Kanazawa and Noto Guide: Explore Ishikawa Prefecture’s Historic Capital

japan travel kanazawa

Kanazawa, located in Ishikawa Prefecture, is a city rich with history and cultural significance. From its historic geisha districts and Edo Period architecture to its traditional handicrafts and world-class fish market, Kanazawa offers a unique and diverse experience of Japan’s culture. Just a two-hour Shinkansen ride from Tokyo, Kanazawa and the nearby Noto Peninsula are highly recommended as a destination that offers something a little different for your Japan itinerary. Join me as I take you through the top 12 locations and experiences in Kanazawa and Noto, along with some tips, tricks, and local highlights to enhance your journey.

1. Explore Edo Period Architecture in the Historic Higashi Chaya District

Translating to ‘Eastern Teahouse District,’ Higashi Chaya is one of three small geisha districts in Kanazawa. This beautifully preserved area, established in 1820, features machiya-lined streets and Edo Period teahouses. During the day, you can witness kimono-clad tourists strolling the streets with bags full of gold leaf, while the evenings bring a soft warm glow from each building, creating an otherworldly atmosphere. Navigating your way through the small side streets and alleyways of Higashi Chaya is like stepping back in time.

2. Feast Your Eyes on Kanazawa’s Iconic Gold Leaf Creations

Kanazawa is famous for its various crafts, but the most treasured of them all is gold leaf. More than 99% of Japan’s gold leaf production happens in Kanazawa, thanks to the local artisans who dedicatedly practice this craft. You can find gold leaf adorning temples, furniture, lacquerware, and even food. The gold sheets are so thin that they disappear when rubbed with your fingers. Kanazawa’s culinary scene also features gold leaf decorations on posh meals and ice creams, allowing you to indulge in the city’s golden touch.

3. Immerse Yourself in the Colours of Kenrokuen Garden

Known as ‘The Garden of Six Sublimities,’ Kenrokuen is one of Japan’s top three gardens. Originally part of Kanazawa Castle, this garden boasts six different areas, each designed to showcase the beauty of the four seasons. The autumn season offers an explosion of color, with vibrant foliage and tranquil reflections in the garden’s ponds. A visit to Kenrokuen is a feast for the eyes and a chance to appreciate the harmony between nature and design.

4. Step Back in Time at the Nagamachi Samurai District

A short walk from Kenrokuen Garden lies the Nagamachi Samurai District. This area, once home to samurai residents and their families, features narrow alleys and cobbled streets. The best-preserved example of the district’s historic culture is the Nomura Clan Samurai Residence, where visitors can explore the full home, its artifacts, and even enjoy tea in a private tea room. This district offers a glimpse into the lives of the samurai and the traditions that shaped Kanazawa’s history.

5. Discover Seafood Delicacies at Omicho Market

Nicknamed ‘Kanazawa’s Kitchen,’ Omicho Market has been the city’s largest fresh food market since the Edo Period. Located within walking distance of the main attractions, the market is a paradise for seafood lovers. You can sample Ishikawa’s famed sashimi, sushi, and other seafood delicacies while exploring over 200 stalls and restaurants. The market’s bustling atmosphere and the opportunity to taste the region’s specialties make it a must-visit destination.

6. Experience True Omotenashi at a Geiko Teahouse

Geiko, often referred to as geisha, are the epitome of Japanese hospitality. These highly skilled entertainers dedicate their lives to mastering traditional Japanese arts. Kanazawa is home to five remaining private geiko teahouses, where a limited number of guests can enjoy an evening of entertainment by these talented artisans. However, access to these teahouses requires an introduction, so it’s important to plan ahead to secure this unique experience.

7. Learn the Art of the Samurai Sword

Kanazawa has deep roots in Japan’s samurai era, with a dedicated historic samurai district, museums, and restaurants dedicated to the ancient art. For those seeking a more immersive experience, private samurai demonstrations and classes are available, providing a chance to learn about the sword-making process from start to finish. You can even place an order for your own custom-built sword, becoming a part of this ancient tradition.

