Introduction To Kanazawa for First Time Visitors

Kanazawa is one of those secrets you selfishly want to keep to yourself, but you can't help spilling the details about. As lovely as Kyoto with a fraction of the tourist crowds, Kanazawa is a city that you almost hope never changes. A city of arts and elegance, Kanazawa is a compact destination rolling up the best of Japan's samurai history, extraordinary cuisine, and modern luxuries into a package that fits nicely into most Japan travel itineraries.

Kanazawa owes its roots in traditional culture and the arts to the Maeda family which ruled over the Kaga Domain from Kanazawa Castle during the Edo Period. This shrewd maneuver enabled the family to funnel the region's immense wealth into artistic endeavors, keeping the suspicious eye of the Shogunate off of the Maeda clan. Master artisans from around the country came to Kanazawa to work under the favor of the Kaga lords, which established a passion for and protection of traditional crafts that remain strong today. Dubbed "The City of Handicrafts," Kanazawa is representative of more types of traditional crafts than any other city in Japan.

Where is Kanazawa?

Kanazawa is located on the coastline of the Japan Sea.In 2015, the construction of the direct Tokyo-Kanazawa Hokuriku Shinkansen line greatly improved access to the city. Today, Kanazawa can be reached by fast and convenient train service from Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and Nagoya in about 2 and a half hours.

Kanazawa is the capital of Ishikawa Prefecture, which includes a long stretch of coastline along the Japan Sea. The Hokuriku Shinkansen line connects it to Tokyo, and the Limited Express Thunderbird line connects it to Osaka and Kyoto. The convenient Limited Express Shirasagi connects Kanazawa and Nagoya.

The Top Attractions of Kanazawa for First Time Visitors

Although Kanazawa can be said to share the beauty and appeal of other destinations in Japan, it has many unique characteristics. Here are some recommendations of the best things to see and do when you visit Kanazawa.

Take a walk through time in well-preserved Edo-era neighborhoods

Kanazawa boasts one of the largest preserved Edo Period neighborhoods of Japan’s larger cities. It’s a credit to the people of Kanazawa that they have taken such great care to maintain the authentic atmosphere of centuries past for future generations to enjoy.

One of the highlights of these neighborhoods is the Nagamachi Samurai District, with its streets lined with earthen walls obscuring former residences of Kanazawa's mid to high-ranking samurai families. For a glimpse inside one, visit the Nomura Samurai House, with its refined garden that includes a koi pond. 

“Chaya” teahouse districts also developed in the city for the entertainment of the wealthy merchants who inhabited old Kanazawa. Like the samurai neighborhoods, the three remaining chaya districts in Kanazawa are exceptionally well preserved and contain geisha teahouses that are still in business. Visit these picturesque neighborhoods at night, and you might hear the sounds of geisha playing traditional instruments floating down from the upper rooms as they entertain their guests.

Discover the art and architecture of Modern Kanazawa too

Just because Kanazawa has such well-preserved historical districts doesn't mean it is a city stuck in the past. Modern forms of art and architecture are also integral parts of the city, one of the largest of which is part of Kanazawa Station. Arriving by train, the iconic towering glass and steel Motenashi Dome connected to the stately Tsuzumi-mon Gate welcomes you to the city and protects you from inclement weather.

Several of Kanazawa's museums offer a peek at the city's modern side. The peaceful D.T. Suzuki Museum, for instance, is an architectural marvel that conceives the famous philosopher's theories of Zen Buddhism as a physical space. The nearby 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa hosts rotating exhibitions and contains permanent exhibits like the famous whimsical perspective of "The Swimming Pool."

Venture into the night (life)

Our lovely city by day transforms into a different kind of beauty at night. The elegantly illuminated scenes of Kanazawa after dark are enjoyed on evening strolls by couples and families alike. Seasonal lighting events of major attractions like Kenrokuen Garden are also big hits with visitors and locals alike. The Higashi Chaya District comes to life with the sounds of geisha entertaining guests with song and dance.

Evening meals and after-dinner drinks are vital social times in Kanazawa, so visit one of the many restaurant districts to enjoy a meal that might include fresh seafood, local sake, or any of the other Kanazawa cuisines that appeal to your senses.

Explore the "City of Handicrafts."

Traditional arts and crafts thrived for centuries in Kanazawa, so it is no wonder the city is known for them even today. Ishikawa Prefecture (of which Kanazawa is the capital) boasts 36 designated traditional crafts, including lacquerware, porcelain, silk dyeing, and paper-making. All of these are on display at the Ishikawa Prefectural Museum of Traditional Arts and Crafts, located next to Kenrokuen Garden.

In fact, the Japan National Crafts Museum was relocated to Kanazawa from Tokyo in 2020 in further recognition of Kanazawa's historical connection to traditional crafts. You can visit this museum and then walk over to Kanazawa Crafts Hirosaka, next door to the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, where you can shop for craft souvenirs.

Get Hands-on with Kanazawa Arts and Crafts

To truly experience the depth of craft culture in Kanazawa, join a workshop to learn how to make something by yourself. There are many types of experiences available that are taught by masters of their crafts: confectioneries, Kaga Yuzen dyeing, and gold leaf pasting, to name a few. You'll gain a greater appreciation for the skills needed to create these crafts and have a unique handmade souvenir to take home too!

You can also attend and sometimes participate in various events representative of Kanazawa culture. Tea ceremony has been an essential part of Kanazawa's social culture for centuries, and there are many places around the city offering tea ceremony experiences. Japanese tea ceremony is closely tied to kimono, so being dressed in kimono will provide the most authentic experience for the event.

Experiencing a geisha performance is a delightful way to be immersed in Kanazawa culture. You can enjoy a performance of singing and dancing by a geisha and interact with the geisha perfomers.There is also a program combining a geisha performance with an exquisite meal of Kanazawa cuisine. 

Eat golden ice cream

One of Kanazawa's traditional crafts is gold leaf, which is added to many other handicrafts such as wood, ceramics, and metal to create a luxurious appearance to already attractive items. The gold is hammered to a thickness of about 1/10,000 of a millimeter, so thin you can eat it with no unpleasant effects or even a hint of metallic flavor.

So why not try eating it adorning one of Japan's most popular types of desserts, soft-serve ice cream? Create a social media stir with your friends and family back home with snaps of you devouring a creamy cone of fresh ice cream draped in a leaf of golden glory! It is a unique treat made in Kanazawa and one not to be missed.

Save room for seafood at Omicho Market

Don't fill up on ice cream, however, because you'll need some space in your tummy for Kanazawa's premier gastronomical delight: fresh seafood. The Sea of Japan holds a vast variety of seafood caught and brought fresh daily to Omicho Market in the city's center. The market itself is a visual delight of exotic fish, shellfish, and edible undersea life forms you may have never laid eyes on before. From early November to mid-March, the market is awash with the bright orange shells of snow crab, one of the seasonal delicacies of Kanazawa.

After browsing the fresh products and working up a good appetite, head to one of the many seafood restaurants of Omicho Market. The favorite around here is kaisen-don, raw seafood served over hot rice, the freshest possible way to consume the bounties of the marketplace. There are also shops serving seafood prepared in other ways: steamed, fried, and as sushi.

So there you have it, the shortlist of an enormous list of things to experience in our fair city of Kanazawa, where the question is never if you'll have enough to do, but rather if you'll have enough time to do it.


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