Kanazawa, Day One

So, last weekend we went to Kanazawa, and had a really good time. Mayuki was good, and apparently enjoying herself, for most of it, with only one tantrum, and that on the last day. Kanazawa is a lovely city, well worth a visit. In particular, Yuriko and I both thought that my mother would really enjoy it.

We went there by train, first getting the Joetsu shinkansen, and then changing to a limited express. The transfer station is up in the mountains, so there was a lot of snow around, and some nice scenery. However, there were also a lot of tunnels, so it wasn’t the best train journey Japan has to offer. However, I did get to see the Japan Sea, as the line runs very close to the coast for a substantial distance. I think this fills in the last big gap in my travels around Japan; the Japan Sea coast was the only region I hadn’t been to. Mayuki also fell asleep on the express train, and got a good couple of hours before we got to Kanazawa.

Once we had arrived, we had lunch at the station (which was quite nice, and thus the worst meal we had on the holiday) before going to our ryokan. We were staying at Sumiyoshi-ya, a family-run ryokan right in the centre of Kanazawa. The woman currently in charge is the ninth generation of her family to run it; the ryokan has been in business for 360 years. The current building, however, is only about a hundred years old, although it has been refurbished (obviously…). It felt very much like a family business, as well; very friendly. It only has thirteen rooms, and since we were there on weekdays in the depths of the off-season we were almost the only guests; I think there was one other group each night, although the other groups changed every day. We had dinner there on the first night, which was good, and served in our room, and breakfast every day, which Yuriko described as good home cooking, a description I think is fair. The location is great; it’s within walking distance of just about every attraction, and of the railway station. We did most of our sightseeing on foot, although not quite all. In any case, if you’re looking for somewhere to stay in Kanazawa, I recommend it, and as they have an English homepage I imagine that they can cope in English. (We spoke Japanese all the time, so I wouldn’t know.)

We didn’t actually do anything on the Sunday; it was a bit too late to do anything but relax, and buy Mayuki some milk. So we stayed at the ryokan, and sorted out our detailed plans for the next three days, including where we wanted to eat lunch and dinner.

The sightseeing started on Monday. First, we went to Kanazawa Castle Park, which is about two minutes’ walk from Sumiyoshi-ya. (You pass the post office on the way, a good place to withdraw money.) Kanazawa was the capital of one of the largest domains in Edo-period Japan, Kaga, and its lords, the Maeda, were extremely wealthy. They also spent most of their money on the arts, because they were, historically, rivals of the ruling Tokugawa, and so were always viewed with some suspicion. Spending money on the arts was a way to assert themselves without drawing the ire of the shogun. As a result, their castle was, originally, quite spectacular. Unfortunately, being a Japanese building, it burned down. A handful of outbuildings survived, but over the last ten years or so the city has been building replicas of part of the castle.

David, Yuriko, and Mayuki in front of an old Japanese building

Us, in front of a storeroom, one of the buildings that survives from the original castle.

We visited the main one of these, a long storeroom connecting two watchtowers, and it was very interesting to see all the details of how the wooden beams were put together, and the castle walls constructed. It’s also quite a nice park, with lots of open space, but it was very cold, so we weren’t very much into playing. We did, however, walk round and look at all the surviving buildings, some of which are Japanese Important Cultural Properties. They were only warehouses, but they were still built with a great attention to detail. It does make you wonder what the residence of the daimyo was like. Japanese castles are very different from English ones (as well as being, on average, several centuries newer), so visiting them is always interesting.

Yuriko and Mayuki sitting at a table, doing Kaga Yuzen dyeing

Practising Kaga Yuzen together

The next stop was the Kaga Yuzen Traditional Industry Hall. Kaga Yuzen is a particular form of cloth dyeing, and it is used in high-quality kimonos, which is why Yuriko wanted to go here. They have an exhibition, but they also offer hands-on experience. Of course, the process is highly simplified, so that people with no experience can produce something good in fifteen minutes, but it’s still worth doing if you have an interest. Yuriko did, so I was to watch Mayuki while Yuriko did her dyeing. Of course, Mayuki wanted to try as well. The attendant kindly gave Mayuki a brush, so I had to watch her like a hawk, so make sure that she only dyed the newspaper on the table, and not her clothes. I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t wash out, after all.

