Samurais and gardens in Kanazawa

We arrived in Kanazawa with few expectations. Lonely Planet had not marked it as a “must see”, so we thought it might be a stop off en route to the Gifu area.

As it turns out, there was a lot to interest us, particularly because it is “across the water” from Korea and was a strategically important ally to Edo (Tokyo).

The first recommendation was to visit the Omi-cho market, particularly famous for the fish that comes from the nearby Japan Sea. It is small but certainly the most colourful market we had visited to date in Japan. I have never seen such large oysters, each one would make a meal. We were highly amused to find asparagus from Koo Wee Rup – it reminded us that we are missing spring, as we enjoy a rather damp Japanese autumn due to the extended typhoon season.

We spent time visiting a samurai house with its maze of rooms and a beautiful internal garden.

Volunteer guides were available at the castle so we took the opportunity to have an introduction to its history.

Kanazawa was one of the few Japanese cities which escaped bombing destruction in Word War II, so many of the older houses are still retained. Parts of the castle were dismantled at the beginning of the Meiji Restoration in the late 19th century, but there is enough remaining and restoration of the original castle building is well under way.

During the Edo period, Kanazawa was the seat of the second most powerful feudal clan – the Maeda Clan. Rice production was strong in this fertile valley. The clan strongly supported the Shogunate and the city enjoyed a period of peace and prosperity, and concentrated efforts on arts and culture.

The original temple built on high ground was taken over to become the castle, and like European cities, became the centre of town.

Prosperity led to an influx of merchants and Samurais who built large houses around the city. Temples were also constructed, often with numerous booby traps and escape routes, such as the Myoryuji (or Ninja) Temple which consisted on 23 rooms and 29 staircases designed to lead attackers to their death. We toured the temple with a Japanese guide – no English, no photos and a promise not to stray off the red carpet path of the tour.

A devastating fire broke out in 1631 and consumed much of the city, including the castle. The following year the Maeda lord ordered the construction of a canal to bring water from the upper Sai River to the castle, to alleviate the water shortage problem in the castle. Water was channelled throughout the city and today you are constantly stepping over small water courses.

The introduction of the water canals also led to the development of Kenrokuen, one of Japan’s most famous gardens. The Hisagoike Pond was first formed as a retainer for water brought in through the newly constructed canals. A rest house was built in 1676 by the 5th lord Maeda Tsunanori, and although it burnt down in 1759, subsequent lords continued to develop this beautiful garden.

There are ponds with stunning reflections, secluded gardens, gentle watercourses and panoramic views to take in. We were entertained by four young girls dressed in kimonos that the tourists were chasing for photo opportunities. An earlier guide had told us that if you wear national dress many places allow you free entry and even offer gifts. These girls were obviously enjoying the attention they were getting dressed in kimonos they had probably hired for the day.

Our guide finished the tour by explaining that a large number of Samurais were left without income when the Shogunate returned sovereignty to the Imperial family in the 19th century. Some of them took advantage of their power and position and went on to become powerful industrialists, like the Honda family. Others were unable to deal with their loss of power and took the option to commit suicide, jumping off the castle walls.

Kanazawa was most definitely a city worth visiting for its rich history and culture. Wikipedia does a decent job of Kanazawa’s history.