KANAZAWA, ISHIKAWA PREF. - With its well-preserved samurai and geisha districts, various temples and traditional crafts, the castle town of Kanazawa in Ishikawa Prefecture is often nicknamed “Little Kyoto.” The opening of the Hokuriku Shinkansen Line extension in 2015 reduced travel time from Tokyo to just 2½ hours, making Kanazawa an attractive alternative for those wanting a taste of tradition without the crowds that have descended on Kyoto in recent years.
Most visitors make a beeline for the Kenrokuen Garden (¥310; bit.ly/kengarden), which is considered one of the “Three Great Gardens of Japan,” alongside Kairakuen in Mito and Kenrokuen in Okayama. Other popular attractions include Omicho Market and the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art (¥1,000; kanazawa21.jp). However, Kanazawa has several other museums worthy of your time and attention.
Many of the tourist spots are clustered around the Kanazawa Castle Park and Kenrokuen Garden area. A short walk from the latter will take you to the Ishikawa Prefectural Museum of Art (¥360; bit.ly/ishiart). In addition to its extensive collection, which covers 500 years of local art, this museum boasts one of the city’s chicest cafes, Le Musee de H Kanazawa. Most people come for the luscious, highly photogenic desserts, designed by award-winning pastry chef and Ishikawa native Hironobu Tsujiguchi. The cafe can be crowded in the afternoon, but this dessert-lover can assure you it’s worth the wait.
Adjacent to the Prefectural Museum of Art is the Ishikawa Prefectural Museum of History (¥300; bit.ly/ishihist), which is housed in two regal, red brick buildings that date back more than a century. These were designated as Important Cultural Properties by the government in 1990. A third building hosts the Kaga-Honda Museum, which celebrates the life of the Honda clan, a local samurai family (single admission ¥400; combined ticket to both museums ¥500; honda-museum.jp.)
The history museum’s displays take you from prehistoric times through to modern-day life. I particularly liked the Hands-on Interaction Hall. While it is aimed at children, anyone who is young at heart will enjoy the chance to dress up in traditional clothing and check out objects from days gone by. The mock schoolroom has a collection of old textbooks and it was quite an eye-opener to see the nationalistic tone employed in a book for first-graders published during World War II, while a 90-year-old tome on advanced English grammar left this native speaker’s head spinning.
In the same general area is the D.T. Suzuki Museum (¥300; bit.ly/dtsuzuki), which celebrates the life of Kanazawa-born Daisetsu (Daisetz in later life) Teitaro Suzuki (1870-1966), a Buddhist philosopher credited with spreading interest in Zen teachings to the West. The real draw, however, is this museum’s stunning design.
The centerpiece is the shimmering Water Mirror Garden, a large, flat pond that surrounds the Contemplative Space, a room with four openings looking out onto the pond. The calming, meditative atmosphere makes this museum the perfect spot to refresh and regroup during a busy day of sightseeing. Note that the facility’s Japanese name is Suzuki Daisetsu Kan, and so locals might not initially make the connection with “D.T. Suzuki” when giving directions.
Slightly removed from the central museum cluster is Kurando Terashima’s House (¥300; bit.ly/kthouse), the home of a mid-rank samurai retainer who lived from 1777 to 1837. A little bit off the beaten path, I had the place to myself for most of the time I spent there. Even the locals seem unaware of its existence: The two schoolgirls whom I asked for directions admitted they had no clue, although the museum turned out to be just a block from where we were chatting.
Along with artifacts from the Terashima family, it has a beautiful Japanese garden, which I enjoyed as much as the famous Kenrokuen. A simple tea service is offered for an additional ¥300, and sipping on green tea while contemplating the tranquil garden was the perfect way to end my day.
Kanazawa is connected to Tokyo Station by bullet train. The journey takes 2½ to three hours and costs around ¥14,000 one way. Although it is easy to navigate much of Kanazawa on foot, regular loop buses also service the main tourist attractions. Inquire about combination tickets, which are available for some of the museums mentioned.