Roadtrip to Gifu: Kanazawa challenging El Dorado (Pt. 3)

On a gloomy day, we woke up early and headed to Kanazawa, in Ishikawa prefecture. It was my second time being close to the Sea of Japan and first time at the Hokuriku area. The city of Kanazawa (金沢) as the name commands, is a city of gold (金). Responsible for 99% of domestic gold leaf production, Kanazawa can be meaningfully compared to the mythical El Dorado. The literal translation of the city name is “marsh of gold”, hinting back to the story of the potato digger Fujigoro (芋掘り藤五郎の伝説). According to the legend, Fujigoro was collecting yam potatoes at the mountain, until one time he found a yam covered with gold dust. So, he went to a spring to wash the gold, the spring took the name Kanearaizawa (金洗沢) and the city started being called Kanazawa.

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The gate of Utasu shrine decorated for the new year with kadomatsu

It takes about 2 hours to get from Takayama to Kanazawa by car, if you use the well maintained toll road. It is also easily accessible by the Hokuriku line bullet trains. Since it is located in west Japan, the prefecture of Ishikawa is susceptible to heavy snowfall and rain. There is even a local saying that goes “Even if you forget your bento lunch, never forget your umbrella”. True in feeling, as soon as I set foot outside the car, it started raining. Luckily, all the snow from the previous days had thankfully melted, therefore we could walk around safely. We parked our car at the cheapest parking lot at the area at the north side of the old town. The first stop was Utasu shrine (宇多須神社), a Hachiman shrine.

Can you spot the ninja?
Can you spot the other ninja?

It seems that Kanazawa prospered from the 17th to the 19th century as a castle town under the Kaga domain and the Maeda clan (I think I have mentioned lord Maeda before, the current grounds of Bunkyo Campus of the University of Tokyo used to belong to Maeda estate). This shrine was founded in 1599 by the 2nd lord Maeda, in order to revere his father, undercover, as the Tokugawa shogunate law did not allow defying him. Almost 300 years later when the shogunate fell, the shrine relocated and then relocated again and renamed as Utasu, referring to the hill behind it. It is quite pretty and tranquil, with a catch; there are two ninjas hiding around the corners. Pretty interesting sight for a technically religious space. For those interested in ninjas, there is also Myouryuji also called Ninja Temple, close to the banks of Sai river.

An unusual guardian dog standing on its front paws at the gate of Utasu shrine

The history behind shrines and temples in Kanazawa is fascinating, to say the least. The original rulers of the area of Kanazawa at mid-1500s were members of the theocratic Ikko sect and they established “The Peasants’ Kingdom”. They were eventually overthrown by a retainer of Shibata Katsuie, who in turn found defeat against the forces of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. The area and the castle of Kanazawa was awarded to Maeda Toshiie in 1583 and the dynasty lasted 286 years until the modernization of the Meiji period. In order to suppress resistance from remaining clusters of the religious Ikko sect, all temples were moved close to Mt. Utasu and the castle, apart from temples belonging to the Ikko. The Ikko temples were inside the castle town and were kept under watch from the other temples.

A computer repair shop
A public toilet

We start heading south towards the Higashi-chaya district, the center of the old town. While the city generally prospered under the Maeda rule, two catastrophic fires in 1631 and 1635 brought disaster as well as an incentive to re-think city planning and update the city layout. It is said that at the end of the 17th century, 3/4 of the city area were samurai residencies. Judge me all you want, but I failed to make up time to visit the still remaining samurai district of Nagamachi. Alas, more reasons to go again, am I right?

A random road

We move sideways to the east in order to get that sweet, sweet, special goshuin stamp from the Kannon-in temple (yes, that one, the Canon of the cameras). On the way, we noticed that a lot of houses had a dried corn hanging outside, next to the entrance. When we arrived at Kannon-in, the reason became apparent. There is an annual event, when the temple gives out blessed corns in order to give luck for 46.000 days (四万六千日). The many kernels of the corn symbolize prosperity and abundance. These lucky charms are so sought after, that there is serious competition in obtaining them before they become sold out.

Small jizo outside Kannon-in
Blessed corn at the temple news board

The interior of the temple is modest, with an exception. Sliding doors with the two spirits of A and Z, o and um, shown as beefed up bodybuilders with admirable six-pack. One of the two appears in the temple goshuin, while another depicts a girl, as the temple is also protecting motherhood, with golden leaves dancing in the surrounding air.

The decorated sliding doors of Kannon-in

After enjoying the view of the city from the Kannon-in, we go down Kannon-zaka and towards the old own. We pass in front of a shrine for the shichifukujin (七稲地蔵), who bless Kanazawa with large quantities of rice.

