Taking a zen-filled stroll through Kenrokuen Garden in Kanazawa, one of the top three gardens in a country that knows a thing or two about how to grow and prune, I see some commotion up ahead behind a little arched bridge Monet regrettably didn’t quite get around to. After venturing closer it becomes clear: it’s just a group of male gardeners, gumboot deep, sweeping the water in unison.
I should be surprised. And I am. OK, baffled. But in the less than 24 hours I spent in Kanazawa, a city I almost bypassed and was Tripadvised to, I saw a library made of porthole windows, peered into a swimming pool to see dry people staring back, and ate one of Japan’s biggest rarities: TOAST (with kiwi fruit spread), so i was able to shrug off the prospect of a wet broom closet pretty easily.
STAY: Hotel Pacific is a great little budget boutique hotel. Think white walls and bed spreads, hanging plants, black and white framed photographs, cafe in the reception with great coffee, toast and yoghurt and friendly helpful staff.
Kanazawa is a city northeast of Kyoto that takes a mere 2 hours to reach on the JR Thunderbird. Much of the city of Kanazawa spreads around a large green space on which sits the aforementioned Kenrokuen Garden which dates back to the 17th Century, Kanazawa Castle Park which was formerly called the ‘castle of 1000 tatami’ and housed the Maeda clan for 14 generations until being burned down in 1881, and a number of cultural, craft and art museums including the spectacular 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art. This is one of the best contemporary art museums I have seen anywhere, and reason enough to visit Kanazawa, with Japanese pop and TV installations, innovative architecture, and lots of interactive displays.
For dinner I head to the old area of Kiguramachi. Eating (especially solo) in Japan can be a somewhat intimidating activity. Eateries are often behind wooden doors or have material hanging in them so you don’t have a clear view, and menus in English are not the norm. Thankfully there are often pictures, but it can be difficult to gauge (or maybe that was just me as a first timer) what kind of restaurant it is, and as someone who was a vegetarian for over 15 years (recently taking up eating sooome kinds of meat – and on this trip more than I usually would) I prefer to know what I will be eating. Also, some places in Japan – especially in Kyoto – don’t welcome first time visitors to their restaurants, so I was turned away from a few places recently, and this was again the case on this eve in Kanazawa. I could tell there were spare seats, and walking past an hour later they were still empty, but I was turned away from a cute looking stream-side restaurant regardless. Did I look too much the tourist? Was it too late? Was it going to be too hard to communicate with me? I’m not sure why I was denied, but it worked out fine when I found a great izakaya that served fried things on sticks just down the road. Asahi in hand, menu pointing out of the way, I could relax into the evening, taking in the sake bottles lined before me, the inscribed lamps above me, and the locals sharing meals before old posters of suggestive Japanese women drinking beer.
Being a midweek day in June with a slight drizzle, the Kenrokuen garden was free of too many humans, which allowed space to wander quietly among the living surrounds. Curious sakanas (fish) emerged, popping their mouths at the surface, ducks left silk trails of lake behind, and all manner of rotund little birds hopped between branches and bushes. Women worked the gardens beneath straw oriental hats, while men swept the waterways (as above, still not sure why). There were irises and other beautiful purple and white flowers left over from the spring, but to see the garden in cherry blossom season or when the plum grove is abundant would be a blessing. I stayed a couple of hours to soak up the waterfalls and tea houses and ponds, before descending back down to the Kanazawa streets.
I could have bi-passed Kanazawa on my way up to the Northern Alps, continued straight on to the more highly-favoured Takayama instead. I considered this, but my real reason for deciding to pause in this city for a day and night was admittedly not a famous garden or an acclaimed museum, but rather word of one of the world’s best libraries. So the last stop in this mini-jaunt to what they now refer to as ‘Little Kyoto’ was the Umimirai Library. My book-loving little heart leapt all over this porthole clad library, and I’m sure you can see why…
Don’t listen when they tell you to skip Kanazawa. I didn’t even visit any of the ninja and samurai sites the city is also famed for, or explore the abundance of crafts like gold leaf and pottery. It was a little stopover that made a big, surprising impression.
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