Big in Japan 6

Kanazawa railway station is quite something. After the Shinkansen glided in, coming to a stop at precisely the correct second, we were soon able to see its bold modern design, dominated by the Tsuzumi-mon gate, shaped like the traditional Japanese drums, but also, we thought, reminiscent of a temple gateway.

The main interest in the city is all to the east of the station. Our hotel was a few steps to the west, so we were well placed each day to walk through the lively station precinct and the Tsuzumi-mon gate to commence our sight-seeing.

This place had all the main essentials covered.

Kanazawa, in the northern central mainland of Japan, is worth a visit because of its historical interest. It has not been subject to the kind of modernisation enforced on other cities after war or natural disaster, so it preserves more widely than elsewhere the buildings and the culture of the past. We found the main sites within easy walking distance of the centre, and set off first to explore the famous Kenrokuen Garden via a stroll through the impressive grounds of Kanazawa Castle, of which more later.
Kenrokuen is a major tourist attraction, so the advice is to get there early. It opens at eight, and we were there not long after. Despite some rain, the first we had encountered in Japan, there were a good many people around first thing. Kenrokuen, which was originally the private garden of the feudal ruling family – which is why it adjoins the castle – is huge, varied and beautiful, with something to catch the interest at every turn. According to Japan Guide, “Kenrokuen literally means ‘Garden of the Six Sublimities’, referring to spaciousness, seclusion, artificiality, antiquity, abundant water and broad views, which according to Chinese landscape theory are the six essential attributes that make up a perfect garden.” Even through a rather persistent drizzle, it was difficult not to be impressed by the trees, the plants, the fountains, the lake… Here’s the obligatory Brit in raingear shot:

Really, though, nothing could dampen our enthusiasm for this place. We wondered around for quite a long time, at the end of which the promised hordes had indeed appeared, and it was getting quite crowded. We were glad we’d made it an early start. You can see literally thousands of photos of the garden taken in better weather here, so I won’t post many of our rainy shots. Here are some items of interest, though:

This fountain, which looks quite modest, is claimed to be Japan’s oldest.

This stone tablet contains a haiku by Basho, which goes
Aka aka to
Hiwa tsure naku mo
Aki no kazu
or something like “How brightly the sun shines, turning its back to the autumn wind.” Again, it’s a rather modest monument, but is much revered as it commemorates Basho’s visit in 1689 on the narrow road to the deep north.

The gardeners were out in force, in outfits that hadn’t changed much in three hundred years.

We left, slightly damp, but very content with what we’d experienced, as the rain stopped.

The castle, which was almost completely destroyed by fire in 1881, has been partially, and painstakingly, rebuilt, using the same techniques and materials as in the original. It was the first fortified building we had encountered in Japan, and it was clear that it presented a formidable obstacle to potential enemy forces.

Climbing up on the ramparts gave us a view of the city and showed how dominant the castle must have been when it was built in the late sixteenth century by the local feudal lords.

I especially loved the huge wooden gates that guard the entrances. They don’t supply these at B&Q:

Exploring the main city, we chanced upon a coffee shop run by an American, from Seattle, and his Japanese wife. Sol was a really friendly and welcoming guy, who happily chatted about Kanazawa and recommended some sights and places to eat. Close to his shop lies the Omi-cho market, an extraordinary place crammed with stalls selling all kinds of food, but especially seafood. The creatures laid out for the shopper’s delectation didn’t look like anything I’d ever seen in a fishmonger’s, and while we enjoyed the lively bustle of the place, we moved on quickly.
We headed out on foot to the former Samurai district, Nagamichi, to stroll around the various well-preserved houses from the Edo period. The narrow streets are defined by earthen walls, the construction of which was apparently a privilege only afforded to Samurai. The narrow lanes, which intersect with the Onosho canal, the oldest of Kanazawa’s fifty canals, are perfect for a leisurely wander, with each former residence of a warrior clan just a few steps from the last.

No smoking, even on the streets in Kanazawa.

The residences were well-preserved, and beautifully presented.

The interiors were minimalist, with an emphasis on the rituals of domestic life:

The exteriors were simple, too, understated, yet demonstrating the status that the Samurai would have had compared to the ordinary people. These are substantial dwellings.

We wanted to look again at the area around Kenrokuen in better weather, so the following day we headed for the  Seisonkaku Villa, which adjoins the garden.

This villa, built in 1863 by the local lord for his mother, was yet another exquisite architectural gem. It’s one of the finest of the Samurai dwellings in the city, and has historical displays of interest, but the main attraction really is just to experience the calm elegance of the interior, and the views of the garden in its autumn glory.

We walked down the hill back into town, where we had planned to visit the museum of contemporary art, which is a striking modernist building. When we arrived, it was really crowded (it was weekend) and as there were no exhibitions that really appealed, we decided to leave it, and make the most of the sunshine.

Unexpectedly, we came across a lovely little museum dedicated to Noh Theatre. On the ground floor, a Noh stage is laid out, and they encourage visitors to try on a Noh costume, and practise some classic gestures. Here’s a goddess I happen to know:

After that interlude, we enjoyed some browsing in a very high-class craft shop attached to the museum, and walked to a quiet area where we could see the D.T. Suzuki Museum. Suzuki was an important Buddhist philosopher, and this memorial to him is a beautifully calm spot for contemplation.

I’m not reading the profound insights of Prof. Suzuki there, by the way: I’m working out the best route back to the castle.
We walked along the castle wall until we came to the Oyama shrine, built in 1599, and a curious mix of architectural styles. Bits of the shrine originated elsewhere, and the gate was originally designed as the portal to the castle. It’s an impressive, sprawling place now, with some startling statuary:

Sol advised us to visit the Higashi Chaya district in the evening, when the street lanterns gave this area a pleasantly welcoming atmosphere. This area is where the geishas would entertain in the teahouses. It dates from 1820, and outside Tokyo and Kyoto is the largest of these pleasure districts in Japan. It’s been well preserved and is now a magnet for tourists, particularly those wanting an atmospheric crepuscular stroll.
We arrived in the late afternoon, when it was still light, and did a circuit. The teahouses still function, and are supplemented by places selling souvenirs and gifts.

Later, when dusk arrived, the area felt  quite different, and it was worth a second circuit to experience the area in the lamplight.

We had the obligatory encounter with a cat:

After a while, we sought out Huni, the restaurant recommended to us by Sol at the coffee shop. He had described the location well, and he needed to, because from the outside, as he’d said, it looked just like a private house, and was off the beaten track. We could see a kitchen through a window, and when we entered, it became clear that the kitchen opened into the dining area, where a couple of tables were waiting, as well as some seats at the counter which marked off the kitchen. We sat at the counter and had a great chat with the owner, who spoke excellent English, and who was happy to rustle up a delicious vegetarian meal for us.
Afterwards, we walked around the quiet residential streets, and came across a curious little shrine, featuring more figurines in knitted outfits.

Even the car park next to our hotel had a guardian in a little hut:

All in all, a lovely evening. We arrived back at our top floor room which gave us a panoramic view of the city.

Kanazawa was a delight, full of unexpected pleasures. The following day we were travelling on the Shinkansen again, back to Tokyo.

CC BY-SA 4.0 Big in Japan 6 by Dr Rob Spence is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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