City view from Kannon-zaka

We need to reach a specific point in the center of Higashi-chaya district, under a willow tree. We cross numerous wooden houses and narrow alleys to get there. The rain, the pandemic and the early hour, made the old town appear almost as we traveled back in time, some 200 years ago in the feudal years. The alleys are intentionally winding, as a strategic plan to protect against enemy invasions.

A side street at Higashi-chaya
An alley at Higashi-chaya

Kanazawa used to be the fourth largest city in Japan, behind Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto. It was also a major Japanese city that avoided bombings during WWII, as well as natural disasters and large fires, which resulted in a wonderfully preserved old town representative of the feudal era. The city flourished as a center of arts of beauty, such as gold processing and lacquering. It is also renowned for Noh dramatic theater and a local form of comedy called Kaga manzai (加賀万歳 ).

The main square of Higashi-chaya
A random Athena, because why not?

Here it is, the willow. Why is it so important? Well, have you heard that Geishas live in the world of the flower and the willow (花柳界) ? Well, the word is a euphemism for an entertainment or even red-light district. Indeed, there is a willow tree in the middle of the entertainment district of Higashi-chaya. In Kanazawa, Geishas are called Geiko or Geigi (芸妓) and this neighborhood is similar to the Gion district in Kyoto, both in feeling and in luxury. At the moment, ~50 Kanazawa Geiko are active in the city and in order to meet them you need to honor the old-fashioned custom and obtain an invitation from a regular customer. As essential parts of samurai culture, Kanazawa boasts excellent Noh performances (it is said that in Kanazawa “the song is falling from the sky”) and elegance in tea ceremony. Consequently, local masters are also skilled in making traditional Japanese confectionary based on rice and sweet red beans.

The willow tree, with some girls dressed up with kimono taking selfies on the side.

If you briefly look through the names of the shops, you will notice that most of them are named as Sabo xxx. Sabo (茶房) means tea shop, a fitting establishment for a Geisha district. Similarly, the name of the entire district is Higashi-chaya (東茶屋) or “eastern tea shops”, and is one of the three entertainment districts of Kanazawa. In the evening at the chaya, it is highly possible to meet Geigis moving to and fro appointments. If you happen to meet a Geigi, remember to be kind and that they are working women getting to work, don’t annoy them with pictures, don’t scare them and most certainly don’t pull their kimonos (I’ve heard all of these happening from foreign tourists in Kyoto, where the city had to issue flyers teaching good manners).

A poster for Geiko performances

Apart from the Kanazawa Yasue Gold Leaf Museum (devoted to the 20th century artisan Komei Yasue), there are at least 6 traditional gold workshops around the Higashi chaya district. I visited Hakuza (箔座), which is most famous for Ougon no kura, a golden room on display. Both the outer and inner walls of the room were covered with 24-karat gold leaf, with a single chair occupying the space.

A wall covered with gold at Hakuza
The interior of Hikarigura in Hakuza

Located in the middle of the island of Honshu and next to the Sea of Japan, Kanazawa is fortunate enough to have the optimal climate for making thin golden leaves. This local craft, which was initialized under lord Maeda Toshiie at 1593, has unsurprisingly been designated as a national cultural asset. The process of creating thin leaf papers or kinpaku (金箔) from gold is called Zumi and the goldsmith is called Uwazumi, with the end result being Zumiuchi paper (takes a week to make) or gold leaf for pounding (takes 3-4 months to make). Basically, an alloy of gold, silver and copper is shaped into squares that are folded and pounded iteratively, followed by skilled cutting, layering, some more pounding and cooling, a total of some 40 steps, the gold leaves are prepared and stored between pieces of paper.

Ice-cream with gold leaf
Sochu alcohol with gold particles

The question is, what can one make with these golden leaves? Well, since the leaves are so thin, you can cover surfaces by just hovering the gold leaf directly above, and it will magically adhere to the surface. It is used as an outer layer of Buddhist statues, temples and altars, as decoration on vases, fans, dishes and ornaments. Specifically, golden foil from Kanazawa is used to decorate the golden Pavillion Kinkakuji in Kyoto and Nikko Toshogu mausoleum. It is said that the biggest fan of golden kitsch was Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who ordered that his residence interior should be decorated accordingly. However, the most interesting use is in the form of edible gold, as a thin layer on top of ice cream or inside your favorite umeshuu spirit.

