The piece of gold on the west coast: Drums, markets & a gorgeous castle
How comes that Kanazawa isn’t top of the list of all “must see” places in Japan? Why does even the Baedeker restrict itself to a few pages in its “complete” Japan-guide? In no way is Kanazawa a second or even third class destination. For good reason it proudly calls itself “little Kyōto” (even though it was never an city of imperial residence and not even capital of a national government). It was the clan of the Maeda under which the city started to prosper at the end of the 16th century – a properity which is evident to the day. “Gold” is the magic word in Kanazawa – it is part of the city’s name (金 / きん / かね / gold, money, metal) and hardly anywhere else in Japan was the precious metal in such demand as here. One could almost say: In other cities all a soup needs is salt – in Kanazawa it’s gold.
There are picturesque samurai quarters in which time seem to have stopped a long time ago, but which are, at the same time, far more than an artificial tourist attraction. The tea house and geisha district of Kanazawa doesn’t need to fear the comparison with the Gion district in Kyōto, and the castle is one of the most remarkable in the country. Not to mention that Kanazawa has one of the most beautiful gardens of Japan. Besides all that the city “lives” in the “here and now” – maybe more than any other Japanese city of comparative size. And that’s not just because of its famous regional seafood specialities, but also because it presents remarkable pieces of modern art in the public space.
This most fascinating city will provide the grounds for the extensive walk we are about to undertake today. Starting point is Kanazawa Station. Latest by the time you’ve seen the monumentality of this station, you will have one more reason to compare Kanazawa with Kyōto and its slightly oversized main station. Coming from Tōkyō, it is still a bit troublesome to get to Kanazawa by train (it’s easier from Nagoya or Ōsaka), but the trip through the central mountains of Japans main island, Honshū (本州 / ほんしゅう), e.g. via Echigo Yuzawa station (越後湯沢 / えちごゆざわ) by one of the “Hakutaka” (はくたか) express trains, makes it absolutely worthwhile. That all will come to an end by the end of 2014 (or early 2015 respectively), when Kanazawa will be linked with the nation-wide network of “shinkansen” bullet trains. This will shorten the time of travel from more than 4 hours to 2 1/2 hours from Tōkyō. One might argue, if it was really necessary to impair the beauty of the western coast by gigantic shinkansen tracks. And quite a few people fear that Kanazawa might lose its rather contemplative charm.
After leaving the station via its east exit one steps out into the huge wave of glass, called “Motenashi Dome” (i.e. “Welcome Dome”) and the impressive wooden gate called “Tsuzumi-mon“. The gate’s columns’ shapes resemble the shape of a “tsuzumi”, a kind of hand drum that is commonly used in kabuki and nō theatres. Hence the name. Or with other words: Already the railway station indicates what Kanazawa stands for: a combination of tradition and modernity.
Don’t expect anything romantic like quaint alleys around the railway station – this district’s development is rather new and only moderately harmonic. But also don’t be daunted by it! Keep on walking the main street with its covered walkways between the “Miyako Hotel” and the “Garden Hotel” in southeastern direction. After about 600 metres you’ll see the impressive main hall of the buddhist temple Higashi Betsuin (東別院 / ひがしべついん).
From there it’s just a few hundred metres to the large crossing “Musashigatsuji” with its modern building ensemble of “Hakomachi” on the opposite side of it. On its right side you’re approaching our first spot of interest for the day, the Ōmi-chō Market (近江町市場 / おうみちょういちば), which is also called “The Kitchen of Kanazawa”. For more than 300 years everything needed for daily life has been available in these roofed market streets – of course, in the old days it was mainly the noble families that were allowed to satisfy their daily needs here. Originally built from 1690 to 1721 (and burnt down several times) the market managed to survive all the troubles of time. Since 1904 it is a public market and graces itself with the following six “charms” (as stated in the market’s pamphlet):
- Abundance of goods:
The market has around 185 specialty stores. With a wide range from top-of-the-line to bargain goods available. You are bound to find what you are looking for.
- Unbeatable freshness:
An outstanding level of freshness with almost all of the fresh products, such as fish and vegetables, being purchased from direct participation in wholesale market auctions. What’s more, you’ll be delighted by the reasonable prices.
- Plenty of home-made products:
One thing that can’t be missed is the variety of shop-made products like kamaboko (fish cake), side dishes, tofu and Japanese pickles. Many products can only be bought here, so please take your time browsing through them.
