Do you know about Kanazawa, aka the “marsh of gold”? Until last fall, this 21st century samurai town wasn’t even on my radar.
It’s said that Kanazawa originated in the misty past when the peasant Togoro, rinsing freshly dug potatoes in a well, noticed that the water was flecked with gold. Over the centuries, the region became known for its gold leaf production and eventually the town became home base for the powerful Maeda warrior clan.
These days, the city is better known for its fabulous seafood and its friendly, laid back inhabitants than for the glittering nuggets of yore—though you can still buy green tea sprinkled with gold leaf in some shops.
Much of Kanazawa’s contemporary allure is based on its coastal location. It sits right on the western coast of Honshu Island, less than 500 miles from South Korea and further on, China. An entire cuisine has sprung up around the abundant fish and seafood plucked from plankton-rich waters, along with local vegetables, rice and sake. Perhaps because of its nearness to China and Korea, attitudes seem more open than elsewhere in Japan.
Even though the skies dumped buckets of rain on us almost every day–one website calls Kanazawa the Seattle of Japan–this quirky, open-hearted city quickly found a place in our hearts. Here are six things we loved:
1. Kenrokuen Garden
Kanazawans are justly proud of Kenrokuen, a magnificent 25-acre Edo-period (1603-1868) garden that’s open every day of the year. Originally the outer garden of Kanazawa’s feudal castle, it later became a pleasure ground for the Maeda rulers, evolving over two centuries into a strolling garden that reflects the six essential attributes, or design elements, that, in Chinese landscape theory, create the “perfect garden.”
From the moment we stepped through the gate on a drizzly November morning, most of the six elements—spaciousness, seclusion, artifice, antiquity, watercourses and panoramas—were clearly evident.
But what really struck me were the yukitsuri, handmade rope and bamboo structures crowning the meticulously pruned conifers to protect them from the heavy wet snow that would fall during the winter. Traditionally these are erected around November 1st, and when we were there, they punctuated the garden’s vast panoramas like giant teepees rising dramatically from clouds of greenery.
There are said to be over 8,000 trees at Kenrokuen, both evergreens and deciduous types whose leaves were turning red and gold in early autumn. One tree was utterly unforgettable: Karasakinomatsu, a sprawling pine grown from a single seed planted during the reign of the 13th lord Maeda Nariyasu (1822-1866).
Growing next to Kasumi Pond, the tree’s contorted branches stretch so far out from its muscular trunk that they must be supported by cedar posts sunk into the water. In winter, this tree is also protected by numerous yukitsuri; a total of 800 ropes are used for support.
Kenrokuen is known for its antiquities, including stone lanterns, pagodas, and two historic tea houses. Some believe that the garden’s Sacred Well may even be the same well in which Togoro washed his potatoes over a thousand years ago.
This 5-tiered pagoda stands high on a hill near the back of the garden. Though nearly hidden amongst the trees, its position enables the strolling visitor to view it from different angles—above, below, and at eye level–offering continuously changing perspectives.
The tiny details were as riveting as the sweeping views. We admired the emerald moss sweeping over the ground, autumn leaves swirling in a stream, the rough grey bark of a venerable tree.
Suddenly there was a gust of cold wind. Moments later, the skies opened and we were caught in a thunderous downpour. Umbrellas popped open, and just as quickly, the wind blew them inside out. After what seemed like an hour’s wait under a narrow roof, we snagged a taxi….
2. Patisserie Ofuku Hirosaka
…which took us to the 21st Century Art Museum, a circular, glass walled structure so crammed with holiday visitors—it turned out to be Japan’s National Day of Culture—that we quickly fled back into the rain.
Luckily, Patisserie Ofuku Hirosaka was right around the corner.
Ofuku could easily have been beamed to Kanazawa from the Left Bank. The chef-owner studied in Paris, so it was no surprise to see layers of chic, jewel-like patisserie in the glass display case. We spent the rest of the day, camped at an upstairs table, devouring one decadent pastry after another, much to the amusement of the ladies behind the counter.
To begin there was a luscious roulade filled with whipped cream, then caramel crème in a nutty shell, sprinkled with powdered sugar, followed by a dark chocolate and banana thing-y (a truly inspired nursery combination). My favorite? A fresh fig tart in a buttery crust, pierced by jagged shards of dark chocolate and topped with a ladle of whipped cream. Did I mention cups and cups of espresso?
Kill me now….
3. Restaurant Ajidokoro Yoshimura
…but not just yet.
Kanazawa is known for Kaga cuisine, essentially a style of cooking that developed during the feudal era and is based on superb regional ingredients. The foods include gorgeous fish and shellfish from the Sea of Japan, rice from the Kaga plain, and fifteen local vegetables, such as red pumpkin and kinjiso, a leafy spinach-like vegetable often doused in vinegar.
Inside, it was party central. We slid into a couple of seats at the counter.
