Here's Why You Need To Make An Overnight Escape To Kanazawa | CoolJapan

Kanazawa (金沢) makes for a great weekend or overnight escape from Tokyo, now easily reached within two and a half hours by the new Hokuriku Shinkansen operating out of Tokyo Station — valid on both Japan Rail Pass and the Hokuriku Arch Pass. On arrival, Kanazawa Station surprises visitors with the modernity of its design that embodies traditional elements, populated with vibrant shops and dining options that are well integrated into the train terminal.

This capital city of Ishikawa Prefecture is often called Little Kyoto, where many of its 16th-century Edo-era buildings still survive in good condition, particularly in the Nagamachi Samurai district and the Chaya entertainment districts. Facing the Sea of Japan, Kanazawa is blessed with abundant seafood; combined with the fresh produce from the surrounding mountains, visitors are treated to a plethora of excellent restaurants serving Kaga Ryori, the traditional cuisine of Ishikawa.

Historical attractions abound in this old castle town, boasting numerous restored feudal residences and districts, as well as modern museums that lend a contrasting contemporary touch to its steep history.

Kanazawa's sights

The highlight of Kanazawa's sights is Kenrokuen (兼六園), considered to be one of Japan's three most beautiful gardens. Sprawled over 11.4 hectares of meticulously landscaped grounds next to the Kanazawa Castle, this past playground of feudal lords is interspersed with big and small ponds, streams, fountains, bridges and teahouses as well as the iconic two-legged Kotoji-toro stone lantern, a symbol of the garden. Artistically punctuated with manicured trees and flowers, it is one of the best spots in Kanazawa for that Kodak moment.

Look out for the Hakuichi store near the entrance of Kenrokuen, a famous shop chain that sells an Instagram-worthy gold leaf-wrapped soft vanilla ice cream, a specialty of this town that produces 99 per cent of the gold leaf consumed in Japan — used for the decoration of temples and shrines, in the making of traditional crafts and tableware, as well as for accessories and beauty products like face masks.

Another must-visit in Kanazawa is the Higashi Chaya district (東茶屋街). Chaya is an entertainment teahouse where geishas perform dances and play Japanese traditional musical instruments, an art form that dates back to the Edo period. The architecture of these charming teahouses is characterised by the lattice woodwork on the outside of the ground floor entrance and elegant Japanese-style guestrooms located on the upper floor.

Time flies as you wander the alleys of this ancient district lined with these quaint wooden teahouses, many of which have been restored and converted into restaurants, cafes and souvenir shops.

Shopaholics should check out the upmarket Hakuza store that tempts your wallet with a variety of gold products ranging from jewellery and bags to artisan tableware. A hidden gem located at the back of the store is the Hikari Kura, a well-preserved old warehouse whose exterior and interior are covered entirely with pure gold foil.

Another recommended pitstop in the Higashi Chaya district is Kaikaro, designated as a Kanazawa City Preservation Architecture. The short tour of this 200-year-old chaya — it still functions as a fully operational geisha house — offers a rare glimpse into the decadent world of chaya culture catered to the nobles of the Edo era: an exquisite interior dominated by vermilion-lacquered stairs and woodworks, opulent banquet rooms, a make-up room for the geishas with their tools of the trade displayed, and even a tea ceremony room lavishly furnished with gold-threaded tatami mats.

For history buffs, Nagamachi (長町) is not to be missed: you’ll be transported back in time to an atmospheric district where samurais and their families used to reside, with remnants of traditional dwellings replete with earthen walls and forbidding private gates framed by narrow backstreets laced with water canals.

Kanazawa is an endearing package that ticks all the boxes for visitors: compact and easy to traverse with clearly signed and well-routed buses (the JR buses are free for JR Pass holders); a good immersion into ancient Japan, and while it may not be as grand as Kyoto, it comes without the hordes of tourists; pleasing culture vultures with several small but engaging museums such as the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art (stay tuned for Part Two of this three-part feature); and plenty of affordable and palatable dining experiences–Fuwari Izakaya served one of my best meals in Japan (stay tuned for Part Three of this three-part feature).

Kanazawa is accessible from Tokyo within two and a half hours by the Hokuriku Shinkansen that operates out of Tokyo Station. JR Passes are available at: All Nippon Airways (ANA) and Japan Airlines (JAL) operate several daily flights and transfers (one hour) between Tokyo and Komatsu Airport where you can get a shuttle bus (40 mins.) or a train (30 mins.) to Kanazawa Station.