Kanazawa: One Fine City in Japan

Notes from my ten days trip Ishikawa prefecture exploring Kanazawa following weeks long stays first in Okinawa and then Yakushima prior to my move to Tokyo in 2019.

Just like few other foreigners I have met here, we – Japan addicts, are here in Kanazawa mainly because we ran out of the new places to see in Japan. However, we also now – after getting a taste of this fine city – all agree that Kanazawa deserves much more than being seen as the secondary option and is one of the finest cities that we have had a chance to visit in Japan. Kanazawa is a fairly small city located in Ishikawa, one of the western prefectures of Japan, combining traditional Japanese architecture with some very innovatively designed museum spaces.

My usually biggest problem with Japanese cities is that you need to put a lot of effort into disregarding the dominating post World War II concrete architecture to appreciate the more inspiring parts of the city. Even in Kyoto, you need to work really hard since the nice and to be honest – ugly parts are mixed in together. In Kanazawa, those two parts are very segregated allowing you to enjoy the nicer parts without much visual effort by freely roaming your eyes around (like constant framing as if you are taking a photograph). Kanazawa is a small city but home to number of sizeable parks and gardens including famous Kenroku-en, which sets the serene vibe of the city.

Museums of Kanazawa

One other allure of Kanazawa is the fine quality of the museums hosted in the city. My two favorites are 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art and D. T. Suzuki Museum. D. T. Suzuki Museum is dedicated to the life and works of Kanazawa born Buddhist philosopher Suzuki Daisetz Teitaro. The architecture of the museum aims to bring out the serenity that comes with Zen philosophy. It in my view greatly achieves its purpose. It is well worth the entrance fee of 300 Yen, which includes an English audio guide. There is a pool surrounding the museum, which at the time of my visit acted as a great mirror reflecting the colors of autumn flushing out of the surrounding small forest.

The contemporary art museum on the other hand is surprisingly rich in terms of the permanent collection. In addition to Blue Planet Sky by James Turell, l`Origine de Monde by Anish Kapoor is included in the permanent collection. While these two pieces are quite well known, Swimming Pool by Leandro Arlich is the piece, which gets the visitors the most excited. The work is comprised of 10cm of water suspended over transparent glass, which gives the deep water feeling thanks to the aquamarine colored empty space below. Visiting the pool is free unless you want to enter in the aquamarine part and get eye to eye with all the photographers above the ground looking down at you. It is a quite photogenic piece in every sense of the word and therefore expect many mobile photographers working really hard on their choreography. I noted that acting like climbing the stairs of the pool was a favorite pose for many.

Fall colors in Kanazawa

It is now early December here and to my surprise, the city is still home to a great range of autumn colors. While the trees become a little more naked each day, it has been an amazing experience to visit the same places everyday over the last week and see a different color each day. One of the most rewarding parts of Kanazawa is that you get to experience all this beauty without any crowds since the city somehow attracts less visitors compared to the usual suspects such as Kyoto, Hiroshima and Tokyo. While I understand it still tends to get a little busy in second and third weeks of the November, late November – early December worked great for me to beat the crowds. It takes me forever to walk anywhere in here. I will just take a quick detour into one of the many parks and will find myself wondering in the park for at least an hour. Photographing the fall colors is a difficult task. You almost never get a second chance especially if it is almost the end of the fall season. Much can change in just few hours both in terms of color and the density of tree leaves. That is I guess the part of the appeal for me. My favorite location to see the fall colors was the very small woods right behind D. T. Suzuki Museum and the second favorite was the garden right behind Oyama Shrine. While these two spots were not nearly as popular as arguably Japanese finest garden – Kenrouken Garden, I enjoyed the tranquility of these places a lot more compared to relatively packed Kenrouken Garden.

Four nights turned into nine

As I was approaching the end of my days in Japan and I lost a little bit of focus in Yakushima, I wanted to have one other new stop in Japan before moving onto another country or back to home. That is how I ended up here originally with a four nights plan, quickly turning into a longer stay once the vibe of the city won me over. The quality of my hostel (listed in the tips section below) also had a lot to do with it, not only with its very reasonable pricing policy but with its very cozy and stylish atmosphere as well.

Kanazawa tips in a nutshell

How to get to Kanazawa

Kanazawa is served by shinkansen. Shinkansen is the most convenient way to reach Kanazawa from most parts of Japan but it is not cheap. One way shinkansen ticket from Tokyo to Kanazawa costs around 14000 Yen and takes a little under 3 hours. If you book using the website of JR East – Eki-net, you may be able to secure varying degree of discount depending on how far in advance you make the booking and the seat availability. If you are Osaka and Tokyo, you can also consider Limited Express Thunderbird. 

On the alternative, you can fly to nearby Komatsu Airport and take the shuttle to Kanazawa city center. I sometimes prefer the flying options especially when I can book an ANA flight with my Turkish airlines miles – requires 7500 miles for one way ticket.

I once also traveled to Kanazawa by bus through Nagoya. The trip takes around 4 hours and costs a little under 5000 Yen. It was a very comfortable ride and relatively cheaper option if you are around Nagoya. Bus is also your only option if you are already in Takayama or Shirakawa-go area.

Where to stay in Kanazawa

Hatchi Kanazawa Hostel – one of the best two hostels that I have ever stayed in. It has design hotel quality and like most places in Japan, immaculately clean. It was an amazing deal for Japan with its nightly rate of USD 18. The bed area also comes with a locker, a place to hang your coat and enough to room to even use as a bookshelf. As one of the reviewers mentioned online, the showers in this hostel are like spa showers, so go figure!

Where to eat in Kanazawa

I love yakitori a lot. Yakitori places have cozy atmosphere, I like the simplicity of the food and usual counter style seating. Chokichi near my hostel worked  great for me as it also had some red meat selections in its menu and not only chicken (like in many yakitori places). It is also known to be welcoming to foreigners and they even have an English menu. Like in most places in Japan, they only accept cash payment so be prepared.

For drinks, Oriental Brewing located right across the street from Hatchi Hostel is a very friendly place offering pizzas and other finger foods in addition to a good selection of craft beer (they do not show it in the menu but they also have wine, so ask for it). One other place I really enjoyed with its very good English speaking staff was the bar/cafe of Emblem Stay. They have a happy hour like most places in Kanazawa between 4-6pm and they every Friday host a weekly gathering mixing locals with tourists.