K is for Kanazawa

It’s been a while since I’ve just straight up done a city on the A to Z of Japan, and seeing as ‘K’ is a prime candidate for place names in Japan, this is the perfect time to do so.

And it was a toss up between Kanazawa and Kyoto, really. And to the average man on the street, saying “What’s a Kanazawa?” Is perfectly acceptable, if a little tragic. Because although places like Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima and Sapporo maybe hog the tourism limelight, there are some unsung gems on the map that deserve more attention. And while Kyoto has been mined dry for tourism treasure, Kanazawa retains a rich vein of relative unknown-ness.

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The famous Kotoji Toro stone lantern of Renroku-en.

Well, I say unknown, but the city of Kanazawa (金沢) is still home to nearly half a million people. It lies on the north coast of Honshu, Japan’s mainland – which is surprisingly rare, actually, as most of Japan’s population resides on the southerly coast. So even though Kanazawa is only 34th most populous city in Japan, it’s actually the 2nd biggest on the north coast.

This relative isolation from the bulk of Japan’s settled areas has resulted in Kanazawa developing an atmosphere all of it’s own, which I hereby dub “The Hokuriku Vibe”: Niigata further up the coast shares this vibe but to a slightly lesser extent I think, as Kanazawa has always been that little bit more out of reach (Niigata had it’s first bullet train pull up into the station in 1982, whereas Kanazawa had to wait until 2015).

So what does Kanazawa have? Well, first and foremost you have Kenroku-en (兼六園), one of The Three Great Gardens of Japan (the other two being Mito and Okayama), and as someone who has visited all three I will confidently stand up for Kenroku-en as the best of the best. The verdant gardens form the green and cultural heart of Kanazawa.

Kanazawa Castle Park is a reconstruction of what was once a much older and grander complex, and while the buildings are unlikely to wow anyone who has visited one of the bonafide Castle keeps sprawled across Japan, the wide open castle grounds give a rare and refreshing sense of space that can feel all too rare in a Japanese city.

The Nagamachi district is an immersive stroll through a cluster of Samurai houses, some of which you can enter and explore, perhaps take a seat on the decking overlooking the rock garden and simply contemplate.

It’s not all history and culture though. Kanazawa is very much a modern city. And while appearances at first glance may fool you into thinking that Kanazawa is just another metropolis with its malls and offices, have faith: in this rare occasion, the real downtown district of Katamachi is surprisingly far from the main train station. It’s an urban pilgrimage worth making though, for Katamachi bristles with a unique energy, particularly at night where the air tingles with an electric tang and sparks the bonhomie of its revelers.

And this is what makes Kanazawa truly worth a visit. Because in almost every other circumstance in urban Japan, you are in of two situations: you’re either a big city, or you’re in service to a big city. The former can feel heartless, cramped and without an identity of its own, and the former feels as though it has had the lifeblood sucked out of it as the big city seizes ever more.

Kanazawa is no such city. Kanazawa has soul. It found its own fortunes, grew on its own terms and to this day speaks with its own voice, loud enough by virtue of being a large city but with still enough personality by blessing of not being too big.

Kanazawa is a place I hold dear, for many reasons reaching beyond those I’ve listed above. A lot of good memories (as well as the lack of memories…). You should do yourself a favor and head to KZ to make some of your own.

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