Fortunately, Mayuki managed to play without making a mess, and Yuriko completed a nice floral design on a handkerchief.

That brought us to lunch time, which we had at Sakura Jaya, a Japanese-style cafe very close to the Castle Park, the Kaga Yuzen hall, and Kenrokuen, where we were going afterwards. This was advertised in the guidebook with a picture of the green tea parfait, so after we had the main course (I had a box lunch, Yuriko had a duck dish), we naturally had to order that. It looked just like the picture, and tasted great. We ordered one between two…

Yuriko and Mayuki in front of the Kotoji Lantern

Yuriko and Mayuki, and the symbol of Kenrokuen

After lunch, we went to Kenrokuen, one of the Three Great Gardens of Japan. It is the garden of the Maeda lords (which is why it’s next to the castle), and was created over 150 years. I’d say it lives up to the hype; I can’t say that it’s definitely one of the three best in Japan, but it certainly could be. It has a lot of ponds and streams, with tea houses and stone lanterns dotted around gentle hills and winding paths, all among great pine trees. There are other trees and plants as well, and the ume (Japanese apricot) trees were in bloom while we were there. This is appropriate, as the house badge (kamon) of the Maeda lords was the ume flower.

The most famous stone lantern in the park is the Kotoji Lantern, the one you can see behind Yuriko and Mayuki in the photograph. It’s famous because it has only two legs, and they are different lengths, as one (the more visible one) rests on a boulder. This apparently makes it unique, and thus instantly recognisable as Kenrokuen, rather than another garden. The image appears in quite a lot of places, such as as the mascot character for NHK Kanazawa.

Even on a cold day in March, Kenrokuen was not exactly quiet, but it wasn’t busy, which meant that we could enjoy it. Mayuki liked picking the gravel up off the path and throwing it into the streams, so she had to be picked up a bit, but then she got into playing letting us walk ahead, then shouting “Waaaaait!” and charging after us. When she reached us, she’d stop and send us ahead again, ready to do it again. We had some tea in one of the tea houses (Shiguretei), and we were the only people there when we arrived, although a few more people arrived before we finished. The screens were closed against the cold, but we were able to go out through them afterwards, and see the beautiful view across the lake.

Right next to Kenrokuen is Seisonkaku, a retirement villa for the mothers of the Maeda daimyo. The current structure was built just before the end of the Edo period, in 1863, and includes some glass imported from Europe. It’s a very elegant building, but it doesn’t seem to have made a great impression on me. I think I may have been keeping an eye on Mayuki; she actually fell asleep while we were looking round here. Photography is not permitted inside the building, which is why there are no photos of it here.

Red torii beyond a purification font

The red torii at Kanazawa shrine, from in front of the purification font

Sandwiched between Kenrokuen and Seisonkaku is Kanazawa Shrine. Yuriko agreed to hold Mayuki while I had a look around, took some photographs, and got the shrine’s red stamp in my book. I’ll probably post about the shrine again later, with a bit more detail, but, as you can see from the picture, the shrine uses a lot of vermillion. That’s another sign of sponsorship by a wealthy family.

We started walking home after the shrine, and Mayuki woke up, so we were able to drop into a Kutani pottery shop. Kutani ware is another famous product of Kanazawa; something else that the Maeda spent their money on. Yuriko bought a souvenir, and Mayuki, while very interested, managed not to break anything.

For dinner, we went to a restaurant (Omicho Kaisendonburiya Hirai) in Kanazawa’s Omi market, which seems to be the main market for the city. It’s also right behind the ryokan, so it was very convenient. Yuriko and I both had Kaisendon, or fresh sea food on a bowl of rice. It was very fresh, and the portions were very generous. Most of the fish was raw, but that just makes it tastier. It was certainly better than you would get for the same price in Tokyo, and included a number of local specialities. Yuriko commented that she’d like to eat there every day, but it was just a little too expensive for that.

And then, we went to bed.

Fresh sea food, completely hiding the rice in the bowl

Dinner