Experience Kanazawa – traditional Japan at its best

On a visit to Japan’s old Samurai town of Kanazawa, we experience traditional Japanese arts, modern art and architecture, and one of the most iconic Japanese gardens.

Suzuki Museum in Kanazawa
Suzuki Museum in Kanazawa

A subtle smell of incense wafts from the cone on the small plate. But does it really smell any different from that on the other small plate? Mrs Takazawa, the incense teacher, has only prepared three different fragrances for us. But assigning each one to the matching cone seems impossible.

A fragrant game

„Kôdô – the way of the scent” is not about winning – it is, as all Japanese traditional arts – about contemplation. Forgetting the daily routines and tasks, pausing for a while.

Natascha trying an incense ceremony (Koudou Taiken)
Natascha trying an incense ceremony (Kôdô Taiken) in Kanazawa

In a proper Kôdô ceremony, real incense is used rather than the perfumed incense sticks. The fine nuances are quite difficult to recognize even for experts. Even in Kanazawa, one of the most traditional towns in Japan, Kôdô is not a widespread hobby.

The town of Kanazawa is a regional centre on the so-called backside of Japan. It is separated from the big cities and the Pacific coast by high mountains. Since April 2014, the Hokuriku Shinkansen (super express train) has made it easier to reach this little gem of Japanese culture and tradition.

Kenroku-en Garden – One of the most beautiful Japanese gardens

The sightseeing spot that draws the most tourists (the majority of them Japanese) is the Kenroku-en Garden. In the traditional ranking, Kenroku-en is regarded as one of the three most beautiful gardens in Japan.

„There are more than 70 different varieties of moss,“

garden manager Kato
Kanazawa Kenrokuen garden

Mr Kato, the former manager, explains: „To keep up the impression of freshness and coolness, you have to pay attention to the moisture of the ground. Gardeners have to pick up every single leaf from the lush moss cushions.”

The splashing waterfall is artificial, however … The master gardeners also included it to create an impression of refreshment in the hot and humid Japanese summer. Everything in this garden is planned in detail and masterfully planted. And of course the intention of all this is that the result should look casually natural! The water for the lakes, the stream, and the waterfall comes in via 10 km long pipes.

By nature, the Japanese gardeners know, there is no such thing as perfect nature. Man has to create it: Gnarled trees that frame a bridge, a wide panorama view from the shore of the lake and cosy green corners in a widespread lawn. The mountains outside and far away are also a part of the garden concept – the so called „Borrowed Scenery“.

In spring many Japanese women come to visit Kenraku-en Garden in traditional Kimonos. For foreign travellers like us, they enhance the Kanazawa experience even more.

The Kenroku-en was a private garden for the Maeda Daimyos, the rulers of Kanazawa. Under their rule, Kanazawa was the richest province in Japan between the 17th and 19th century. Nearby Takaoka boasts an impressive Zen Temple – Zuiryuji Temple – dedicated to the super-rich Daimyo Maeda Toshinaga.

The D.T. Suzuki museum – A museum of Japanese philosophy

A white cube in a rectangular water basin – inside it a few benches where visitors can sit. An artificially created wave ebbs away. A white wall captures the wandering glance.

Among the numerous worthwhile destinations of Kanazawa, the D.T. Suzuki museum, a „philosophy museum“ dedicated to the famous messenger of Zen Buddhism in the western world, is unique. The museum wants not only to explain the life of Suzuki to visitors, but it also aims to let them experience the philosophy of the master.

Experience local specialities in Kanazawa

After the sightseeing programme you can experience Kanazawa’s hospitality. Relax in one of the renovated tea houses in the Higashi-Chaya area with a cup of green tea and some sweet rice balls with bean filling. And for dinner we would recommend Hanton Rice, a true Kanazawa experience. Considered “modern Japanese”, this is a local dish consisting of buttered rice topped with fried egg and fried fish. The ensemble appears on the plate with ketchup and tartar-sauce.

Kanazawa has also received a recommendation as an upcoming destination by Lonely Planet! So, hurry up before the busloads arrive. And if you find it crowded after all: Take a trip to the fantastic and remote Noto Peninsula!

