The capital of Ishikawa Prefecture greeted me like it does most travelers: with a downpour. The train’s rain-streaked windows blurred my first views of a city in a storybook setting. Kanazawa averages 178 soggy days a year, so it’s fitting that the station’s glass dome fans out like an umbrella.
A northern spur on Japan’s Tokyo-Kyoto tourism axis, Kanazawa’s geisha districts, samurai houses, manicured gardens, castle park and “Ninja Temple” are worth going out of your way.
I checked into a hotel near Hyakumangoku-dori, the artery slicing through the neon of Korinbo and Katamachi districts. These areas boast the most extensive dining, shopping and entertainment options in Hokuriku, which comprises Ishikawa, Toyama and Fukui Prefectures, even though they are rather tame compared to parts of Tokyo.
I set out under the passing clouds, and in the shadows of Korinbo’s department stores found cobbled lanes where water rushing through stone channels evoked Kanazawa prior to the Meiji Restoration. Here, pale yellow walls topped with ceramic tiles front samurai residences. Some are open to the public, but simply strolling the streets is enough to feel centuries removed from downtown.
Ambitious walkers can access most of the city’s cultural attractions on foot. Shaded benches offer a spell for tired feet while comprehensive maps and signs labeled in English left me with few “I think it’s this way” hesitations.
Parks, gardens and sculptures give Kanazawa a pleasantly landscaped feel lacking in other Japanese cities heavy on concrete.
Competition is steep, but Kenrokuen is regarded as one of this horticulturally attuned nation’s three finest gardens, and if the crowds are any indication, it’s certainly true. Once the property of a feudal lord, the “garden with six sublimities” first welcomed leisure-seeking commoners in 1874, and arrivals haven’t let up since. Its name derives from the six attributes (kenroku) said to be necessary for a perfectly landscaped garden. The garden is arresting in all seasons, whether it be during the cherry blossoms, summer perennials, fall foliage or when ropes buttress snow-covered pines like elegant spider webs.
Finding a quiet corner can be a challenge, but stone bridges and pruned trees radiate perfection from any angle. Kenrokuen was originally the outer garden of Kanazawa Castle, which failed to withstand repeated fires. What a 2001 reconstruction lacks in structural authenticity, the surrounding rolling lawns and flowerbeds make up for with natural beauty. Although castle grounds were converted into an Imperial Army base and, more recently, a university campus, today cloud-white walls once again rise into a sky-blue backdrop — weather permitting.
Kenrokuen and the castle park aren’t the only places to find pampered landscapes. The city’s best-kept secret is revealed through exploring temples clustered at the base of Mount Utatsu, which is also a pleasant hiking area.
Combine it with a visit to the nearby Higashi Chaya district, the most notable of three geisha areas with wooden row houses where one can find classy if ultra-expensive entertainment.
I folded up the map and let Utatsu’s winding lanes guide me to deserted temples in this leafy neighborhood. It was tempting to get lost in wooded cemeteries, but everywhere I turned a sign pointed me to other temples nearby.
For those on a tight schedule, “Temple Town” is closer to the city center and home to some 50 temples, but they are in a less attractive urban setting. Temple-hopping in Japan is like doing the cathedral circuit through Europe — inspiring architecture becomes just another obligatory building to photograph.
Paying a visit to Myoryuji, however, will quickly cure temple fatigue. Erroneously dubbed “Ninja-dera (Ninja Temple),” no such agents of assassination and espionage ever inhabited these grounds, but the crafty layout would have made them proud. The building appears to be two stories from the outside, but like most things at Myoryuji, appearances are deceiving. The inside reveals four stories (or seven levels, counting mezzanines) with no fewer than 29 staircases, among them trap stairs, hidden stairs, and stairs where the ankles of intruders could be speared.
A host of contraptions baffled shogunate spies and probably the Kaga clan themselves who used the building in the Edo Period (1603-1867). It’s easy to forget that Myoryuji is a Buddhist place of worship, but beware of that offertory box in the floor — it, too, is a trap.
As the temple attracts enough visitors to overwhelm its narrow confines, reservations are a must. I called and secured a place on a tour that started 30 minutes later. While some of the ruses are self-evident, the English manual accompanying the Japanese-speaking guide fills in any gaps.
Such a manual would have been helpful at a Noh performance that night. Kanazawa is home to one of the five schools of this traditional drama. I dropped by the theater to inquire about performances and was ushered in to watch a rehearsal in progress (before being ushered back out five minutes later). Wanting more than a taste, I returned that night. For the uninitiated, Noh is notoriously slow and more coded than kabuki. Slight expression signifies great exaggeration. For example, an “action-packed” climax consisted of the lone actor throwing his hat to the ground and stomping off stage. Lost without translation, I closed my eyes and let rhythmic lyricism massage my ears for 90 minutes, which for 1,000 yen cleared my mind without cleaning out my wallet.
Kanazawa is a microcosm of Japan’s best cultural, historical and aesthetic elements. Just ask New York Yankees slugger Hideki Matsui, who played his high-school baseball here. Well-preserved but less trafficked than Kansai’s tourism magnets, Kanazawa — literally “marsh of gold” — represents feudal heritage preciously packaged.