“Wait, Five days in Kanazawa? Where’s that? What can you even do there? Why haven’t I even heard of this place?”
Such were the thoughts that ran through my head when I was recommended to visit Kanazawa, a small city of just half a million people, and one of Japan’s most underrated cities in the Chubu region.
Date last visited: March 2016
Known for: seafood & kaga vegetables, gold leaf products, the Kenroku-en Garden
Starting with Japan, I will be incorporating travel writing into my blog at a slow but sure pace. Good food is one thing, but travelling and food? That’s part and parcel. These posts are not intended to serve as a comprehensive list of what to do and what to eat – they’re simply a diary of my personal experiences, just like my restaurant posts. You may find that for some locations, I’m lacking in photos. I clearly try way too hard to avoid being touristy and take the same pictures everyone else does. I’ll fix that going forward given my recent decision to start travel blogging.
Constructive feedback is very much welcome – enjoy!
So, where is Kanazawa?
Kanazawa is located more or less smack bang in what could be referred to as the “middle north” of Japan. Specifically, the Ishikawa prefecture. Getting there’s pretty simple, thanks to a new Shinkansen (bullet train) line that will take you there in just 2.5 hours from Tokyo. Alternatively, you could stay at nearby Toyama (a much more well-known tourist spot), in which case your train ride to Kanazawa will only take 30 minutes.
A handy tip for those considering a trip to Kanazawa is that as of Q3 2016, you can now buy JR rail passes that allow Tokyo -> Kanazawa -> Kyoto travel. This makes Kanazawa a great pit stop, for a few days (or more!), on the well-worn Tokyo -> Kyoto journey. Kanazawa also makes a good base for the region – day trips from Kanazawa include the Noto Peninsula, Toyama, Takayama, Gifu, Gokayama (covered in this post) and even Nagoya. Lots to see in the area.
Now, what’s there to do in Kanazawa? Plenty: you’ve got the bustling Omicho Market, modern art museums, old tea houses and one of Japan’s top three gardens all within a stone’s throw from Kanazawa train station. Venture off the main road and you may find yourself in the samurai district, at a ‘ninja’ temple or in Higashi Chaya – a little version of Kyoto’s Gion.
But that’s enough with the words, onto some pictures. Note that in my few days at Kanazawa, I never got the chance to take as many pictures as I would have liked, and I didn’t get to visit all the destinations listed above. But that’s all the more reason for me to return, right?
Omicho Market (markets/food)
Oyama Jinja (Shrine) (sights)
Kanazawa Castle / Kenroku-en garden (sights)
Higashi Chaya (sights/food)
Sushi Mitsukawa (fine dining – sushi omakase)
Could a town be considered a city without a flagship market? At Kanazawa, Omicho Market is the one you’re looking for (and is only a 15 minute stroll from the station). For a city of only half a million, it’s surprisingly big, with over 200 stalls. Restaurants occupy the upper level (yes, there’s a L2), while fresh produce stallholders predominantly occupy the ground level. The main focus at the Market, and indeed pretty much Kanazawa as a whole, is seafood. Crab, lobster, squid, prawns, you name it, it’ll be here and as fresh as you’ll get in any great coastal city.
My visit to Omicho Market marked the only time I’ve ever seen a Japanese market so devoid of people – but that’s what happens when you’re there at 3pm on a weekday. Hooray tourist scheduling! Honestly, while the hustle and bustle is somewhat missed, the reality is I hate having to fight the crowd, so this was a welcome touch.
While you could eat a proper meal at one of the restaurants in the area (and we did do just that), there’s a wide variety of cooked and fresh produce that you can try right there and then. For example, skewers of unagi and giant oysters (kagi) pictured below. The oysters ain’t cheap (starting at 1000JPY), but eh, we’re on tourist money so YOLO! (do people still say that?)
