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In the well-preserved Japanese city of Kanazawa, it's yesterday today

By MARK JENKINS | Special to The Washington Post | Published: May 19, 2016

The Japanese city of Kanazawa is not quite an open-air living history museum, but it does contain numerous neighborhoods of Edo period (1603-1868) structures untouched by the bombs of WWII. Long more popular with Japanese than foreign visitors, the city became much more accessible last year with the opening of a new Shinkansen line. The high-speed trains hurtle from Tokyo in less than 2 ½ hours. It’s a hop worth making.

The train station is emphatically modernistic. But it does bow to the past with a mammoth wooden gate called Tsuzumi, after the hand drum it somewhat resembles. The gate faces east, toward the center city and a large bus plaza. Unlike most Japanese cities of its size, Kanazawa has neither a subway nor trams. The main attractions are mostly within walking distance, but a loop bus circles past them.

One morning in late July, the argument for the bus was immediately evident. Kanazawa is one of the wettest non-tropical cities in the world, soggy in summer and snowbound in winter.

Heading clockwise, the bus’ first notable stop is the Higashi (east) Chaya-gai, with many wooden structures and a reminder of the Japanese genius for euphemism. “Chaya” means teahouse, but tea wasn’t the principal attraction of this area, once known for geishas. Today, a few preserved geisha houses, notably the elegant Shima, are open to the public. Built about 200 years ago, it was among the city’s first two-story structures when erected. Inside is a collection of instruments of the sort played by hostesses and a view of a tiny garden, misted by fake rain sprayed from an apparatus that’s conspicuously modern.

Many of the area’s other buildings have been converted to gift shops and restaurants. The number of the latter that serve only sweets and nonalcoholic drinks might surprise first-timers in semi-historic Japan, but such establishments abound everywhere in the country and enjoy a steady flow of tourists.

According to its sign, a teahouse that actually serves tea has been in business since 1625, although its 17th-century clients probably wouldn’t recognize the place. One eatery serves a rice-ball lunch for $15, which would be exorbitant except that the price includes a lesson in making them. At the shops, wares range from art to kitsch; one refined

establishment was selling $2,900 teapots and $10 bottles of “Ninja Saurce.”

Kanazawa means “gold swamp,” a name traced to a legend about a peasant who found gold in a bog. The story is unlikely, but the city’s craftspeople have taken it to heart. Kanazawa is home to virtually all of Japan’s gold-leaf production. Since gilding is essential to Buddhist art, business is golden.

Adjacent to the teahouse area is Utatsuyama (“rabbit dragon mountain”), a hilly district packed with Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. There are no major edifices, but the small compounds and winding lanes make for a picturesque stroll. On the west side of town, the balance is reversed: There’s a smaller old teahouse district, abutting Teramachi (“temple town”), one of Japan’s largest temple precincts.

Kanazawa’s other major historic area is the Nagamachi (“rowhouse town”) Samurai District, a residential area in which a few houses have been converted to museums. Most of the buildings don’t actually date to the samurai era, but the newer ones respect the traditional style. I walked this area in the early morning before the museums were open, but was able to explore some small gardens and outbuildings. The sun was not yet scalding overhead, and I was refreshed, at least psychically, by the waters of the narrow canal that bisects the neighborhood.

These old-fashioned areas set Kanazawa apart from most Japanese cities, yet are not the town’s primary attraction. That’s Kenrokuen, generally ranked as one of the country’s top three gardens. The 28-acre expanse was created by and for the Maeda clan, which ruled the area, during the 17th to 19th centuries. It’s on a hill, affording views of the city, while man-made summits within the garden provide vantage points on the nearly 9,000 trees and other features. A teahouse, built in 1774, is the oldest surviving structure; a geyser-like fountain, powered by natural water pressure, was the first in the country.

Kenrokuen means “garden of six attributes,” a reference to a Chinese poet’s checklist of essential characteristics: antiquity, artifice, panoramas, seclusion, spaciousness and waterways. As is typical of Japanese gardens, Kenrokuen offers a circuit through various landscapes and suggests an entire world, albeit miniaturized and much tidier than the real one.

On an adjacent bluff, and linked by a short bridge, is Kanazawa Castle. It’s impressive at first glimpse, but as a second look reveals, it’s mostly brand new. A few parts remain from the original, but the bulk of the castle has been built since 1989, replacing the buildings of a university that relocated nearby. Yet the pristine white walls and gull-winged roofs make a dramatic setting for what has become a pleasant landscape. Kenrokuen was once the castle’s outer garden; now the castle grounds have become a sort of annex of the adjacent landmark.

Japanese tourist sites are always flanked by drink vending machines, which are especially welcome in the summer. But the castle has something I’d never seen before: an air-conditioned vending-machine lounge. It was more crowded than the walkway along the parapets.

I followed a sculpture-lined path along the canal that edges the castle’s mount, headed toward my hotel and the bustling, seafood-heavy Omicho market. Along the way, I visited Oyama (“big hill”) Shrine, whose name refers to the location of the castle that towers over it. The shrine is notable for a gatehouse with a most un-Japanese touch: stained glass windows.

Despite such curiosities, Kanazawa’s temples and shrines are no match for those of Kyoto, once the ancient capital of Japan, with a 1200 year history. But thanks to the new Shinkansen line, there’s no need to pick one city over the other. After my visit to Kanazawa, I boarded a limited express for the two-hour trip to Kyoto. The total traveling time from Tokyo was only slightly longer than if I’d gone to Kyoto directly.

A young woman in a traditional kimono descends a stairway after a Seijin no Hi ceremony in Kanazawa, Japan. Washington Post photo by Linda Davidson.
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