Experience Kanazawa – the traditional Japan

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.

„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, and even in Kanazawa, one of the most traditional towns in Japan, Kôdô is not a widespread hobby.

The town of Kanazawa is situated on the so-called backside of Japan, 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.

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, it 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 artificially built, also to create an impression of refreshment in the hot and humid Japanese summer. Everything in this garden is planned in detail and masterfully planted – in order for the result to 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 who come to visit in traditional Kimonos enhance the experience even more.

The Kenroku-en was a private garden for the Maeda Daimyos, the rulers of Kanazawa, the richest province in Japan between the 17th and 19th century.

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 also aims to let them experience the philosophy of the master.

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. This is served with ketchup and tartar-sauce.

Kanazawa has recently been voted as an upcoming destination by Lonely Planet, so hurry before the busloads arrive.

If you are interested in off-the-beaten-path destinations in Japan you could also visit the highly informative Prefectural Dinosaur Museum in Fukui.

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, open every day 11.15 am to 8 pm.

NB: Our visit to Kanazawa was part of a guidebook research. We were not sponsored for this trip and paid all expenses by ourselves.

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