Kanazawa is often overlooked by first-time travellers to Japan, yet this city is home to a wonderful mixture of both old and new gems. One is spoilt for choice between preserved historic sites, gardens, food and art galleries.
Various places lay claim to being ‘little Kyoto’, but amongst them Kanazawa stands out from the crowd, solely on account of its immaculate Geisha and Samurai districts which remain in their original state. Teahouses in the preserved old quarter are very atmospheric and can be visited on appointment, so one can try Japanese calligraphy then explore the living history of the rooms with their fine ornaments, paper sliding doors and intricately decorated screens. Here, one can also glean insights into the thriving geisha culture while visiting a typical entertaining teahouse, complete with an impressive gold leaf tatami mat. One of the best surviving examples of Edo-period structures, a high-ranking samurai's house named Nomura House, can be found at one end of an historic lane of old dwellings with beautifully maintained rooms and gardens. Also, the Ninja Temple with its deceptive defences is a great place to explore. Discovering its hidden tunnels, secret rooms, traps, labyrinth of corridors and staircases is a real highlight of Kanazawa.
Not to be missed, Kenroku-en garden – one of Japan's official ‘top three gardens’ – consists of several distinct areas, meaning there’s always something beautiful to wander amongst whichever season you visit – plum and cherry blossoms line the pathways during spring, irises and azaleas bloom during summer, colourful red leaves abound during autumn, and the landscaped garden is particularly pretty under snowfall in the winter months. Not only can great views of the garden itself be enjoyed from within, but one can also look across to the nearby 17th century castle and admire the city spread out below. There are also a wealth of local crafts and customs to experience at first hand in the city, from sake breweries, to gold leaf workshops, to textile studios.
Although this city is primarily known for its 19th century fine arts and architecture, its 21st century Museum of Contemporary Art provides a sharp evocation of Japan's enduring artistic ambitions nowadays. The museum exhibits works by Japan's most acclaimed contemporary artists and leading lights from the international scene such as Anish Kapoor. The overarching theme is optical illusion, with the circular building itself creating a sense of exploration and discovery. Interspersed among the public spaces of the museum are some permanent installations such as Leandro Erlich’s and James Turrell's work.
Popular with foodies, Omicho Market is captivating with its wonderful array of Japanese gastronomy. Wander its colourful pathways to sample the city’s delicacies and admire the local seafood. In particular, look out for the local specialty – the beautifully bright snow crab.
Kanazawa is a great city to visit on a tour of Japan with its wide range of historic and modern sights, local atmosphere and refreshingly less crowded streets. Kanazawa connects to Tokyo by a direct bullet train and can also be visited before or after Kyoto. Or, other options include fitting Kanazawa into an itinerary that involves the quiet idyll of Kurashiki or the mountainous cities of Takayama and Yudanaka.