I must admit, I’m not used to eating oysters this big. I really regretted not putting my phone next to one of these beasts, coz they were just as big, if not a bit more so. Pretty sure that each oyster had as much flesh as 6-8 regular oysters! In terms of taste, some seasoning was definitely needed – I’m not pro enough at oysters to savour the full extent of such unadulterated meat in one go. Ooft.
Plenty of sweet, juicy and fatty-tasting unagi. Absolutely delicious, if it weren’t for the sodium content I’d make a whole meal out of these skewers.
Or you could try unagi’s cousin anago (conger eel) which is much leaner, but still full of flavour. I skipped out on this one given the teishoku set consumed earlier, but of course, everything’s a temptation!
In retrospect, what was I thinking getting only one?
While you could wander into any restaurant on Level 2 and expect something tasty, we happened to stumble into a hole in the wall teishoku restaurant. The Japanese word teishoku basically means “meal set”.
At the random restaurant we went into (unlike my usual self, I did no planning for this meal), the entire set pictured above was only 1680JPY (~$21AUD at time of writing). We got rice, daikon, tenpura, sashimi, braised vegetables & yuba (tofu skins). One unique dish in this teishoku was a super sticky concoction of grated Japanese yam (yamaimo) which can be seen in the back of the picture as the small bowl with nothing but white stuff inside. This was then mixed with soy sauce and eaten with the rice. A…very acquired texture, if you will.
Not that I’m saying this stuff is beyond even me, however travelers inexperienced in Japanese cuisine will occasionally find the odd thing or two that may be quite the shocker. Super slimy mountain yam is definitely a candidate for that. If you think you’re well-versed in Japanese cuisine but haven’t given this a go, do so – it may challenge you and that’s always something fun 😉
Oyama Jinja (Shrine)
Oyama Jinja (jinja = shrine) is probably the most well-known shrine in Kanazawa. Like most good shrines, it possesses the usual hallmarks of beautiful gardens, creeks, and a grand old building complex that marks the shrine itself. All the more awkward when I didn’t actually take any photos of the shrine itself – do I even travel?
The truth is, the garden is why we came here – shrines in Japan have the same look and feel, and that’s why I made the mistake of not capturing a photo. The gardens however, are a literal walk in the park. All the more so, when visiting in Spring when the cherry blossoms (sakura) are budding! For those who haven’t seen them in person – they live up to it. At Kanazawa, they weren’t in full bloom yet so I missed out on their full beauty, but this isn’t the first time I’ve visited Japan and nor will it be my last.
And I’ll leave you with a picture that shows the most of the actual shrine building out of all the photos I took – you can get a glimpse of it just beyond the gate. But why did I take a picture of the gate, you wonder? Well that’s a good question dear reader. You see the rainbow colours of the stained glass at the top of the gate? That’s a Dutch-style stained glass window, a relic of the West’s influence and the only example of it in the region. Now that’s some colourful history.
A good hour wandering the Oyama Jinja complex? Well worth it.
Museum of Contemporary Art / Le Musee de H
Another highly-rated attraction in Kanazawa is the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art. It’s meant to be something akin to the MCA in Sydney, or MONA in Tasmania. Unfortunately, when I visited, the majority of the exhibits were closed or under refurbishment, with the few that were operational being short films, or requiring paid access. While I love me some art every now and then, I was in a bit of a penny pinching mode (given my food focus while on this trip) and so all I did was wander about and got lost. Hah.
(But seriously, you should visit anyway, it takes a special person to get a result as null as mine)
But at least, some genki (energy/spirit) from a bottle of Pikachu juice? I kid – the label says “fruit mix”, and that’s essentially what this is – tropical fruit juice. Japan isn’t that weird people, come on.
Now, a place that ought to be on any sweet tooth’s radar is Le Musee de H. This is a classic French-style patisserie with a sprinkling of Japanese technique. While I could go into the usual depth I do for my restaurant posts, I’ll spare your bandwidth and simply say that this is your one-stop shop if you’ve got a sugar craving to satisfy.
