Kanazawa, Japan

Kanazawa is a city of approximately 500,000, and while not on the top of many American tourist’s lists, it is commonly referred to as “little”Kyoto. Home to historical sites such as Kanazawa Castle, both a Samurai district as well as a Geisha district dating back centuries, plus gorgeous gardens and a fabulous contemporary art museum, we wanted to include it on our itinerary. Did I mention the fabulous food and seafood market?

We arrived at the Hyatt at around 1pm and wanted to quickly check-in and then grab some lunch (we had heard about a terrific ramen spot). The hotel was surprisingly attractive, impeccably clean, and very modern. The gold leaf throughout the common spaces pays homage to the fact that Kanazawa has been the center of gold leaf production in Japan since the 16th Century. The craftsmanship involved in the unique entsuke method is a skill that is passed down through the generations. The Hyatt took full advantage of incorporating gold leaf into the decor, and the result was quite beautiful.

Once we left our bags and had a quick wash-up we were off to Menya Taiga which consistently ranks at the top of ramen connoisseurs’ lists. This is a VERY casual spot, located close to both the hotel and the train station, and there is usually a line. We thought we would have to wait quite a while to get four seats together at the counter, but it wasn’t too bad. The ramen broth is miso based, and there are some special add-ons that make it particularly delicious. The most refreshing part of the meal was a shot of juice that was placed down in front of us along with the menus, which energized our taste buds before the main event.

Thankfully there was an English menu and we were able to request a bowl of red miso broth with chilies and veggies (no ramen or meat) for me. It was delicious! My boys enjoyed their bowls with the works and thought it was outstanding as well. Our lips continued to tingle well after we left.

Our first stop after our soul-warming ramen was to the Higashi Chaya District, one of the historic sections of Kanazawa, and home to one of the three Geisha districts in the city, as well as artisanal shops and small businesses. One shop which was especially beautiful was Fumuroya which specializes in Fu, a baked gluten product that is added to soup. Unfortunately I couldn’t try it, but the Iroduri Fu pictured below was so adorable I was tempted. There is even a small Geisha Museum (Ochaya Shima Geisha House) located in a building dating back to 1820 where you can learn about the Geisha culture. We wandered for a couple of hours absorbing all of the sights.

Aside from Geisha houses there are numerous tea shops that dot the area, all equally inviting, I don’t think there was a wrong choice to be made. The spot we ultimately decided upon gave us each our tea in an adorable pot and served it alongside beautiful treats. The tea service was lovely, restoring our energy to continue our explorations around the Higashi Chaya District.

We headed back to the hotel, but not before we had a good chuckle at some of the unfortunately named shops we passed along the way.

We didn’t have a tremendous amount of energy to go exploring for dinner, so we picked a very well-regarded Izakaya near our hotel, Goen. We were happy to order via the iPad, the pictures made it so much easier! We restrained ourselves in our ordering because we weren’t too hungry, but the highlight was most definitely the Nodoguro which is a Kanazawan specialty also known as Blackthroat Seaperch; the fish was rich, buttery and truly delectable.

Our dinner was exactly what we were in the mood for, casual yet delicious. We followed it up with a visit to 7-11 to peruse the aisles and in my case, grab a bag of Dark Chocolate Almonds for dessert, which became something of a habit for the remainder of the trip.

We slept very soundly that night at the Hyatt, and woke well rested to explore the Omicho Market , a very popular market dating back to the 1600s with more than 160 stalls selling not only fish and fresh fruit and vegetables, but every ingredient you could imagine. Because Kanazawa is situated on the coast of the Sea of Japan, the seafood at the market is absolutely incredible, and people come from far and wide to purchase what is freshest.

The market opens daily at 8:00 am, and many of the restaurants open even earlier in order to cater to the shoppers.

We found ourselves at Mori Mori Conveyor Belt Sushi soon after they opened (at 7am), and I have to say, Sushi for breakfast is pretty great.

This never gets old

We managed to sample a large array of sushi, and it was all delicious. It was head and shoulders above the conveyor belt sushi experience we had in Tokyo at Kura, the freshness of the fish couldn’t be beat.

We were fortified to continue the exploration of the Omicho market where we enjoyed the hustle and bustle as well as the sheer breadth and beauty of all the offerings. There were also some Sake shops which offered a large array of choices.

Check out these jumping shrimp, obliviously enjoying their last day.

