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Kanazawa, Where It All Has Begun

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In 2004, I went abroad for the first time. With three other kids I was selected to represent my school and and the city at an international children’s forum which was held in Kanazawa, Japan. I didn’t know much about Japan before that trip, and visiting that country for the first time turned out to be an absolutely mind-blowing experience. Since then I kept dreaming of coming back to Japan, what happened again in 2013, when I spent half a year in Tokyo, and after I started coming to the country again and again.

During our last JR trip in 2018, I decided to take a little detour and spend at least one day in the city where it all has started. I was very curious to see Kanazawa again. We left Yamanouchi early in the morning and took a Shinkansen from Nagano to Kanazawa. At the station we bought our first ekibens, which is the name for boxed lunch meals sold at train stations.

We got to Kanazawa quite fast. We were not planning to spend a night there, but rather visit the main sights and take an evening train to Kyoto, that’s why we didn’t have any hotel booked and had to leave our luggage in the lockers at the station. It took us some time to get empty lockers for two huge suitcases like ours.

The first sight we saw was Tsuzumi-mon, the huge wooden gate just next to the train station. I saw it for the first time, because its construction has finished in 2005, which was already after my first visit. Its design is based on traditional Japanese hand drums, or tsuzumi.

Our plan for the day was to visit the Kanazawa Castle, the famous Kenroku-en garden and popular among tourists historical district Higashi Chaya. The castle and the garden are located not far from each other in about half an hour walking proximity from the train station. It was also possible to take a bus, but it would take about the same time plus the time you have to wait for a bus in a long line with other tourists. We preferred walking, which provided a nice opportunity to see the city, which felt surprisingly small, calm and provincial.

I kept thinking that after all these years living in different countries and traveling the world, Kanazawa has reminded me my home city Irkutsk the most, which is probably not surprising, considering that Kanazawa and Irkutsk are officially sister cities.

After the nice walk we reached the Kanazawa Castle. It’s a historical building, which was originally constructed in 1592 by the general Maeda Toshiie. It burned down in 1881 and was reconstructed later.

During my first visit I had a chance to go inside and must admit, that its exterior looks much cooler. So, Sergio and I spent some time investigating its surroundings and continued to the Kenroku-en garden.

Kenroku-en is one of the most famous gardens in the whole country, and to be precise it’s the one of the three great gardens in Japan, sharing this title with the gardens Koraku-en in Okayama and Kairaku-en in Mito. You may wonder, what makes it so special? So, Kenroku-en is the garden which combines the six aspects considered important in the notion of an ideal garden, which are spaciousness and seclusion, artifice and antiquity, water-courses and panoramas.

Interesting points in the garden:

  • The oldest fountain in Japan, operated by natural water pressure.

  • Yūgao-tei, a teahouse, the oldest building in the garden, built in 1774.

  • Shigure-tei, a rest House that was originally built by the 5th lord Tsunanori, reconstructed at its present location in 2000.

  • Karasaki Pine, planted from seed by the 13th lord Nariyasu from Karasaki, near Lake Biwa.

  • Kotoji-tōrō, a stone lantern with two legs, said to resemble the bridge on a koto. A copy of this lantern is installed at the street of Kanazawa in my home city Irkutsk.

  • Flying Geese Bridge (Gankō-bashi), made of eleven red stones, laid out to resemble geese in a flying formation.

  • Kaiseki Pagoda, said to have been donated to the Maeda by the famous samurai Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

The garden contains about 8750 trees, and 183 plant species in total. It was a little bit too early for cherry blossoms, but we got lucky to see blooming of plum trees in the dedicated area.

We wanted to attend a tea ceremony in the old tea house, but unfortunately we missed the last admission. So, instead we spent some time exploring the garden. It’s hard to see everything on such a short visit!

So, the garden is indeed quite amazing, and, in my opinion, it totally worth coming to Kanazawa just to see it.

Having left the garden, we made a stop at a cafe specialising on matcha sweets, and there I fell in love with matcha-flavoured warabimochi. Our next destination was Higashi Chaya district.

When we arrived to Higashi Chaya, many stores there were already closed, but the street was still full with tourists. The whole day we were walking, and our legs needed some rest. We entered a tiny cosy bar and ordered cocktails, which turned out to be non-alcohol.

We walked a bit around the district and were about to leave, when we saw a tiny tea shop, which seemed to be open. There were no customers inside and we were hesitating, whether we should enter, when we saw inside a nice old lady in a grey kimono, who indicated that we may come in. I love matcha tea and I make it myself at home from time to time. I was very curious, whether the ‘professional’ matcha will taste similar. The old lady let us chose the bowls and disappeared with them in some other room. Then she reappeared with two bowls and offered us to whisk our teas ourselves and demonstrated how to do it. She was very surprised when I quickly managed to produce a nice thick foam and I had to admit that I often make matcha at home. I was also very glad to realise that the proportion of powder and water seemed to be the same as I usually measure.

The day was running towards its end and it was time for us to get to the station and take a train to Kyoto, another truly amazing city.

Photos taken in March 2018