Kanazawa is an up-and-coming destination out on Japan’s west coast. In fact, while we were here it was listed on a travel web site that I periodically browse as a finalist for their “up-and-coming destination of the year” award. A city of nearly half a million people, a bullet train line from Tokyo was recently completed, making it a quick get-away even though it’s nearly 200 miles of the capital. Highlights include the grounds of a massive 16th century castle that burned down in the late 19th century, a great modern art museum, one of the most beautiful gardens in all of Japan, abundant cherry trees, and a huge, clean fish market.
Getting there, as usual, was half the joy. You know the bullet train – the Shinkansen – is going to be on time, you know it’s going to be clean, and you know it’s going to be quiet and comfortable. It’s little short of heaven for traveling. Since the original line opened in 1964 between Tokyo and Osaka, it has expanded to now include over 1,700 miles of track with trains speeding along at between 150 and 200 miles per hour. And of course it’s still expanding; an extension to Sapporo up on the northern island of Hokkaido is currently underway with an estimated opening date of March 2031.
It’s worth noting that while we love these trains, they aren’t cheap. The roughly 90-minute ride from Nagano to Kanazawa ran us about $81 each. Definitely worth it, but not cheap.
And what did we find in Kanazawa? Cherry blossoms, lots and lots of cherry blossoms. It couldn’t be more obvious that we managed to hit peak season here. Just everywhere you look there are more cherry trees in full bloom with a wide variety of shades from almost white to brilliant pink. It just makes you happy walking around under all that beauty.
The city’s big claim to fame is the Kenroku-en garden, known as one of the three great gardens of Japan. (The other two, if you want to know, are located in Okayama and Mito, two other cities I’ve never heard of.) Construction of the garden dates all the way back to the early 17th century, with various rulers of the region expanding and improving it all the way through the 19th century. It even includes what is widely accepted as the oldest fountain in all of Japan. We spent a lovely late morning wandering around enjoying the park, though admittedly some other tourists had figured out that it was the place to be, too.
The 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art was a highlight for us, though with an asterisk (*we paid to see a special exhibit but couldn’t figure out how to see the permanent collection, if indeed there is a permanent collection). The exhibit we saw was a collection of work by Manabu Ikeda, a Japanese artist who draws fantastical and incredibly detailed works with pen. His most recent epic piece – Rebirth, a tribute to the recovery after devastating 2011 Tohoku earthquake – took three-and-a-half years to complete while in residence at a museum in beautiful Madison, WI, and was on display. Again, as with so many exhibits we go to, I’d never heard of him, but his work was damned interesting.
The fish market in Kanazawa – the Omi-cho market – is a big deal, too. It’s appropriately described as a “bustling warren of fishmongers, buyers, and restaurants.” What was most amazing to us is just how clean it was, like so much of Japan. For all practical purposes from the smell, at least, you’d never have known it was a fish market. Pleasant enough so that we went to one of the random restaurants there and had a great lunch. Lots of sashimi, not surprisingly.
Speaking of restaurants, Mark had an interesting observation while we were in Kanazawa. When he does his research on TripAdvisor and we find what we think will be a great little restaurant that we’ll love, we almost always love it. But there are almost always a bunch of other Westerners there, too. When we just wing it – go out and find something that looks like it’ll work for us – we sometimes strike out, or at least find that it’s a double instead of a home run. But in those cases there are usually no other Westerners or at least very few.
And that was Kanazawa. We learned, for the fortieth time or so, that we should really focus on the location of our hotel. We stayed at a place that was just wrong, maybe 10 minutes northwest of the train station, when we really should have been 15 or 20 minutes southeast of the train station. It just made it more of an ordeal getting to anything we wanted to get to.
Oh, and one thing to love about Japan. Sometimes it seems as though you’re traveling in a world of morticians; it’s apparent that Japan hasn’t gotten the memo that circulated in the states a few years ago that says you don’t have to wear a suit and tie to work every day. Here? There are more black suits and white shirts than you’ll see in a month in most places stateside these days. But, the upside of all those old Japanese men in charge? There are more public restrooms – clean as can be – than anyplace in the world. Sometimes in a park you’re within eyesight of two and even three different rest rooms. My theory is that these older guys, like me, have enough prostate and bladder issues that they want to be sure they’re never far from a toilet. Thanks guys!