A taxi decorated with golden details and square gold leaves

We continued walking along the main road and made a second stop into a store, this time for coffee and dessert. Sabo Soshin is one of the many traditional cafés in the old town. We ordered the specialty, coffee flavored ice cream with an edible golden leaf. I’ve seen that type of ice-cream in Kyoto before, but in Kanazawa it is obviously cheaper. It costed 700yen and the cone and gold leaf came seperately. You had to carefully remove the leaf from the paper case, hover it gently above the ice-cream, and it would attach by itself. Although the golden leaf didn’t have any specific flavor, it was satisfying for the eyes. The other local specialty is green tea powder and anko paste from smashed and sweetened red beans. If you read the labels of bottled teas in Tokyo, a lot of the special/limited edition ones feature the famed Kaga boucha (加賀棒茶) a specific blend of coarse tea stems.

Toast with local maccha and anko paste

If you have time you can do a lot of activities in Higashi-chaya. Learn how to apply gold leaf to decorate items, try to play the shamisen or visit 200-year-old geisha houses.

The main road of Higashi chaya district

Eventually, we cross the Asanogawa bridge (浅野川大橋) and start heading towards the castle.

View from Asanogawa bridge

If you have visited other Japanese castles before, it doesn’t look as tall and compact. However, it is quite spacious inside. It is strategically located between Asano and Sai rivers and features a moat. The inner gate, the Hashizume-mon, was restored in 2001 using all the traditional techniques. You can visit the interior top floor and talk with the manager, a kind old-man that told us many stories about the restoration process and the materials used (unfortunately he speaks only Japanese). Although Kanazawa was a castle town involved in feudal aggression, the Maeda lords promoted scholarship and invited many scholars, eventually leading to the expression “Kaga is the knowledge warehouse of the earthly world” (加賀は天下の書府).

The Hashizume-mon gate

Originally, this castle was also built in the 6-story tenshu (天守) style, but got burnt down 400 years ago. This left the inner bailey to be used as the main building were the Maeda lord resided. In Japaneses castle notation, this building took the role of the Hon-maru (本丸), the inner citadel. The castle got burned down a couple more times. At some point, it functioned as a headquarters of the 9th Division of the Imperial Japanese Army during the late 19th-20th century and as a campus for Kanazawa University in the recent years. Eventually, it was designated a historical site and converted to a museum and park. While most of the castle is restored, there are several original structures remaining, specifically Ishikawa Gate (built in 1788), the Sanjukken Nagaya and the Tsurumaru Storehouse.

The Hishi Yagura turret
The ni-no-maru

The castle is large and among others features a Japanese garden, Gyokusen’inmaru (玉泉院丸庭園). But the highlight is Kenroku-en (兼六園), the outer garden of Kanazawa castle. It is the most beautiful garden in Japan, embodying all concepts of Zen. Moreover, it is said that the spring that got the city its name still exists inside the Kenrokuen. Try to look for a sign indicating Kinjo Reitaku Well (金城霊澤). Obviously, I am bad at planning and I didn’t have time to go to either, so be smarter and absolutely get there.

A restaurant called ‘Fu’

The next stop is the Ōmichō Market (近江町市場) to the west. A perfect example of a roof-covered Asian market with fresh produce and restaurants. It was amazing how many corridors there were, and I got lost in a maze of fish a couple of times.

A side entrance to the Omicho market

Because Kanazawa is located next to the sea, the local dishes feature seafood heavily. The specialties include Kaisen-don (海鮮丼) and large snow crabs. The market was full of crabs and octopi, along with fresh vegetables and handmade Japanese sweets. We got a couple of fresh fruit, some quick bites to eat standing and gold covered maccha cookies to bring back as souvenirs. Originally we wanted to have late lunch there, but the queue at every single restaurant was insane. I can understand why the low prices with guaranteed fresh ingredients make the restaurants here so popular.

Fresh octopus
Wasabi, yuzu lemons and mushrooms

Kanazawa needs more than half a day to truly appreciate it. First of all, you need to get there at night to see the Geikos. Then, apart from Kenroku-en and Nagamachi, there is also a marvelous museum of 21st contemporary art and one for the Zen philosopher D.T. Suzuki. The affinity of the city towards architecture is obvious at every structure, with the most prominent being the Kanazawa station, which looks like a red torii gate and as a samurai helmet at the same time. Since one of my friends lives in Kanazawa, I will try to get there again and maybe also visit the mountainous Toyama at the same time.

A sassy clothes chain in a traditional wooden house

Thank you for staying here until the end. Next up, we will quickly discuss Matsumoto castle in Nagano.

The Asanogawa bridge


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