When we started planning this trip to Japan we definitely wanted one thing: to know more than neon lights and Japanese fashion victims. Above all, we wanted to know Japan full of traditions, that country of famous landscapes, gardens, and crafts without limits but that at the same time is not afraid of modernity. So, searching for this kind of experience in a place not too far from Kyoto, we found the Ishikawa region as an alternative, and we discovered a city that seemed promising: Kanazawa.
Arrive to Kanazawa from Kyoto
With the train pass, we could easily move from Kyoto, and move towards the Ishikawa region. At first, we thought about staying in a Ryokan in Takayama, but after reading a little here and there, we realized that it was best to establish Kanazawa as a base and I think we were not wrong.
From Kyoto it is very easy to get there by train, if you only have the regional pass as in our case, a train called Thunderbird departs every hour. It takes about 3 hours of total calm and comfort to get to Kanazawa. Meanwhile, you can see the thousands of rice plantations along the way.
In Kanazawa itself, you have to make an obligatory stop to know at least two things, its castle, and the Kenroku-en gardens. It also has a nice quartier of Geishas and another Samurai. The truth is a city that has its details and where you can taste this more traditional Japan up close and take a good dive.
Without wanting to, we coincided with a festival in the city that lasts 3 days, we were in the first one that gave us several things, one was that access to the gardens was free and then at night we saw a wonderful lantern show on the river. We were amazed.
Our Kanazawa Hotel choice
We stayed in a hotel a bit far from the center, the Sainoniwa Kanazawa Hotel, but easily accessible with a shuttle that leaves around every half hour from the train station, which is a bit of the nerve center of the city. We chose this hotel because we did not want something huge and because the opinions of previous visitors indicated that it was a very Japanese hotel that combined tradition and modernity … and that is this country.
We were 100% right in choosing this place, we initially chose an entry-level room, but the truth is to spend a single night because it is tiny. Then we change to a higher one, and well, great. Impeccable decor, and lots of amenities to make you feel super cared for. The price includes a breakfast that allows you to know a lot of ingredients of the region, and that varies certain dishes every day. They make available a couple of free washers and dryers that we really liked and used because we were traveling at this stage with very few clothes.
First Impressions of Kanazawa in Ishikawa Prefecture
The first day after settling in the hotel, we went out to explore the city a bit and find where to eat something for which this city is famous: fish.
Before lunch, we walk to a historic area, where there are several tea houses and various private geisha shows are offered.
We had dinner at a restaurant recommended to us by a girl in a craft store in the Chaya district because they were from the same group and she herself called and made a reservation for us. It is an excellent restaurant, very beautiful and exactly what we were looking for eating fish. It was close to the station which allowed us to easily return to the hotel with the shuttle. The name of the restaurant is Nouka Banzai Kyo. The group has several restaurants and shops, with some very elegant and high-quality crafts that they also use in their restaurants.
Visiting Gifu Prefecture: Shirakawa Go
Using the train pass it is possible to take some buses at no additional cost allowing you to visit the towns of Gokayama, Shirakawa and even go to Takayama if time allows. We did not have that much and we wanted to do the round-trip visit on the same day, which is totally possible. We took the bus early and by 10 o’clock we were in ShirakawaGo. The bus stops earlier in Gokayama but we decided to concentrate on Shirakawa which is bigger.
What to say about this place? Apart from the fact that it is a UNESCO heritage site. Well, it is like immersing yourself in a beautiful postcard.
Shirakawa allows us to know the houses of traditional construction called Gassho-zukuri, houses built only in wood and in which the joints are made with ropes using a specific technique. In fact, it is possible to visit some houses and one of them is a museum, the Wada House. There you can see the construction and they also explain how at one time these houses were used to raise silkworms.
From this house, you can have beautiful views of the town’s landscape. And if it rains as it was our case, everything will be so bucolic … seriously, it will seem like a scene from a movie.
In order to have a good panoramic view of the town, you must go up a small hill near the bus station, in about 10 minutes you reach the top and you have a beautiful view of the whole place.
