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.
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.
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
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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