Japan: Kanazawa: castles and yukatas

Ubiquitous little statues of a raccoon- or badger-like animal found all over Japan have their origin, in part at least, at Kanazawa. The tanuki are found outside bars and restaurants and are usually holding bottles of sake. At some temples they hold a bowl to receive offerings, and at all places they are sometimes endowed with huge testicles – see featured image at left.

The writer Shigeo Okuwa believes that the large scrotums can be traced to the ancient goldsmiths of Kanazawa who used to use tanuki skins to protect gold ingots as they beat them into super-thin gold leaf apparently the size of eight tatami mats. In Japanese “small ball of gold” is kin no tama. An idiomatic word for testicles is kintama so these little beasties are indeed bragging – not about their sexual prowess or potency … but about their ability to help goldsmiths.

Higashi Chaya

Higashi couple battling the sleet

Kanazawa has, of course, more to offer than well-endowed animals, and two reasons for my visit were to visit again the superb castle and the Kenroku-en Gardens – apparently the third most beautiful in Japan. A delightful discovery was the historic Higashi Chaya district near the Asanogawa River.Although the day was cold with icy sleet falling, many people – mainly youngsters – wore traditional clothing as they walked these historic streets. With the cedar shingle-clad buildings, the many temples scattered through the area and the smells of fresh food coming from the old houses that had been converted to restaurants, the cold was easy to bear as we stepped back in time.

And speaking of coldness, the ice bucket at my hotel had one of those crazy Japanese slogans on it:

  • The Art of Cold: Enjoy what you do? We hit the street, we hit the high

I cannot think of any logical explanation for this, but hitting the streets in Kanazawa is easy if you buy the 500 yen One Day Bus Pass that allows unlimited travel for one day on the buses that follow a generous loop around all the city’s favourite destinations. On-board monitors and commentaries in Japanese and English make navigation very easy.

I took the LL (Left Loop) bus to start the day and did the complete loop from JR station and back again – about forty minutes – to get an idea of where things were. In itself it is not a particularly scenic journey as most attractions are off in side streets and you need to decide which stop you want and get off and wander. Later in the day I hopped on and off buses to get to different attractions.

Kanazawa Castle 

Gate and Tower

I had visited Kanazawa in 1994 and 2001 and could remember only one thing: the castle’s massive stone walls where huge boulders had been so meticulously hewn that an intruder’s fingernails could never have found a gap to gain a handhold to scale the walls.

The castle dates back to 1546 but has a history of destruction by fires in 1620, 1631, 1759 and 1808: obviously the kitchen workers at the castle were not very careful little sausages as they prepared their masters’ meals. Many parts have been carefully restored including the Hashizume-mon Gate and the splendid Gajikken Nagaya gallery and the Hishi Yagura watchtower.

Had invaders managed the steep smooth walls they would then have needed to slither down a steep bank, cross a deep moat, and then try to scale the next set of walls … all the time trying to avoid rocks and boulders and buckets of three-day-old porridge and perhaps even tanuki testicles being dropped on their heads from the purpose-made boulder-dropping holes lining the walls of the fortress.

Clever construction methods

In the restoration traditional building processes were used – rough bamboo wall frames were clad in mud and then finer layers of earth with finally coats of plaster and tiles. Inside, superb cedar planks are used as flooring with more cedar and Cypress pine used on walls, support columns and ceiling frames for the tiled roof.

Six elements of style

Waterfall, lake and lantern

Just over the road from the castle and the castle park is the Kenroku-en Garden that combines, apparently, the essential “six elements of style” criteria: spaciousness and seclusion, artifice and antiquity, watercourses and panoramas. It is, depending on which authority you speak to, either Japan’s “Number One” garden, Japan’s “Number Three” garden or just one of the top three. The Japanese do love to number things, although the city’s loop buses are not numbered … but simply labelled LL (Left Loop) or RL.

Wandering the garden – either going left or right or wherever – is a delight.

Kotojitoro Lantern

Lakes and streams and waterfalls and fountains pop up around every corner, trees elaborately trussed to prevent them from falling over or from being damaged by the weight of snow, teahouses here and there, moss-covered stone lanterns and aged cedar street lamps, a delightful plum grove where the trees were all in blossom, and of course the symbol of the gardens, the Kotojitoro Lantern, named because it looks like the bridges that support the strings on a Japanese koto – a long stringed instrument which is plucked a bit like a horizontal skinny harp.

Christopher Hall (left) trying to play “Sakura Sakura” on the koto in Tokyo in 1999


Punky young couple at Kenroku-en Gardens

Once again, I was delighted to see many young couples in traditional dress. I do not recall seeing any oldies in kimonos in Kanazawa so it is wonderful that the young are keeping up appearances (with apologies to Hyacinth Bucket / Bouquet).

Hidden and closed gems 

On my “Must Do” list was a visit to the Seisonkaku Villa – apparently one of the best remaining samurai villas in Japan – but although I saw signs saying go here and go there I did not find it. With the benefit of hindsight and a new map I now see that I turned off the road too early, seduced by a sight of a sacred well. So I did not see the tatami mat rooms or the special viewing deck at the back that was built without columns so the residents could enjoy uninterrupted views of the gardens.

I did, however, find the Twenty-first Century Museum of Contemporary Art, an exhibition I had been looking forward to. Located in a huge, glass-walled circular building near the castle and gardens, the museum and its grounds were packed with people doing nothing much at all: eating in the restaurant, walking around the corridors, taking selfies in the garden – anything at all in fact other than looking at any contemporary art.

The main gallery had been closed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. I am not sure how the closing of one gallery – while allowing all other areas of the museum to stay open – would have any effect on anything. However, the figures are there and somewhat frightening:

  • On 28 February Japan had about 200 cases of infection and four deaths
  • Two weeks later, the numbers were up to 542 cases with nineteen deaths

Japan has a population of about 127 million people and there are perhaps two or three million visitors at any time. To be one of the five hundred affected out of a total group of 130 million …

Seafood at Omicho Market

The Omicho Market, however, was open and doing a brisk trade in its fresh fruit and vegetables and its seafood. Kanazawa city is just a few kilometres inland from the Sea of Japan, and judging by the numerous seafood stall offering gigantic crabs, the Sea of Japan must be one of the most prolific breeding places for crustaceans in Asia.

Not a sandwich or a crab – but a Kanazawa ryokan meal in 1994 when my yukata matched the dinner service

With prices per crab reaching up to JPY20,000 (almost US$200.00) I decided that a sandwich from the nearby 7-11 store would be a more economical dinner.

Kanazawa is a bustling big city … yet hidden in secret pockets and tucked away on hills or behind high walls are so many gems that make it a city that is easy to navigate, easy to find secret spaces, and easy to find wonders not to be found elsewhere. The excellent Shinkansen service from Tokyo was introduced in 2015 and makes it a pleasant and easy three-hour transfer.

Flowers and drinking waters at Ishiura Jinja Shrine Kanazawa


Text and photographs © Christopher Hall March 2020.

Location map, market photographs from Internet

Journey March 2020

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If a man ascended into heaven and gazed upon the whole workings of the universe and the beauty of the stars, the marvellous sight would give him no joy if he had to keep it to himself. And yet, if only there had been someone to describe the spectacle to, it would have filled him with delight

  • Attributed to Marcus Tullius Cicero – On Friendship


2 thoughts on “Japan: Kanazawa: castles and yukatas

  1. Such an interesting read Chris. We are having a month in Japan in Sept/Oct later this year. Will refer to your blogs when planning what we want to see and do.


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