After leaving the market we found we had lucked out with the weather, it was bright blue skies and sunny (though chilly) throughout our visit which enhanced the beauty of the grounds and tour of Kanazawa Castle. Similar to Matsumoto, it was more like a fort than a castle, but fascinating nonetheless.

The gardens outside the castle were absolutely stunning, giving us our first real immersion in the Japanese passion for zen. The ropes you see on some of the trees and bushes are to help keep the heavy snow from crushing the branches. Every inch of the gardens are impeccable (and serene).

Kanazawa has an excellent Museum of Contemporary Art, where we were able to see a terrific Yves Klein exhibit as well as works from their permanent collection. The museum is relatively new (2008) but it was a pleasure to explore both inside, and the sculpture garden outside.

We ended up splitting up for lunch after the museum as two of us were yearning for pizza (there are several restaurants that import all of their ingredients from Naples in order to produce authentic pies) while my youngest son and I were on a mission to find a spot with Omurice, a thin Japanese omelette filled with rice and other fillings, and often topped with ketchup. Omurice is frequently served in Western style diners, and is especially a favorite of young children.

This was truly a one man operation in the kitchen. We hit the lunch rush and the proprietor was doing everything he could to keep up. His wife took care of the front of the restaurant.

I was happy to have tried the Omurice, but don’t think I need to do so again in the near future.

Our dinner on day two was a special one, we had booked a Kaiseki experience at Tsubajin, a restaurant that dates back to 1752! The reputation of the food, presentation and service is known to be of the highest quality not only in Kanazawa, but all over Japan.

We reserved a private room for the four of us, and we were immediately made comfortable by a staff of three. We were give the option of requesting a Geisha to come and entertain us at dinner, but my family voted no. Not only was the food gorgeous to look at, it was absolutely delicious. The serving pieces were stunning as well, with some of them dating back to the 1800s. There was so much tradition on display at Tsubajin, but in no way did it seem hokey or cheesy, it was simply special. Course after course was presented along with plenty of sake, which unfortunately meant we totally lost track of what we were eating, but it was all delightful. We finished the evening stuffed and happy.

On day three of our time in Kanazawa we were met by our driver/guide Mai who took us to Wajima City on the Noto Peninsula to experience the morning market which dates back over a thousand years. The Wajima market is made up of stalls selling a myriad of items from food to crafts as well as a large number of shops selling the famous lacquerware of Wajima. Because it it literally right on the sea, we were subject to some very unsettled wet weather when we arrived, which thankfully cleared up, but had sadly scared away quite a few of the usual vendors.

I cannot tell you how kind each and every person we met was. They were so enthusiastic, and went out of their way to engage with us, but not in an insincere way. There was so much to look at; tremendous selections of lacquered chopsticks, bento boxes, and decorative objects all made locally, and presented with pride.

Following the exploration of the lacquerware vendors at the market we paid a visit to the Wajima Lacquerware Museum where we learned just how much skill and artistry (as well as patience) goes in to creating each individual work of art. We had no idea, and when we left we had a whole new appreciation for the craft. It is all done entirely by hand.

It takes this many steps to go from a plain wooden bowl to one that is lacquered

After we left the museum I was inspired to go back to one of the shops at the market as I was having major regrets over not purchasing an owl vase I had admired. Mai took us right back, but we were disappointed to see that they had closed up for the day and gone home. The woman in the neighboring shop saved the day by calling the proprietors and letting them know they had a a prospective customer. Although they were eating lunch, both husband and wife came right back and re-opened the store. It turned out I had a good eye, because the husband, (who was the artist) actually has work featured in the museum. Our vase will now have a special spot back in Montana, and we will remember our visit to Wajima fondly. They were so grateful to us for purchasing it, but we were so grateful they came back to the shop and opened it up for us. It was a veritable gratitude fest!!

We had been told that there was an excellent restaurant we HAD to visit in Wajima, so of course we booked a table. L’Atelier de Noto is a French restaurant that takes advantage of all the ingredients the Noto peninsula has to offer. After the meal I can safely say it may have been the best meal of our entire trip!

The service was impeccable, and having taken my dietary restrictions into account the servers came out with an endless array of dishes, each one more beautiful than the last. This is where I fail as a blogger, because with each course and accompanying drinks (Japanese Whiskey and Sake), I forgot to note down what we actually ate, but suffice it to say, it was all INCROYABLE! We received an explanation of each course from the staff, sometimes the server and sometimes a chef from the kitchen. My meal differed slightly from the rest of the group, and they took the time to describe it all. If you are ever in somewhat close proximity to Kanazawa, it is absolutely worth a trip to L’Atelier de Noto.

