Kanazawa

EXPERIENCE THE INTRICACIES OF JAPANESE CULTURE IN A TOWN LINED WITH ANTIQUE SAMURAI HOUSES

Words and Photography: Kazuya Baba

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During the Edo period, under the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate, Kanazawa thrived as a castle town under the exceedingly influential Kaga Domain. It was the most populated city after the three large cities of that era (Edo, Osaka and Kyoto) alongside Nagoya. The streets of Kanazawa still largely maintain their historic feel as they were fortunately spared from any American air strikes during World War II.

Despite the many attractions Kanazawa has to offer, its location on the Sea of Japan side of the country meant that international visitors seldom visited the city since many travellers tended to start their adventures from Tokyo or Osaka, on the opposite side.

However, the situation has changed, with the opening of the Hokuriku Shinkansen in March 2015, improving access to all the major cities along the Sea of Japan side of the country. With the convenience of the city being located only an hour away from Nagano Station – the entry point to holiday resort destinations popular amongst ski-goers such as Hakuba, Nozawa Onsen and Shiga Highlands – Australian skiers, and other foreigners alike, have started to flock to Kanazawa for short trips during their extended stays over in Nagano.

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The wonder of Kanazawa can be described in a single sentence; it has all the beauty of historical Japan concentrated into one single place. It is a city with multiple facets of beauty – a samurai town structured around the centrally located castle; a lively town of merchants; and a town of temples to protect the area. Just merely walking through the streets of Kanazawa will give you a sense of how gorgeous the city is.

Alongside Asano River and Saigawa River, which flow through the city, are 3 historical places with well-preserved streets of old known as the Chaya Districts (tea house district). Chaya districts used to refer to red-light districts where geisha and courtesans gathered, however, nowadays it merely notates an area comprising of establishments where geisha experiences can be had. Of the three Chaya Districts, the largest and most glamorous of them all is Higashi Chaya District (East Chaya District). Delicate, lattice-roofed tea houses beautifully line the streets of the district. When night falls, it shows its other enchanting side as the lamps illuminate the streets to bring about a mysterious allure. With an array of stylish cafés and accessory shops scattered around, it can be easy to spend a whole day leisurely shopping and seeing the many sights. Some places also offer geisha experiences aimed at international tourists, which are definitely worth looking into at tourist information centres.

The sight of water flowing freely through the city is another distinctive characteristic of Kanazawa. Water is taken from the upstream flow of Saigawa River and brought down before using the inverted siphon method to funnel it up to the castle. This technology was said to be the highly advanced during its time.

Mud walls and cobblestone streets take you on a trip back in time over at Naga-machi Buke Yashiki District, where middle-class samurai of the Kaga Domain once called home. The district allows you to see how the samurai of the time once lived. A walk down through the samurai town also wouldn’t be complete without stopping by the Tera-machi Temple Area, one of the many temple areas in Kanazawa. As a defensive strategy against farmers rebelling against the ruler of the time, temples were erected in the areas surrounding Saigawa River – giving rise to the birth of Tera-machi Temple Area. In a similar fashion, Utatsuyama Temple Area on the eastern side of Kanazawa Castle, and Kodatsuno Temple Area to the south-east at Kodatsuno were also constructed. Myoryuji Temple, a ninja temple famous for its numerous ninja traps, headlines the list of almost 70 temples in the Tera-machi Temple Area.

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KENROKUEN-EN – ONE OF THE THREE GREAT GARDENS OF JAPAN

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Standing proudly alongside Kairaku-en in Mito and Kouraku-en in Okayama, is Kanazawa’s Kenroku-en to make up the Three Great Gardens of Japan. Kenroku-en has rich history as a renowned daimyo tei-en (feudal lord garden) and was constructed throughout many generations of Kaga feudal lords. Located in central Kanazawa, visitors from within and outside of Japan converge on the garden to enjoy the beautiful seasonal scenery.