8. Brave the Rugged Landscapes of the Noto Peninsula

Adding the Noto Peninsula to your Kanazawa trip is highly recommended. With its rough seas, rugged coastlines, and oceanside temples, the peninsula offers a different perspective on Ishikawa’s natural beauty. Exploring the Noto Peninsula is best done by car, allowing you to discover hidden gems along the coast, as well as visit ryokans and onsen towns like Wajima and Wakura Onsen.

9. Relax with World-Class Hospitality at Hyakurakuso Ryokan

Noto is renowned for its world-class ryokans situated along its picturesque rocky coastlines. One of these gems is Hyakurakuso, a cliffside ryokan overlooking Tsukumo Bay. This oceanfront retreat provides guests with a unique experience, including private onsens and multi-course seafood menus. The staff, who have lived in Ishikawa their whole lives, share their knowledge of the area’s history in the fishing trade, adding a touch of authenticity to your stay.

10. Marvel at the Ganmon Sea Cave

Ganmon, meaning ‘gate rock,’ is a natural sea cave that overlooks the Sea of Japan. Offering daily boat rides and restaurants serving freshly prepared sashimi, sea crab, and sushi, Ganmon is a sight to behold. Even in bad weather, the rugged ocean crashing down below creates a dramatic and awe-inspiring scene. It’s also an ideal starting point for a road trip around the top of the Noto Peninsula.

11. Make a Wish at the Hatago Iwa Married Rocks

A few kilometers from Ganmon, you can find the sacred Hatago Iwa ‘Married Rocks.’ These rocks are connected by a shinto-style rope, symbolizing the presence of sacred spirits. The shrine is easily accessible by car, and you can park right by the ocean, allowing you to take in the serene surroundings and make your own wishes.

12. Take a Dip in Local Onsen Towns

Wakura and Wajima Onsen, two neighboring towns in Noto, offer unique onsen experiences. These towns are home to public onsens and numerous ryokan hotels. The mineral-rich hot spring water, formed from the prefecture’s underground volcanic activity, is known for its health benefits. Soak in the indoor or outdoor baths, surrounded by nature, and immerse yourself in the tranquility of these oceanside destinations.

Tips and Tricks for a Visit to Kanazawa and Noto

To make the most of your trip, keep these tips in mind:

  1. Hire a car: Renting a car is highly recommended to fully explore Kanazawa and the Noto Peninsula.
  2. Pack a raincoat: Ishikawa’s proximity to the ocean means weather conditions can change quickly. Be prepared for unpredictable weather.
  3. Book in advance: Some crafts and cultural experiences require prior reservations. Check availability and make bookings beforehand to avoid any disappointments.
  4. Save space for souvenirs: Kanazawa offers plenty of shopping opportunities, so leave some space in your luggage for unique souvenirs and gifts.
  5. Be prepared to wake up early: Early mornings in Kanazawa can be incredibly serene, offering a chance to explore the city before it gets crowded.

Best Time to Visit

Kanazawa and Noto can be enjoyed throughout the year. Each season brings its own unique charm to the region. Winter offers picturesque snowfall, contrasting beautifully with the traditional streets. Spring brings cherry blossoms, transforming the city’s parks and gardens into a floral wonderland. Summer offers outdoor performances and traditional festivals, while autumn boasts vibrant foliage that adds a whole new dimension to Ishikawa’s capital.

Getting Around

The best way to reach Kanazawa is by taking the Shinkansen, which will get you there in just 2.5 hours from Tokyo Station. Upon arrival at Kanazawa Station, make sure to exit via the south gate to witness Kengo Kuma’s stunning wooden torii gate structure. From the station, the city center is easily accessible by bus or taxi, and most attractions are within walking distance. If you plan to explore further into Ishikawa Prefecture, especially the Noto Peninsula, renting a car is highly recommended.

Let’s not forget the artist behind the lens, Ben Richards. Ben, a Tokyo-based travel and architectural photographer, beautifully captures the essence of Kanazawa and Noto through his lens. You can find more of his incredible work on his Instagram.

Kanazawa and Noto offer a journey through time, telling stories of samurais, geishas, and artisans. The unique blend of history, culture, and natural beauty makes this region a must-visit for travelers seeking an authentic and enriching experience in Japan. So, start planning your trip to explore the historic capital of Ishikawa Prefecture and discover the wonders of Kanazawa and Noto.

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