Kanazawa is a small Japanese city northwest of Tokyo. It has always been popular with locals, but it’s bound to get more popular with foreign tourists since a Shinkansen (bullet train) route was recently completed. That means it’s now super easy and fast to get there from Tokyo… which is exactly what we did. The train ride was beautiful, first cutting northwest through the mountains, and then along the Sea of Japan.
The city of Kanazawa has many historical areas that are well-preserved including a samarai district and several geisha districts. When you step onto these small winding streets with wooden buildings (which result in an amazing scent pervading the air) you can imagine what it must have been like to live in Japan centuries ago.
The most popular geisha zone to visit is the Higashiyama Higashi Chaya District. We learned that it has one of the most photographed streets in Japan. We ate dinner in the area one night and were delighted when an actual, real geisha stopped into the restaurant we were eating in to take out food.
The crown jewel of Kanazawa attractions is the stunningly beautiful and serene Kenroku-en Garden. It was originally crelated in the 1600s, burned and destroyed during a great fire in the 1700s, and rebuilt in the 1800s. It’s one of the three great gardens of Japan. Even though there were plenty of visitors during our time there, it’s still possible to find quiet spots and enjoy the beauty of the place. Note: getting there requires climbing a bit of a hill and there are some spots within the garden that include stairs.
Kanazawa Castle Park
Right next to the garden is Kanazawa Castle Park. The buildings and gates that make up Kanazawa Castle were originally built in the 1500s. Through its history, the castle was destroyed and rebuilt numerous times, most recently in 2001. You can explore the park and castle grounds for free, but must pay a fee to enter the storehouse – the largest building. Note, you can buy a combination ticket for Kenroku-en and the castle. Also note, the park and castle grounds are a bit hilly.
A beautiful must-see spot in the park is Gyokusen’inmaru Garden. It’s much smaller than Kenroku-en, but just as magical. And, bonus, it’s free! Although we would have happily paid to enter (and that’s saying a lot for us).
Omicho Fish Market
Given its position near the Sea of Japan, Kanazawa is also famous for its seafood and its fish market, Omicho Market. We stayed in a hotel right next door, so had the pleasure of walking through the market several times a day. We never tired of the bustling activity, sights, and smells. One morning we happened to stroll by during what seemed like an auction for three huge fish. Locals and tourists alike were enthralled.
Eats and Drinks
Kanazawa sushi can’t be beat:
- We ate lunch one day at a small spot in the fish market called 近江町市場寿し that seemed to be enjoyed by locals. Even though it was a kaiten zushi (conveyor belt sushi) spot, you mainly placed orders with the servers. It was delicious and amazing to think the sushi was being made from the freshest fish in the city. Note, they have an English menu, but you have to ask for it.
- We had a delicious dinner at a restaurant near our hotel called Elbow Room. It specializes in sushi and yakitori. The chef/owner spent many years in California before moving back to his hometown of Kanazawa. The sushi he made was beautifully plated and really delicious. Kanazawa is also known for its gold leaf and he decorated our plates with flowers covered in the stuff. Our favorite was the spicy tuna roll (which we haven’t seen anywhere else in Japan, so it’s probably not super traditional here).
- Lastly, departing Kanazawa, we stopped into a famous chain, Mori-Mori. It is a large kaiten zushi restaurant where you order on iPads and can snatch sushi off the belt. If you order from the iPad, you might be delighted by your sushi whisking toward you on a Shinkansen train!
Three other non-sushi spots worth mentioning:
- Our first night, we dined at a place that we knew would have English menus, but was also described as being loved by locals as well as tourists. Jiyuken is the above-mentioned place that the geisha came to get takeout. Of course, we ended up sitting next to Australians. Regardless, our beef bowls were satisfying after a day of travel.
- Jazz Spot is a super cozy bar with a great whiskey selection. And (as its name implies) a lot of jazz music. Oh yeah, and there’s also this amazingly gorgeous tree outside the bar, so it’s almost worth going just for that. Tip: if you go before 8pm you don’t have to pay the cover charge.
- After almost two weeks in Japan, truth-be-told, Sarah was craving a sandwich. Due to all the wonderful reviews, it wasn’t hard to find Curio Espresso and Vintage Design. The small shop is run by a husband/wife couple from Seattle/Kanazawa (respectively). Their delicious egg sandwiches were perfect. As was the coffee. And the owner was so nice and chatty – recommending local, more under-the-radar places to see and go in his city. It’s located on a really cute street that also has this fun fish sculpture!