Kenroku-en is not a “compact style” garden like the ones which are viewable and to be enjoyed from the abbot’s quarters or temples or drawing rooms of castles. Instead, it takes full advantage of the vast area it occupies with a large pond dug into the grounds, tsukiyama (man-made hill), as well as mansions and tea houses dotted around the place. You are able to stroll around to these various attractions in this “go-around-style” garden.

Although the garden was constructed throughout many generations of feudal lords over an extended period of time, the basic vision for the garden stayed consistent all through the years. This was known as the Shinsen Shiso, or the
“Taoist Immortal Vision”. It is the idea to construct a pond to emulate an ocean with an island inside of it to symbolise the immortal island of Taoist belief. The feudal lords were said to have constructed the garden to promote longevity and timelessness.

More details about the origins of Kenroku-en can be found in English on their official website, so it is highly recommended to read up on the history before seeing it in all its glory. The carefully though-out, man-made garden offers a unique sense of charm contrasting with the beauty of Mother Nature’s creations.

HANDS-ON WITH GOLD LEAF AND KIMONO

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The increase of international visitors to Kanazawa in recent times has led to the expansion of various programs for tourists to have cultural experiences relevant to historical Japan. Whilst there are various experiences to be had all over Japan, there are some that are unique to Kanazawa. Noh experiences are one of the more unique ones. The Noh style of Kanazawa was developed from the ceremonial song and dance of the samurai Maeda clan in the Kaga Domain. The style was protected, nurtured and encouraged amongst the masses, leading to the establishment of the Kaga Hosho style. This is why Kanazawa came to be known as, “the town where Noh chants rain from the sky”.

This vast history led to the construction of the Kanazawa Noh Museum to house and display the precious Kaga Hosho Noh masks and costumes. Visitors to the museum can also partake in the actual wearing of a Noh mask during their visit.

Kanazawa is also well renowned for its Kaga Yuzen (Kaga-style dyed textiles) and gold leaf. In fact, almost all of the country’s gold leaf is produced in Kanazawa. Experiences that allow you to don kimono made of dyed fabrics and make your own chopsticks using gold leaf are highly popular. Try out the unique experiences for yourself and take home memories to cherish.
Another spot not to be missed, is the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa.
It is one of the few leading ontemporary art museums in Japan and is located right
next to the Kanazawa Noh Museum, so there really is no reason not to go!

THE RABBIT HOLE OF KANAZAWA FOOD CULTURE

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Last, but certainly not least, is the deep food culture of Kanazawa. Along with the plethora of Kaga grown vegetables (Kaga yasai), Kanazawa is also known for how distinct its food culture is from the rest of Japan. The seafood found around the area is especially worth bringing to the spotlight. The location of the city on the Sea of Japan side of Japan means that it has access to a variety of seafood which cannot be obtained from the Pacific Ocean side of the country, this also leads to a unique foodie experience to be had. Of the unique produce found in Kanazawa, nodoguro (blackthroat seaperch) is particularly sought after by Japanese and international tourists alike. It is a white fish with generous fatty deposits, making it utterly delectable.

Nodoguro, along with various other delicious types of seafood, can be found by visiting Omi-cho market in central Kanazawa. Locals visit the market for their grocery needs, however, a large number of tourists also drop by in order to experience life as a local and see all the marine produce on offer. The epicure in you will want to jot down this locale as a spot to check out. You can also taste local produce at one of the many izakaya (Japanese-style pub) located all around the city. Drop by the reception desk of your hotel and ask the concierge for recommendations about which izakaya to visit.

It goes without saying that Nagano provides a great central base to visit Kanazawa, however, now that the city is accessible from both Tokyo and Osaka with a single trip on the shinkansen, why not have a little visit over to Kanazawa on your next stay in one of the major cities of Japan?

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MYOKO KOGEN – Nigata

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Backcountry skiing in one of Japan’s greatest snowy regions.

