[From December Issue 2011]
Many Japanese people associate Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture with the phrase, “Kaga hyakuman goku.” Used up until the Edo period, Kaga is the old name for Kanazawa and the surrounding area. One koku is the amount of rice consumed by the average adult in a year, and hyakuman goku is a million times that amount. The phrase shows just how rich an agricultural area Kanazawa was.
This expression, used in the samurai era, is still the city’s catch phrase. It indicates that Kanazawa is a famous castle town (a town that thrived around a castle). To get around the city, it’s convenient to use sightseeing buses called “Jokamachi Kanazawa Shuyu Bus” available from JR Kanazawa Station. There are three different buses named after three of Kanazawa’s famous literary masters: Kyoka, Saisei, and Shusei.
In Higashi Chaya-gai (East Teahouse District), rows of houses from the Edo period still remain to this day, making it a popular spot among non-Japanese tourists as well. The district was established when the Kaga Domain, which governed Kanazawa in the Edo period, assembled and maintained ochaya teahouses (eating establishments where geisha entertained customers by playing traditional musical instruments such as the koto and shamisen and by performing dances) in the area. In addition to the teahouses that have been in business since the old days, unique restaurants, cafes, general stores and ryokan (Japanese-style inns) stand side by side.
In Higashi Chaya-gai, there are some general stores which deal in gold leaf. Gold leaf is gold that has been beaten repeatedly into a sheet thinner than a piece of paper. It’s one of the traditional crafts in Kanazawa made with the same method that has been passed down through the ages. If gold leaf were made using only gold, it would be too soft, so it’s mixed with small amounts of silver or copper. Initially encouraged by the Kaga Domain, nearly all gold leaf production in Japan is now based in Kanazawa.
Because there’s an East Teahouse District, it follows that there’s also an West Teahouse District. Nishi Chaya-gai is adjacent to an area with many temples. The most famous of those temples is Myoryuji Temple. With a number of architectural tricks in place to deceive intruders – such as trap doors, hidden staircases and rooms – it’s been nicknamed the “Ninja Temple.” What’s more, the temple looks like a two-story building from the outside, but once inside, you discover it has four floors.
To the south west of Higashi Chaya-gai is Kenroku-en, the most famous tourist spot in Kanazawa. Not only is it well-known in Kanazawa, but it’s one of the most famous gardens in Japan. Originally a “daimyo teien” – a garden built by feudal lords in the Edo period for their personal pleasure – now that the daimyo are a thing of the past, Kenroku-en is open to the public. A common sight in Kenroku-en during winter is yuki-tsuri: branches tied together with rope in order to prevent them from breaking under the weight of fallen snow.
Right next to Kenroku-en is Kanazawa Castle Park. These are the ruins of the castle previously owned by the Maeda family, who used to be the rulers of the Kaga Domain. Its gates and turret (a part of the castle built to watch for enemies and defend against attack) have been restored to look as they did in the Edo period. Based on old plans, pictures and documents, as well as on research findings, they were reproduced, down to the last detail according to the original construction techniques.
Preserved since the Edo-period, Ishikawa-mon is a gate leading from Kenroku-en to Kanazawa Castle Park. Since the gate is the oldest structure in the park and looks so magnificent, many people mistakenly believe that it’s the ote-mon (the front gate), but it’s actually the karamete-mon (the rear gate). The karamete-mon is the gate used by the lord to escape from the castle in case it becomes impossible to defend against an enemy attack, and it’s designed in such a way that it can be guarded by a small group of people.
For those who would like to experience modern Kanazawa in addition to the traditional Japanese scenery that remains in the city, we recommend the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, located at walking distance from Kenroku-en and Kanazawa Castle Park. The building is circular with glass walls surrounding it on all sides, and many of its exhibition spaces are accessible free of charge. The most famous work of art there is “Swimming Pool” located on the patio. Looking at the water from above gives the illusion that other visitors below are standing on the bottom of the pool.
Near Minami-cho, a business district in Kanazawa, is the Oyama Shrine. This shrine has a rare feature not seen in any other shrine in Japan: stained glass is used for the windows at the top part of its shin-mon (main gate). The lightening rod standing on its rooftop is also unique to this shrine. The shin-mon is lit up at night.
Oyama Shrine is dedicated to MAEDA Toshiie – the first lord and founder of the Kaga Domain – and his wife Matsu. In the grounds of the shrine you can find a bronze statue of young Toshiie. Riding on his horse, a cloak hanging from his back swells in the wind. This cloak is called a horo and is intended to protect its wearer against arrows shot from behind. As it stands out on the battlefield, the cloak is only worn by samurai that are considered skilled by their master and as such, wearing one is a mark of honor.
Omi-cho Ichiba, north of Oyama Shrine, is the most famous market in Kanazawa. There you can find eating and drinking establishments, many of which serve sushi made from fresh seafood. A fish unique to Kanazawa is nodoguro (literally translated as “black throat”). It is an expensive fish, and the inside of its mouth is black, as its name suggests. Snow crabs are well-known as a winter delicacy in Kanazawa.
To get to Kanazawa, it is convenient to use Komatsu Airport. Buses go directly from the airport to JR Kanazawa Station, and if you take an express bus, you will arrive at the station in about 40 minutes. Incidentally, Komatsu City, where this airport is located, is the birthplace of Komatsu Ltd., a world-famous company which manufactures heavy machinery.
Text: MATSUMOTO Seiya