Kanazawa sits next to the sea of Japan, which probably explained why it was freezing – we were surprised to find ourselves colder than we had been in the mountains of Shirakawa-go. he moment we stepped off the bus at JR Kanawaza station, we were in the middle of a biting snowstorm. It kept snowing the first day we were there, which forced us to hide in a mall for most of the afternoon. Kanazawa is so rainy that apparently there’s a local proverb which says “even if you forget your lunchbox, don’t forget your umbrella.”
Two highlights of our time in Kanazawa stand out; the first was Kenrokuen Garden, considered one of the three most beautiful gardens in Japan. It was originally built as the outer garden of Kanazawa castle, and only later opened to the public.
We were lucky; after an uneventful first day in the city, we wandered into a random oden restaurant for dinner. We chatted with a Chinese student working there, and asked her what she’d recommend to do in Kanazawa. She mentioned that the Kenrokuen Garden Winter Light-up Festival – which we hadn’t known about – was happening that very night.
We walked over to visit and the garden was magnificent in the night, so different from what it would have looked like in the day. We would have missed it if we hadn’t chatted with our waitress and obeyed the golden rule of traveling: Always ask the locals!
The second highlight of our visit came the next morning when we visited Omicho Market. The market itself was unremarkable, certainly not as colourful as Nishiki Market in Kyoto or Tsukiji Market in Tokyo. We couldn’t find a place to eat in the early morning, as most restaurants there seem to open only at lunch. But there was a small place where we saw a group of locals queuing up, and we joined in – it turned out to be one of the best meals we’d have in Japan.
The sushi spread on just one bowl was plentiful, fresh and delicious. The chef was friendly and funny, he called my wife a “cute beauty” and told another one of his customers that he looked like a movie star from Tokyo! And the meal was affordable considering the amount and quality of the sushi we had, I don’t recall the exact amount but it was somewhere between 2000 to 3000 yen.
I couldn’t find any information about the restaurant online, and I neglected to note down which corner of the market it’s in. But this is what the front looks like, and if you see a group of Japanese queuing up in a corner somewhere, that’s probably it.
I’m sorry to say that the rest of our visit to Kanazawa was disappointing. We visited the Higashi Chayagai District, the largest and supposedly most interesting of the three old streets in Kanazawa. We didn’t find much of interest there, and the Kazuemachi Chaya District, which is a short walk across, was a non-event.
We also visited the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, which was a waste of time. Don’t go unless you like your art highfaluting and boring. That might sound harsh, and perhaps we just didn’t get the exhibitions. But I don’t think my wife and I are art snobs or visually illiterate. We both attended design school and the Chichu Art Museum in Naoshima remains one of our favorite places on the planet. But while we would recommend that and several other museums to our friends, we wouldn’t recommend this one at all.
My wife and I found ourselves bored a lot of the time in Kanazawa, but it wasn’t the same kind of boredom you might get in a place like Takayama or Shirakawa-go. After visiting these three places, I discovered that I’m fine with being bored in a place with character, where the attractions are few but deep, compared to a place where the attractions may be many but shallow.
Perhaps boredom isn’t the right word. Perhaps it’s quietude, the freedom to enjoy a leisurely day, slowly soaking in the few sights which surprise you with their depth. When I was planning this trip, I debated between spending more time in either Takayama or Kanazawa. Being the smaller town Takayama lost out, I figured that there must be more to see and do in the bigger city of Kanazawa.
But I was wrong, while Takayama was smaller, it had more flavour. My wife and I would have had less to do there, but we would have been happier doing it. While Kanazawa was a bigger city, it felt just like any other modern city in the world.
Note: I benefitted from reading fellow travellers’ experiences as I was planning this visit, and these posts are my way of paying it forward. However, I’ve realised that reading about what to do in a foreign land isn’t complete without knowing the people writing about it.
My wife and I don’t enjoy hurried visits, we’re travellers who prefer to take our time getting to know a place. We’re not big on shopping, and prefer cultural to party places. We love standing in nature, and would give up a day in the mall for a day in the mountains. If you’re planning for your own visit while reading my recommendations, I hope you’ll keep these caveats in mind.