Visit Kanazawa Castle and one of the most beautiful Gardens in Japan: Kenroku-en
It is possible to visit the Kanazawa Castle and the Gardens in a single day, it is a bit long, and if you really want to spend a lot of time in the garden and if the travel time allows it, it is better to extend it to one more day. Both the entrance to the castle and the Kenroku-en Garden are paid, the price is not excessive like many visits in Japan, and they are really worth it. If you enter the castle you can see an entire exhibition of its restoration and the particular type of wooden construction of this type of structure.
On the way to the castle, we passed by the Omicho Market which really deserves a much longer stop than we had anticipated. The quantity and variety of products are wonderful, full of color. It is possible to eat inside the market and it is important to know that not all stall owners are open to photos, so it is good to ask beforehand to avoid the owner coming out to gesture reluctantly.
Leaving there, and having bought some little things to taste in the garden, we continue our way to the castle. We arrived at the entrance to the Gyokusen’inmaru Park, which is part of the gardens around the castle.
These gardens are free and if you wish you can enjoy tea with a wonderful view of the park in a beautiful wooden tea house, modern in style but without losing charm. Some very nice gentlemen who work as volunteers, receive right next to the tea house and tell the story of this park, and with a bit of luck (as was our case) they will be able to go with a couple of origami made by themselves.
The gardens? What could be said? Well, they are a bite to taste and enjoy slowly, they are a leap into a book of landscapes, of postcards, of perfection. Obviously, it is necessary to ensure that the day of the visit has good weather because otherwise, the perception will not be the same. We went at the end of spring and rain was possible, we chose the day that indicated good sun and we were lucky that the weather forecast was not wrong. Colors explode in sunlight.
These gardens have what they call the six virtues: space, tranquility, artifice, antiquity, water, and panoramas. It is considered one of the 3 most beautiful gardens in Japan, and I really do not doubt it for a second. It is extremely careful and every corner is a moment of discovery. You can also find corners in which to simply sit and contemplate the beauty of the panoramas.
After the Castle, and still enjoying the surrounding gardens, you arrive at the Tourist Office that has a very nice rest area that has an exhibition, bathrooms, a restaurant called Mamezarachaya, and an area with free service tables within an air-conditioned room with entirely glass walls that allow you to contemplate the castle in all its splendor. Then leaving the Ishikawa gate you reach the famous Kenroku-en Garden.
After enjoying each of the corners of this garden, the unique colors that this flowery season gives away, and ecstatic of such beauty because like all tourists, we were attacked by hunger. We decided to go back to the station area for a bite to eat and a hop to the hotel because then we would go to a lantern show during the night.
So without realizing it we went and came walking, in fact, that day has been our record because we did absolutely everything on foot, and moving forward there was always something to see and in the end, we did not take any bus. In fact, leaving the garden and taking the road to the station we came across an exhibition of floral decoration in a garden, and through it we came to a beautiful temple. Just outside the temple, there was a kind of market where some stalls sold food and we ventured to try things, although we could never understand the names correctly.
Kaga-yuzen Toro-nagashi Festival
On our way back to the Chaya area, on the edge of the Asano River, we try to find the best place to see the event they call Kaga-yuzen Toro-nagashi in which hundreds of handmade floating lanterns of different sizes are released to let the current flow. from the river gently drag them away. There are a lot of speeches and interventions by some other people at the same time that the lamps are being released, but unfortunately, we did not understand absolutely anything.
We only knew that this event is to safeguard the heritage and that each person can ‘sponsor’ a lamp to dedicate to one of their ancestors. In fact, each lamp is painted differently and carries writing. Several men are strategically located at this point where the lamps are released and their flow is controlled. As the event and the night progresses the atmosphere becomes more magical because the river is filled with this filtered light.
Then on the way back, we went down on the other side of the River to cross the bridge and see the lamps come down. The police will not let you stop permanently on the bridge to see the show, but it is enough time to cross it to admire the panorama and even take photos or videos. The truth is that this day moved us a lot, we saw things that we expected and others surprised us because without having planned them they were exactly in line with what we wanted from this trip.
On the way back to the hotel we ran into a kind of procession of children with little red paper lanterns, very cute, all part of the same festival.
Tired from so much walking, we arrived at the station to take the last shuttle to the hotel and take a deserved sleep after eating a pizza, which was what we managed to get the hotel to order for us at that time.
The Kanazawa Hyakumangoku Matsuri is a festival that takes place every year for three days, always including the first Saturday in June. The lantern festival is held on Friday night.