I tried four cakes and enjoyed all of them – to varying degrees. My favourite is the above-pictured: simple but perfectly executed, with a good balance between cream, cake and seasonal fruit (strawberries at time of visit).
Le Musee de H calls this the “????” (eiguru) and I have no friggin idea what it means. What I do know is that it’s a lemon, hazelnut & milk chocolate cake that throws in a hit of citrus to an otherwise all-up Nutella-esque piece, but without the drenching of sauce that seems so prevalent in Sydney these days.
This is the eponymously named Tsujiguchi roll. It’s a tea cake – using a Kaga-style tea that’s quite similar to houjicha (roasted green tea). The flavour of the tea itself was subtle but once again, a cake that’s deceptively easy to mop up.
Yep, you read that right – a kumara (sweet potato) mont blanc. The result of such an interesting take on mont blanc was that the texture was a lot starchier than the normal mountain of pureed chestnuts.
While we only had the stomach space for four cakes, there were more than 20 different varieties on offer – you could visit Le Musee de H every day you’re in Kanazawa and you wouldn’t be able to get through them all.
Is that a “challenge accepted” I hear?
Kanazawa Castle & Kenroku-en
After smashing four cakes, you’d forgive me for wanting to take a bit of a walk to stave off the inevitable sugar rush (and shortly after that, the coma). There are few strolling areas more appropriate for a tourist than Kanazawa Castle. Many major cities in Japan sport a flagship castle compound and Kanazawa Castle is this city’s eponymous example.
As with most major Japanese castles, Kanazawa’s has been rebuilt seven (!!!) times since its original construction in 1580. Earthquakes, fires and wars being the most frequent culprits. Fortunately, a reconstruction is just that – true to the original, and what’s peculiar about Kanazawa Castle is its white roof tiles, something I haven’t seen elsewhere. They bear a striking resemblance to snow, and I had to blink my eyes and walk up close to make sure – even knowing that such a thing couldn’t be possible given the warm climate at the time.
One of the Three Great Gardens of Japan (yes, that is a thing in Japan and the rule of three is a big deal), Kenroku-en takes its rightful place as one of Kanazawa’s best attractions.
Its meaning is “garden of six attributes”, these attributes being spaciousness, serenity, venerability, scenic views, subtle design, and coolness – qualities one can often ascribe to well-sculpted gardens – qualities I looked up on Wikipedia.
Hey, don’t diss – you know without it you’d still be at uni trying to find references the old fashioned way 😉
Now, I should mention that Kenroku-en has an entry fee of 310JPY (just a tad under $4 AUD), but you don’t need me to tell you that such a price is easily worth paying, given the likelihood of spending at least 1-2 hours here. There’s simply lots to see – to the point where a map is provided covering the 11.4 hectares (that’s 114,000 square metres).
And yes, the sakura are also beginning to bloom here – but the real best time would have been a week or two later. Take note, traveller: timing the cherry blossoms is not an easy task. Most trees will have only a week’s worth of full bloom glory, and just like that, the petals are gone. Best of luck!
While I would have liked to stay at Kenroku-en longer, it actually began to hail of all things, so a quick exit was necessary. Besides, the park was closing, so we quickly dashed around to all the sights we had yet to see, before briskly making our way out. In the end, we did manage to cover pretty much everything – SCORE!
At least, the walk back was most beautiful, and hail-free to boot!
Gokayama – Ainokura & Suganuma
We’re not done with Kanazawa just yet, but we decided to break our itinerary in two by taking a day trip out to the neighbouring region of Gokayama. Bussing it there will take just over an hour, a trip well worth it. But first, a katsu sando:
Because Japan’s early-hours breakfast options are rather limited (seriously, give it a go and see how many places are open), snacks from convenience stores are the go-to. There’s plenty of variety on offer, but the best ones can be warmed up for you by the staff at no extra cost, such as this pork katsu sandwich (aka a sando). When cold, it’s an affront to the senses. However, when blitzed in the microwave? It’s a heaven-sent parcel of deliciousness with warm, fluffy bread and a mostly-crunchy (but understandably soggy-at-times) piece of pork katsu. Flavours are quite porky, with a heavy hit of sweet mustard. Just the thing to kickstart a cold morning. Did I mention that Kanazawa’s still quite cold when we visited?