If you are interested in off-the-beaten-path destinations in Japan you could also visit some other less promoted attractions even on the main island of Honshu. For instance, we liked the highly informative Prefectural Dinosaur Museum in nearby Fukui. Even many UNESCO sites in Japan like the Tomioka silk mills or the Mozu tombs near Osaka are not exactly overrun by tourists.

How to experience Kanazawa

Kôdô – the way of the scent: A well established shop selling incense and Kôdô equipment is Kyara, Takaoka-cho 19-17. Once a month they do a traditional Kôdô ceremony. Guests are welcome, but you should speak and understand a bit of Japanese.

Hanton Rice: The place to get the real thing is Grill Otsuka, Kata-machi 2-19-15. It is open every day 11.15 am to 8 pm.

NB: Our visit to Kanazawa was part of a guidebook research for Stefan Loose Travel Guidebooks. We were not sponsored for this trip and paid all expenses by ourselves. We may earn affiliate commissions from the books we link to, at no extra cost to you.

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  1. The garden is very beautiful. I would think the gardeners also thought about how does it look like during spring, summer, fall, or winter. Just look at your picture. I think I will like that Hanton Rice. No wonder Lonely Planet recommended Kanazawa as the next destination.

    1. Dear Umiko, Kenroku-en garden is indeed beautiful. I work as a tourguide in Japan and have visited it several times in spring, summer and autumn. It is always breathtaking. I still have to see it in winter.

    2. Kanazawa looks such a serene and peaceful place to visit in Japan with the traditional Kenroku en garden with tiny details of soft moss cushions of 70 types. Also it was great to learn about the concept of Kodo-a way of scent. Great to know that Kanzawa has been recorded as an upcoming destination on Lonely planet.

  2. Kanazawa is something completely unknown to me. This is the first time I came across this place information of Japan. It’s nice to learn about Kodo and also the beautiful Kenroku-en-garden. This must be added to our sightseeing list in Japan.

    1. Dear Shreya, if you go to Japan and have a bit more time than just for a visit to Tokyo and Kyoto, Kanazawa is a very worthwhile addition. It has become a bit more touristy over the years though.

  3. What a beautiful serene place to visit. I love the water reflection and then to see the pretty spring flowers would just be heavenly. Followed by a traditional meal sounds like the perfect day.

  4. This was an interesting read. I had never heard of this area before. We did a big trip few years ago to Japan where we went to multiple cities and we absolutely loved everything there. We really want to go back someday. We were there at fall so we missed the gardens in cherry blossom but the fall foliage was also beautiful. But all those gardens were one of our favourite things to explore.

  5. As someone who loves to garden, I can truly appreciate the nuances Mr. Kato speaks about that go into creating the “perfect” garden. Many think a beautiful garden just happens, but it takes intention, coaxing, caring. And just look at the peaceful oasis that is Kenroku-en…Just stunning!

    1. Dear Jackie, as someone who has no “green finger” Mr Kato`s explanations were quite mind-opening. But isn`t it like this quite often? From the outside it looks easy, but if you have a closer look, you realize there is a lot of work involved.

    1. Dear Tami, Japan is a paradise for garden lovers. The Kenroku-en garden is definitely the most famous sightseeing spot in Kanazawa. However the city has so much more to offer.

  6. Kanazawa seems an amazing place to visit. I liked the Kodo process and loved the glance of their amazing garden. How beautiful it looked like. I think if I ever visit to Japan I would definitely visit Kanazawa , as this place has not only beautiful gardens but also they have different places to explore. Museum , silk mill are very unique and definitely a must visit place for history lovers like me .

  7. I would love to visit Kanazawa, if it’s one of the most traditional towns in Japan, to learn about its culture and tradition. And most of all, I would love to take some pictures during the blooming season at Kenroku-en Garden. I saw some photos of this garden, and it looks lovely. Also, as I experienced some Buddhist places and monasteries during my Nepal and India travels, I would love to visit the D.T. Suzuki museum to learn about Zen Buddhism in the western world.

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