Within minutes we had been adopted for the night by a group of rowdy friends celebrating one pal’s 60th birthday. Amidst gales of laughter, my party-hearty English-speaking neighbor—let’s call him Mr. T—tried to help me to extricate a fat but recalcitrant snail from its shell with chopsticks. We were unsuccessful, but for the next three sake-fueled hours, B and I mixed it up with our new friends and stuffed ourselves with the most delicious food.
We ordered everything Mr. T recommended: plates of beautifully fresh sashimi garnished with wasabi flowers, a bowl of jibuni, local duck stew with slices of wheat gluten and mushrooms, and fresh crabmeat from a just-cooked female snow crab. Oh yes, and cod milt, which is to say, cod sperm.
But the culinary highlight was unquestionably the salt-grilled nodo goro, a silvery fish with pink fins from nearby waters which the chef butterflied and then impaled like an open fan on six metal skewers. After a sea-salt rub, the fish was grilled very, very slowly over charcoal. It came to the table looking like a lightly charred sea monster—but the meat was utterly delicious: white, succulent and very, very tender, needing only a squeeze of lime to set off its delicate flavor.
Mr. T. insisted that we not only eat the meat that could easily be plucked from the bones, but also the meat concealed in a pocket behind the eyes. “It’s the sweetest,” he explained with a wink.
4. Omi-cho Market
YouTube of Omi-Cho market by Enchanting Japan.
Spending the morning at Omi-cho, Kanazawa’s covered food market, is another way of getting up close and personal with the city’s appetites. Founded during the Edo period, it now consists of nearly 200 shops, many of them specializing in fresh fish and seafood from the Sea of Japan.
On some blogs, you will see photos of Kaga vegetables and other delicacies. I have no doubt that these things are indeed sold at Omi-cho. But what I saw in early November was crab, crab and more crab.
November marks the start of the snow crab season and these hefty crustaceans, fresh from the boiling pot, were sprawled on beds of glistening ice at literally dozens of stalls. The male crabs were higher priced than the smaller females, though many say that the females are every bit as delicious.
Experience Kanazawa, a local tourism website, explains that the plankton-rich waters of the Tsushima Current, created when “warm western waters” meet the “cold, subarctic ocean current,” offer a veritable smorgasbord that attracts a variety of sea creatures, including the delectable snow crab, known in Japanese as zuwai-gani.
At lunchtime, hungry crowds descended on the market. Fish mongers offered cooked crab at a wide range of prices, for takeaway or even to be eaten on the spot. Typically, the crab is boiled or grilled and dipped in a sauce of soy, vinegar and sugar, but it may also be prepared as tempura or served as sushi or sashimi.
Of course, there were a few other types of seafood for sale. The oyster shuckers were especially busy around noon.
Sea urchin and shrimp were popular too. Here’s pile of detritus after one feast.
What to wear when you’re eating crab? Japan is mad for plaid. This vendor was selling cheap but cosy vests in bright colors—just the outfit for a chilly November crab picnic.
5. Nomura Samurai House
Omi-cho can be raucous, especially at peak hours when the vendors are shouting at the top of their lungs.
For a low-decibel antidote, we went to Nagamachi, the old samurai district where the streets are narrow and often bordered by small canals, and some centuries-old homes with earthen walls and private gates are still in use.
At the restored Nomura house, you can see how a wealthy family who served as administrators for the Maeda clan once lived.
There is an elegant altar room, a coffered ceiling made of Japanese cypress, a suit of full samurai armor in the entrance hall. But the loveliest part of this restored house is the small central garden which can be viewed from several rooms with sliding rice paper walls.
Like so many private gardens, it’s a meticulously designed microcosm. There are koi swimming in a small stream, several antique stone lanterns, wild-looking evergreens and a 400-year-old bayberry tree—all in a limited space.
It was surely the perfect place to retreat from an uncertain world, especially, I would guess, when the Nomuras lost their fortune as the feudal era sputtered to a close in the mid-19th century.
6. Cafe Dumbo
On a continuously rainy day, eventually caffeine is in order. And wouldn’t you know it? The cheerful Café Dumbo was just a short walk away.
As you might expect, this cozy café’s name is a bow to Brooklyn, where the young owner, Miki, (shown here with her husband Takashi), ran a coffee house for a few years before family concerns drew her back to Kanazawa. The display case was filled with American-style sweets—carrot and chiffon “coffee time” cakes, muffins, scones and brownies. Upstairs there were chairs for lounging and books for reading; sometimes Montessori sessions are held there.
It felt as much like a community center as it did a café.
When we walked in, Miki was waiting for some just-baked gingerbread to cool. “I have to teach a gingerbread class next week,” she confided, laughing and scowling at the same time. “I used to make gingerbread houses when my daughter was little,” I said. “What a nightmare!” we agreed, and laughed again.
B and I perched on stools, looking out the front window, waiting for the rain to stop. But we didn’t really care. Café Dumbo is the only place I’ve ever been served a happy face latte—and we were very happy to be there.
For more on Kanazawa and our trip to Japan, you might like to read B’s letter on The Global Province.