If you didn’t believe me – yeah. This is still spring. Oh the hilarity of an extreme latitude…
So why are we here? Well, the villages of Gokayama (meaning “five mountains”) are designated UNESCO World Heritage sites – that’s one reason. People come here to bear witness to a rare style of architecture known as Gasshou-zukuri. Thatch houses are built in a “prayer hands” style where deeply slanted roofs resemble a pair of hands held in prayer position. Why do it like this? Because such a structure is exceptionally strong, perfect to buffer against the region’s heavy snowfall during winter (and obviously, spring as well). Snowfall such as this:
Remember: this is only spring.
The houses look pretty cool, to say the least and are still occupied by local residents. They’re definitely very unique, and you won’t see them anywhere else. While the view is quite nice in winter and spring, summer is where the towns truly shine – check out the Wikipedia article for an example.
So far, all the pictures you’ve seen were taken at Ainokura, the first major town you would see should you decide to explore Gokayama. There is a local bus that goes between Ainokura, Suganuma (the second major village in Gokayama), and many more hours away, Shirakawago. If you have 2 days, a stay-over at Shirakawago is recommended, however this didn’t fit into my itinerary, so it’ll have to be a “next time” item!
Suganuma Village is much smaller than Ainokura, with not too much to see other than more of the same. If you simply wanted to see Gasshou-zukuri architecture in the flesh, you can arguably just stop at Ainokura. But hey, while you’re here, you may as well make the most of it!
Time was tight, so after quickly checking out Suganuma, we were on our way back to Kanazawa.
Did you know Kanazawa has a Geisha district similar to Kyoto’s Gion?
It’s called Higashi Chaya, and it’s a relic of Kanazawa’s very own Hanamachi (geisha district). As with Kyoto’s hanamachi, Higashi Chaya has been greatly “tourist-ified”. For the most part, Higashi Chaya is filled with shops selling food, souvenirs, and jewellery – particularly that of gold. Kanazawa’s quite renowned for the stuff – did you know that the famous Kinkakuji temple in Kyoto’s gold leaf coating was sourced from Kanazawa? Yeah.
I was a bit tired from having to dodge tourists all the time, so photos are few and far in between. My recommendation is to visit either in the morning (but not too early otherwise no vendors are open), or at night for a wholly different feel. There’s also a range of Buddhist temples/shrines, and we ended up wandering so far out that we got lost! But that’s cool, we got to check out a decent sunset over the city, and saw some random stuff along the way too!
That’s exploring, right?
Oh, and remember what I was saying about gold leaf being one of the things Kanazawa is renowned for? Well of COURSE you can get it in edible form, and what else than a creamy soft serve? I got this one at one of the many soft serve vendors within Higashi Chaya – walk around Kanazawa and you’ll be sure to find it.
To be honest, I only got this for the photo – it tasted good, but gold leaf in no way adds to the flavour of anything, it’s there for pure bling factor. But clearly, it’s not something I mind – gotta feel classy now and again, right? To my point:
This is a box of gold dusted choux puffs, and before you call “dafuq?” let it be known that notwithstanding the gold dust, these are possibly some of the best examples of choux pastry I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating.
Now, from my limited experience, the choux here differ somewhat to French-style choux in that the latter is a lot more fine and friable, whereas the ones I got in Kanazawa were much crunchier, flaky, and light. The cream? Similarly light – airy, but still full of milkiness and sweetness which balances out well with the choux pastry itself. What made these choux puffs special was that I felt like I could eat three boxes of them without getting sick – they’re just so ethereal in nature, and yet so substantive in flavour relatively speaking that it was a wonder how they did it.