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Just over the border from Nagano prefecture into neighboring Niigata prefecture is Myoko Kogen, a skiing area known for its heavy snowfalls. This area, comprised of three main skiing areas, has seen a large boom in visitors from overseas in recent years. There is the Suginohara skiing area that offers a change in elevation of over 1,100m and a skiing route up to 8,500m in length, the Akakura area comprised of the Akakura Kanko Resort Ski Area, and the Akakura Onsen Ski Area set amidst the backdrop of a hot spring town, and the Ikenotaira Hot Spring Ski Area that has seen a recent boom in park facilities and is popular to snowboarders that can be found in between.

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Another area seeing a boost in popularity spread through word-ofmouth from the overseas skiers who have visited recently is the Seki Onsen Ski Area. The course itself at the skiing area here is extremely small, but enjoys great popularity due to its easy access to backcountry skiing areas that let you ski to your heart’s content out on the powder snow.

This time, after my trip to Echigo Yuzawa, I chose to venture forth to the skiing areas in the Akakura area and to the Ikenotaira Hot Spring Ski Area. The reason for my choice was to see the longstanding Akakura Kanko Hotel on the skiing fields of the Akakura Kanko Resort Ski Area, which has recently been refurbished and affords amazing views out over the surrounding countryside.

AKAKURA IS KNOWN FOR BEING A HOT SPRING TOWN, AND HERE THE TOWNSHIP’S HISTORY ALLOWS YOU TO ENJOY DELICIOUS TRADITIONAL COUNTRYSIDE CUISINE.

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On my trip to Echigo Yuzawa and Myoko Kogen, I was joined by travel editor of the popular skiing magazine Snow Action, David Windsor.

Here, David shares a few impressions on his trip to the area.
The Niigata prefecture of Japan is such a rewarding adventure. The snow’s out of this world and makes for awesome days on the speedy Yuzawa “gelandes”, with over 12 resorts to choose from just 75 minutes from Tokyo; or smashing through pow in the trees and out the side and back country of Myoko. The adventure continues off slope with a relaxing peaceful onsen in our hotel or ryokan before hitting the boisterous bars and rowdy restaurants full of happy folk sharing their experiences and loud shouts of ‘kanpai’ over frosty beers, hot sake and an awesome array of shochu. As for the food, the adventure begins with fish, an omelette and pickled veg for breakfast; an amazing bowl of squid ink with mozzarella cheese udon noodles for lunch at “Udon-no-Fu” in Akakura Onsen; and for a super fun dinner I loved the okonomiyaki savory pancakes and yakisoba made in front of us on our table top hot plate at the “Lumber Jack” or the yakitori at “Asagao”, also in Akakura Onsen. None of that could top a magnificent 10 course kaiseki banquet at the NASPA New Otani Resort in Yuzawa. All up, Yuzawa and Myoko is a wonderfully happy, unique and cultural ski adventure that should be experienced with an open mind and a “try everything” attitude.

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The timing of my trip couldn’t have been better. Even though it was late March, the ground was thick with snow, with a further snowfall later in the night that turned the skiing fields into a heaven of powder snow by the morning. The cold was nothing like that of the harsh winter months, however, allowing me to enjoy a powder run out on the slopes. This is its facilities, most notably the newly established Aqua Terrace, were a sight to behold. Some rooms come complete with an outdoor hot spring bath, and the layout of the rooms that afford a view out over the skiing fields is the very picture of luxury. Your choice in dining ranges from French to Japanese cuisine, bakeries and more, offering a wide variety of options. The spa facilities are a hit with female guests, and you could certainly find no better hotel for a stay in Akakura. I look forward to a stay there someday, but alas my time had come to make my descent back down the mountain.

My goal for my next destination – the Ikenotaira Hot Spring Ski Area – was the tree run, an area to which entry was previously prohibited, yet opened up in response to popular demand. Heading straight for the course, I could see that the treeline in the middle of the slopes as you come down from the peak was open to entry, offering a satisfying change of pace as you ski through the trees on powder snows on just the right decline. Such easy access to sidecountry areas such as these is a true delight.

