gardens.
Traditional culture, you soon learn, is big in Kanazawa. I caught the first sign of this as I stepped off the train, where, instead of being greeted by the synthesizer-trill of a typical Japanese station, I could hear the plinkplonk of a koto over the speakers. As I walked around town, I could see many women wearing kimono as everyday attire. Even away from the tourist areas, I noticed a liquor shop that stocks almost only sake, and another store that sells only miso and soy sauce. In the early evening, I passed a couple of teenage girls who were unselfconsciously singing an old folk song together as they walked down the street.
Kanazawa is located just inland from the Sea of Japan in Ishikawa Prefecture, below the great hook of the Noto Peninsula. Winters here are harsh, and they have bred a people who are inured to the cold. I was there in November, glad of my leather jacket and scarf, and wishing I had brought along gloves, too. But I spotted many schoolgirls breezing by, wearing short skirts, the mandatory loose socks and, on top, just thin blouses and sweaters.
The city’s proximity to the Sea of Japan is tastily evident in Kanazawa’s seafood. Nowhere is this more colorfully seen than in Omicho market, which dates back three centuries. If it swims, floats, crawls or otherwise lurks in the sea, there is a fair chance that you will come across it in Omicho. And it is hard to make your way along the alleys without having some large crustacean thrust under your nose for inspection (along with the information that what you are looking at is an absolute bargain).
The seafood is naturally prominent in the local cuisine, known as Kaga-ryori. Unless your budget is on the spindliest of shoestrings, you cannot come to Kanazawa and deny yourself this particular delight. I ate at a restaurant — which admittedly I chose because it looked to be the cheapest — at 5,000 yen for a full course.
The mother and daughter who served me wore elegant kimono. I was brought a succession of dishes, including kabura-zushi (pieces of yellowtail and turnip in rice malt) and jibuni, a hearty chicken stew. This being Kanazawa, the various dishes were daintily arranged. Just as the seasons figure in Kaga-ryori, so they were reflected in the autumnal branches and grasses used as restaurant decoration. Even the toilet smacked of sophistication — with meter-long pine branches standing in each urinal. I hadn’t the foggiest idea what they were supposed to be doing there, but that certainly looked like culture to me.
Food also expresses another aspect of Kanazawa — the fact that the place was once filthy rich. Wealth in Japan was formerly reckoned in terms of koku, the amount of rice a person could consume in a year. In Edo times (1603-1867), the Kaga domain — centered on Kanazawa and ruled over by the powerful Maeda clan from their power base at Kanazawa Castle — was Japan’s wealthiest, producing over 1 million koku a year. So that people don’t forget just how rich it was, Kanazawa decided to name its main road after its own affluence — Hyakumangoku-dori (1 million koku street).
Wealth and the attendant attitude of those who possess it have not exactly disappeared from Kanazawa. Walk along Hyakumangoku-dori today and you’ll see gleaming outlets of Tiffany, Gucci and Louis Vuitton. Kanazawa oozes class: The people dress well and comport themselves with style. By comparison, the nearby cities of Toyama and Fukui seem resolutely provincial.
Not far from Hyakumangoku-dori is the renowned Kenrokuen. Even those who ordinarily appreciate a garden most when they come to fire up a barbecue cannot help being charmed by the place. There are deep beds of velvety green moss; arched bridges over shallow, rippling streams; the fresh tang of pine resin in the air; and small pavilions by a pond. The point of greatest interest in the park is the unusual two-legged Kotoji Lantern, which gets its name from the supposed resemblance of its base to the bridge used for raising the strings of a koto. As for Kenrokuen, it gets its name from having the six attributes (kenroku) that a garden should possess — spaciousness, seclusion, human ingenuity, antiquity, water and panoramic views. You can’t help but wish, though — as the tour guides bellow into their megaphones — that someone had thought to tag on “peace and quiet” as a seventh attribute.
A couple of less raucous areas are the main geisha districts in town, on either side of Kanazawa’s two main rivers. In the smaller of the districts, Nishi Chaya, I heard on Sunday morning the sound of singing and the playing of a shamisen, flute and drum emanating from one of the buildings. A local told me that this was where the Nishi Chaya geisha practiced. The geisha at Higashi Chaya apparently have the better reputation, and so the ones here are trying to improve. I don’t have the sharpest of ears for traditional Japanese music, but this certainly sounded good enough to slap on a CD and sell.
In older times, many of Kanazawa’s geisha were daughters of samurai, and an old samurai residential area, Nagamachi, is well-preserved in the city. Nagamachi’s buildings themselves are not very old, but the buff-colored earthen walls topped by gleaming chocolate-brown tiles and the area’s tiny, trickling canals offer something of a time tunnel back to the Kanazawa of the Maedas.
It was in Nagamachi that I stopped for a coffee outside a souvenir shop. The lady in the store was chatty, though the coffee she served in a paper cup was lukewarm and ghastly. What she did do, however, was sprinkle tiny flakes of gold leaf onto the coffee surface. Just as with the pine tree in the urinal, I couldn’t quite see the point of it. But it certainly had the reek of sophistication.