I can’t believe I shared that box of three (cost: 1500JPY) with my friend…1.5 gold leaf choux puffs is nothing short of heinous.
So, where can you get these? The most convenient place of all – the train station itself! As with most major train stations in Japan, locally made treats and gifts are conveniently available for visitors to purchase as omiyage (souvenirs) at the train station. You may have to ask around as there’s a ton of sweets retailers, but you’ll definitely find it. These were from Le Musee De H’s omiyage store at Kanazawa station (see store 18 on this map). Note that this store has a limited variety of cakes…so if you don’t have time to make it to the actual cafe you can at least get a taste or three of these bad boys.
Speaking of things you can get at Kanazawa train station, another sweet hit are cream-filled sponge puffs from the counter at Caffe Arco Stazione (store 313 on this map). These soft sponge caps come with a variety of cream flavours – I got four with taro, earl grey, black sesame, and matcha.
And yep, you bet I ate one of each. This is not recommended for you dear reader – not if you wish to live a long healthy life.
Kanazawa has a lot more to offer in the sweets department than what I described above – even just hanging around the train station stores and you’ll be surprised at what you can find!
In the end, we needed a real dinner – it was finally time to get a real seafood fix.
Given that Kanazawa is a coastal city, it would be remiss not to eat something that came out of the surrounding seas. Our restaurant of choice was Sushi Mitsukawa, one of the most highly-rated sushi-ya in Kanazawa.
A tip here: when researching restaurants in Japan, if you know you have a fairly Japanese-style palate, don’t rely on sites like TripAdvisor (sorry!), but instead, use the site Tabelog. Sushi Mitsukawa is ranked a respectable 7th out of 106 listed sushi-specific restaurants on this list.
If you read my blog regularly, you know I like my sushi omakase-style, where the chef has full control of what gets served (subject to dietary requirements), based on the best produce available on the day. It’s never a cheap option, and you definitely don’t need to spend a ton of money to have great sushi (especially in Japan!), but come on – whose blog are you reading? 😛
Our meal at Sushi Mitsukawa cost around 12,000JPY (approximately $150AUD), which for high-end omakase, is actually quite well-priced (relatively speaking). For the money, we got 2 starters and 14 pieces of sushi. Heads up for the big eaters: you may want to have a second dinner after this.
I won’t go into my usual level detail with this meal – this blog post is long enough as it is. Suffice to say, Kanazawa-style sushi is on the daintier side when it comes to flavour. Textures of seafood are more prominently displayed, and freshness is key.
A befittingly simple starter of poached clam & kaga greens begins the meal, an oceanic hit of brine and soy is carried by firm, fleshy clam and chewy seaweed, accented by a sprig of peppery kinome (a Japanese herb).
Following the palate opener is a series of sashimi – hirame (flounder), iwashi (sardine), ika (squid), and ebi (prawn). All familiar fish, with telltale familiar tastes. Always enjoyable when properly prepared. The ebi was particularly memorable – its chewy, juicy flesh was on point.
Next up is the biggest flavour hit of the meal – hotaru ika (firefly squid) and saba (mackerel). It’s served with powerfully flavourful red miso and Kaga greens. A good pairing of flavours, as mackerel is itself quite intense. As for the firefly squid, my first time eating this could be described as “interesting”, but the silky, chewy texture grew on me almost immediately.
Okay, I lied – I liked it straight away, these little squidlings are amongst one of my new favourite finds on the entire Japan trip. If you go in spring, you’ll no doubt encounter them – dig in!
Our fourth course was a small, saikyo miso-coated managatsuo, or Japanese butterfish. Yes, it lived up to its namesake – enough said.