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The Ikenotaira Hot Spring Ski Area also offers easy access to backcountry areas. Heading to the peaks by lift and trekking further out allows you to enjoy amazing backcountry skiing. The backcountry of the Myoko area is comparatively low in risk, and highly recommended. I was able to visit the backcountry this time with the help of what I was here for! The Akakura Kanko Hotel itself offered a refined, elegant atmosphere befitting its reputation, and a guide from the Dancing Snow touring company, and was met with an amazing course. My run here was very fun yet not too advanced, making it the perfect choice for all who visit. Check out the local Dancing Snow touring company for more details if you’re keen to try your hand.

Of the areas in Myoko, Akakura is known for being a hot spring town, and here the township’s history allows you to enjoy delicious traditional countryside cuisine. No matter where you go, you are met with the simple yet inspiring heritage of Japanese cuisine. One recommendation is Matagi at the foothills of the Ikenotaira skiing area. While English service is not necessarily their forte, familiar fare such as ramen is on offer and a must for any who visit, offering a window to the understated tastes of traditional Japanese cuisine.

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KANAZAWA

KANAZAWA

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KNOWN AS A BEAUTIFUL TOWN, THAT COMBINES THE HERITAGE OF A TOWN FOR SAMURAI BUILT AROUND THE CASTLE.

The March 2015 opening of the Hokuriku Shinkansen bullet train line has led to a marked increase in travel to this town of the samurai and previously oftenoverlooked destination, Kanazawa. For those staying in the skiing areas of Nagano, a trip to Kanazawa is a must. This town is a treasure chest of traditional Japanese culture that can be reached in just one hour by train from Nagano Station.

The township of Kanazawa developed as the largest urban centre after Edo (presentday Tokyo), Osaka, and Kyoto more than 400 years ago when the extremely wealthy daimyo, Toshiie Maeda built a castle there. Known as a beautiful town that combines the heritage of a town for samurai built around the castle, of bustling commerce, and with a temple that looks out over all below the castle itself, much of this traditional architecture still survives given that Kanazawa was largely spared from the destruction of World War II.

Beside the Asano River and Sai River that run through the town are three old teahouse districts, or ‘chaya’ districts, the largest of which is the Higashi Chaya District. The delicate lattice decorations of the buildings here offer a refined and elegant atmosphere, the lights at night adding a touch of glamour to the area.

The flow of the water supplied to the castle is a sight that no other town can offer. Drawn from the upstream section of the Sai River some 10km from the castle itself, the water is drawn up into the castle itself using the principles of a reverse syphon after being brought down to a lower height, an incredibly advanced technique for the time.

Moreover, the remains of the Nagahama samurai residential district and its mud walls and stone paving offer a taste of the Edo Period, and the middle class samurai of the Kaga Domain that used to live there, offer a telling view into the daily lives of the samurai of the time.

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There are many historic sights to be seen in this ancient town, but perhaps none more so than the Kenroku-en Japanese garden, one of Japan’s three most famous traditional garden settings. The Kenroku-en is one of the greatest Japanese gardens of the Edo Period, slowly built up over generations by the leaders of the Kaga Domain. Located in the centre of Kanazawa City, this is one garden that offers a glimpse of the beauty of all four seasons throughout the year, and sees visitors from across the country and across the world.

The recent increase in visitors has given rise to a number of programs where you can experience traditional Japanese culture first hand, from wearing kimono to creating chopsticks using gold leaf, and more rarer fare such as experiencing the traditional art of Japanese noh theatre. However, no talk of the town would be complete without mention of food. There are many delicacies special to the region, including local vegetables and more, but the highlight of the region is its seafood. Given its location by the Sea of Japan, there are many types of seafood here that cannot be found on the Pacific Ocean side of Japan, providing many options that can only be enjoyed here in Kanazawa. One dish of particular note is a type of fish called the black throat sea perch, one of the major draws to even the Japanese visitors who come to Kanazawa, and one that sees immense popularity amongst a people who have a fine appreciation of fish in general. Be sure to give it a try.