We bid a fond farewell to the staff of the restaurant, and piled back into Mai’s van for our trip to the Rice Paddies of Shiroyne . Made up of 1004 individual rice paddies, this particular site is designated as a special place of scenic beauty. We still were in the midst of rainy grey weather, so I can only imagine how gorgeous it is on a sunny day. Each plot is planted and harvested by hand, and the rice that is grown there is especially sought after. Of course there is a shop where you can buy some to bring home, and we did!

Not only was there the local rice to buy (and some toasted puffed rice as well) but they also had soft serve that we were told was extra special. I’m not sure what made it special, but I am a sucker for vanilla soft serve with chocolate sauce and couldn’t resist. It happened to be amazing. It didn’t hurt that they all seemed to think I was an American actress, though I couldn’t figure out who, (and in a way didn’t even want to know), but their reaction was super sweet.

On the way back to Kanazawa we traveled along the Chirihama Nagisa Driveway, an 8 Kilometer stretch of roadway on the beach. There was ample space for two way traffic, and it was absolutely spectacular.

This was really special, there are only a few of these beach highways in the world, and the only one in Japan. Sometimes the road is closed due to weather/heavy winds as it was in the morning on our way to Wajima. We were lucky the weather cleared enough to enjoy it on the way home.

When dinner time rolled around I was still stuffed from our incredible lunch, as well as my afternoon soft serve, so I just came along with the guys who had serious cravings for Gyoza (there was a Gyoza spot located in close proximity to the Hyatt ) which was deemed excellent.

There also was a need for some Tempura at a random spot near the hotel. While it was crowded and seemed promising, the food was just eh.

We woke early the next morning , packed up and checked ourselves out of the Hyatt. We loaded all our bags in Mai’s van and excitedly ventured off to partake in a sake experience at Noguchi Naohiko Sake Institute which showcases the life long accomplishments of the “God” of sake, 91 year old Noguchi Naohiko. Before we arrived we took a detour to view this scenic waterfall.

We had scheduled a tour and tasting at 11 am , but what we didn’t realize was that the master himself would be there to chat with us. First of all, the sake was fantastic, I don’t pretend to be a sake connoisseur, but the different pairings we tried were all smooth and delicate.

The most interesting thing we learned about Mr. Naohiko was that he doesn’t touch a drop of alcohol, which may be why he looks so youthful. His motto is “brew sake honestly, and with love”. He is able to work magic with three simple ingredients, rice, water and koji (yeast). We were able to buy a special edition bottle directly from the Institute that we brought home and look forward to enjoying back in the States.

Inspired by the wisdom of the sake master we made a stop at the Forest of Wisdom in Komatsu, where we admired many types of moss in as many idyllic settings. It was just us and the moss, and the clean air, and it was bliss.

All of that fresh air made us hungry , so it was on to one of Mai’s favorites… more conveyor belt sushi! This local spot ranked between the Mori Mori at Omicho market and Kura in Tokyo. The fish selections on the tablet included their provenance which made it kind of fun.

The second to last stop of the day was Natadera Temple, a Buddhist Temple that dates back to the year 717. Natadera is a sacred spot, and we felt fortunate for the chance to wander and absorb it all. It was the end of the day, and there were very few other visitors to detract from the beauty.

Our final stop of the day was at the Kutani-yaki Kiln Museum. Not only is Japan known for its lacquerware, but also for extraordinary porcelain and ceramics. This very large kiln which dates back to the early 1800’s is now a museum that showcases Kutani ware. It was quite interesting and made us appreciate the long tradition of artistry in the area. As we were very close by to our destination for the evening, a much anticipated stay at the Beniya Mukayu Ryokan (review to follow), we bid farewell to Mai (she was truly terrific) and embarked on the final couple of days of the trip.

We managed to experience a tremendous amount during our four days in Kanazawa and the surrounding Ishikawa prefecture. Upon reflection I believe that this was the most exceptional part of an outstanding trip. While it is not necessarily on the top of everyone’s travel itinerary , if you are planning a trip to Japan, it would be well worth your consideration.

Our last couple of days in Japan are worthy of their own post, which I will publish shortly.

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