Kanazawa is one of those places that exists in the gaps between history, myth, and imagination—a place that meets the traveler’s own impressionistic ideas of past Japan, while offering up all the conveniences and wonders of a modern city.
Once serving as the seat of the Maeda Clan—the second most powerful samurai clan after the Tokugawa—Kanazawa is a city that once rivaled Kyoto and Edo (Tokyo) in cultural output, diversity, and pace.
It was the second largest city (after Kyoto) to escape the destruction of the American air raids during World War Two. Similar to Kyoto, Kanazawa has managed to maintain a balance of districts that have preserved the look, mood, and aura of the distant past.
The history of Kanazawa and the Maeda are interwoven, so there’s no better place to start your exploration of the city than the Kenrokuen Garden. Constructed over a span of two centuries in what was once the outer garden of Kanazawa Castle, Kenrokuen has been hailed as one of the most beautiful gardens in the nation since its completion in 1871.
Located at the foot of Kanazawa Castle near Kenrokuen, you’ll find Nagamachi, an ancient district once home to a thriving community of samurai and their families. You’ll feel like a wandering ronin as you pass through its narrow lanes, over its canals, and under the private entrance gates of the remaining samurai homes.
Here, you will find Nomura-ke, a restored samurai villa with their artifacts and lifestyle on full display. Then you can jump forward in history at the Shinise Kinenkan Museum, a restored pharmacy and standing monument to the decline of the samurai and the rise of Japan’s merchant class.
The Higashi Chaya (teahouse) District will go a long way into making you feel like one of the Edo period’s finest merchants. Of Kanazawa’s three districts, Higashi is arguably the most exciting, boasting two traditional teahouses: Shima and Kaikaro. You’ll also find a shop called Hakuza, which sells one of Kanazawa’s specialties, gold leaf. Be sure to enjoy a cup in their famous tea ceremony room covered floor to ceiling in shimmering gold leaf.
If you’re starting to feel hungry, head to Omicho Market where you’ll find a busy maze of stalls (and smells!) in Kanazawa’s largest fresh food market since the Edo period. Treat yourself to a lunch with locals at any of the stalls or indulge in a tasty meal at one of the many buzzing restaurants.
Just a 10-minute stroll from the Kenrokuen gardens is the D.T. Suzuki museum, a small museum dedicated to the life and works of the great Buddhist philosopher Suzuki Daisetz Teitaro. A prolific writer and proactive thinker, Suzuki was instrumental in introducing Japanese Zen philosophy to the West, and his work impacted a lot of modern western ideas about Japanese culture and aesthetics.
Built a short walk from where he was born, the museum displays his works and writings, while its architecture reflects his interpretation of Buddhist thought with its use of simple lines and open spaces that invite you to slow down and reflect on his ideas, the space, and ultimately, yourself.
Moving on from the distant past, you’ll want to be sure to spend time at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art. Opened in 2004 in downtown Kanazawa, the museum is one of the most exciting contemporary art museums in Japan, displaying the works of artists from Japan and all over the world.
The museum was intentionally designed without a facade and main entrance as a way of discouraging patrons from approaching the art from a set perspective. A stark counterpoint to the otherwise historic sites of Kanazawa, a trip to the museum is a nice way to tie the ideas and designs of the Edo and Meiji period to the exuberant experimentation and pop-historical sampling of contemporary art from East and West alike.
Whether you’re planning on exploring the ancient history or modern marvels of the Land of the Rising Sun, our Japan Travel Guide will tell you all you need to know.
This content was created in partnership with the Japan National Tourism Organization and Japan Airlines.