- Face-to-face service:
The face-to-face service that allows you to chat with the shopkeepers while you shop is an enjoyment distinctive of the market. Please feel free to say hello to the shopkeepers.
- Customer rapport:
Around 15,000 people from Kanazawa and elsewhere visit Ōmi-chō Market each day. The opportunity to talk or interact with other customers is something also to enjoy when you visit.
- Experts you can ask anything:
The shopkeepers in Ōmi-chō Market are professionals when it comes to food. If you ask, they will happily tell you delicious ways to cook and eat the produce you find here. Don’t be afraid to try something new!
And simply because it’s really fun: Take your time and have a look at the wide variety of goods. Dive into a truly Japanese shopping paradise!
Opening hours of the Ōmi-chō Marktes:
Basically: 9:00 am to 6:00 pm
However, there are no fixed opening times; on Sundays, national holidays and on Wednesdays some of the shops may be closed.
If you are lucky enough to have a reliable compass “built in”, just enjoy the small streets southeast of the market (and if navigation is not your prime talent, just have a look at a map) and you find – less then 100 metres away – a most practicable point of access to the big highlight of today’s walk: Kanazawa Castle (金沢城 / かなざわじょう), which we approach via the Kuromon (黒門 / くろもん), the “Black Gate” (don’t be confused: There is actually no gate any more – not even a black one….).
Enjoy the wide expanse of the garden landscape in the northern part of the castle’s grounds. It will remind you much more on an English landscape garden than on Japanese artistry.
You’ll reach the inner part of the castle most easily via the central and most gorgeously restored Kahoku gate (河北門 / かほくみん), which has been reconstructed in its original splendour from 2007 to 2009. The outer gate has a height of 7.4 metres, a width of 4.7 metres and is made of zelkova wood. The inner gate is not only 12.3 metres tall, but also provides a 220 sqm space on its upper floor.
Building the castle itself was started more than 400 years ago. And even though hardly any of the historic building has survived in its original structure (exceptions are the Ishigawa gate (石川門 / いしかわもん), built in 1788 and the Sanjukken Nagaya (三十間長屋 / さんじゅっけんながや), a stretched storage building re-erected in 1858),) there are various magnificent buildings that have been restored/rebuilt in recent years. Nevertheless, in a fortress like that it’s not only the buildings that are of interest – the mighty castle walls are just as impressive and demonstrate the power of the ruling Maeda clan.
Due to repeated conflagrations (especially in the 1620s and 1630s) and after the great fire of Kanazawa (1759) there was a need to rebuilt and extend the castle’s buildings. But finally, most of the buildings were lost again during a major fire in 1881. Nevertheless, one can still imagine the grandeur of its main building by the fact that in the late 18th century it was called “the palace of 1,000 tatami” (one tatami is about 1.8 sqm).
Quite unusual for a Japanese castle are the white walls (well, the recently restored Himeji castle also features those) but even more so the white roofs that are made of lead – not only protecting it from fire assaults, but also providing material to be melted down for bullets in cases of siege.
I’m just picking two of the numerous buildings on the castle’s grounds that provide quite remarkable examples of the architecture of their time – and they are also to be seen free of charge:
Tsurumaru-Storage (鶴丸倉庫 / つるまるそこう)
Since 2008 an important national cultural asset that was built in 1848 as a two-storied storage for military use.
Sanjukken-Nagaya (三十間長屋 / さんじゅっけんながや)
An important national cultural asset since 1957, built in 1859 and featuring an impressive length (as the name clearly indicates: 30 ken long – which is, if we all remember well what we might have learnt in school, 54.60 metres – but, frankly, I haven’t verified the measurements). A very well-preserved example for military housing and storage.
Opening Hours of Kanazawa Castle:
March 1st to October 15th: 7:00 am to 6:00 pm
October 16th to February 28th/29th: 8:00 am to 5:00 pm
open all year through
no entrance fee
For some of the buildings (Hishiyagura, Gojikken Nagaya und Hashizumemon Tsuzuki Yagura) opening hours may be shorter and an admission fee is required (adults: 300 Yen, children from 6 to 18 years of age: 100 Yen). Seniors of 65 years of age or older are admitted free of charge.
To be continued!
Also have a look at:
Kanazawa (金沢) (II) (English version)
– The piece of gold on the west coast: Time honoured shrines & modern architecture
Kanazawa (金沢) (III) (English version)
– The piece of gold on the west coast: Horticulture & Samurai