The sushi course began with ishidai (parrot fish) – something I’ve never had before. Thiswas fairly ordinary in taste and texture, and could have passed for “generic fish”, to be honest. A low point, but every meal has one.
Tai (red sea bream) was in season when we visited. And in Japan, in season is taken seriously. How seriously? Well, how about every single proper meal featuring tai as an example? Yep, we had tai at every restaurant that served seafood – and fair enough! It’s one of the most prized species of fish in Japan; it’s expensive, and it tastes great. As a fish it looks not dissimilar to snapper; so much so that it’s usually illegally substituted in Western countries. True tai has a very delicate and naturally sweet flavour – and that’s what I got more or less every time I had it on the trip, Sushi Mitsukawa included.
I’ve already been treated to multiple new species of seafood in just this one visit to Sushi Mitsukawa, and yari-ika (spear squid) adds to the list. A texturally fascinating piece, this had all the chewiness of squid but also a bit of a crunch, akin to jellyfish. Flavour was provided by the sesame seasoning and as per the restaurant’s methods, was fairly light.
Extraordinarily creamy and fatty-tasting amaebi (sweet shrimp) was a highlight of the meal – raw prawns have never steered me wrong.
Fleshy katsuo (skipjack tuna) continued the meal, with its surprisingly full-bodied flavour delivering quite a flavour punch with its extended marination.
Sawara (Spanish mackerel) is blowtorched and was surprisingly soft, citric, and sweet. I’m not a big fan of mackerel, generally speaking, but this piece spoke to me – a great balance of flavours, especially given mackerel’s tendency to be overwhelmingly pungent.
As for the chu-toro (medium fatty tuna): no words*.
*some words: explosion of fatty goodness.
And the sayori (half-beak) may only be my the 2nd or 3rd time I’ve had it. This interesting fish sported a resistive, jelly-ish texture as its defining trait. Flavour-wise, quite sweet, almost a bit saccharine.
Another one of my favourite new discoveries at Sushi Mitsukawa , the baigai (babylon shell clam). This was a delightful morsel of crunchiness, fleshiness in a way that only raw clams exhibit. Real complex, but a very addictive thing to gnaw one’s teeth on.
Kawahagi (thread-sail filefish – who comes up with these names?) was yet another learning experience. This piece came with a red sauce that resembled a sweet mayonnaise in flavour and texture. The rice was warmer and sweeter than the other pieces I’ve had so far too. The fish itself was surprisingly neutral in flavour and wasn’t very texturally interesting.
Uni (sea urchin) will be uni – thankfully, this was totally fresh and thus full on creamy. It was also served slightly chilled, almost exhibiting palate-cleansing properties.
A final temaki (hand roll) of nodoguro (blackthroat sea perch) finished off the meal. There was a great deal of flavour here, coupled with rich, fatty deposits of fish that surprisingly sported a clean finish.
As my first sushi omakase experience in Japan, I came away impressed by the sheer variety of fish I’d never had the pleasure of eating; such is the difference between the ocean ecosystems of Japan and Australia. As a foodie, learning is half of the pleasure, and I came away most pleased. Yes, not every piece was to my palate from a taste perspective, but in some ways, that in itself was eye-opening. Easily worth $150 if you’re serious about your fish.
However, I’m a bit peeved I didn’t get dessert – not even a tamagoyaki (egg sushi) that traditionally finishes off a sushi omakase? Hmm…. (I guess a detour by Le Musee De H is required before heading back to the hotel :P)
Flagship Meal – Kaiseki Tsuruko
Long-time readers might be wondering if Sushi Mitsukawa was the “capstone meal” of my stay in Kanazawa.
Oh, it wasn’t. A private room at Kaiseki Tsuruko is perhaps one of the best things to which a foodie can treat oneself, and requires an entire post just by itself. You’ll want to click through on this one, but in case you need some temptation, just a few photos to get you going:
Thank you. It’s been a pleasure to explore for the first time, this hidden gem of Japan. It won’t be the last.