As the Shinkansen (bullet train) speeds out of Tokyo, it isn’t long before the snowy white cone of Mount Fuji comes into view. Arguably the world’s most famous volcano, Mount Fuji will be in sight for almost an hour. Snowy landscapes and tile roofs blur as we speed through a country full of old and new delights. We are on our way to Kanazawa, one of Japan’s most distinctive historic cities. With the new bullet train route servicing the area, it’s a good time to visit Kanazawa where some of the best gardens, historic districts, and cuisine can found in Japan.
Kanazawa Station is a spectacular building. The station looks like modern culture crashed into an ancient Japanese temple to form a new type of architecture. Massive, mahogany-colored, twisted wood beams support a gracefully arched wooden rooftop at the entrance to this grand terminal reminiscent of Kanazawa’s rich past. As we exit the security area, we see a marketplace in the station with dozens of shops hawking local food and art products. Shopping will have to wait as we are being picked up by Koji-san, a friend of the family, and whisked off to lunch.
I’m happy to discover that our friend Koji-san speaks English well. I often find myself the only fluent English-speaking person other than my wife on trips to Japan. Koji-san says, “We are going to one of my favorite restaurants, a cook-your-own noodle restaurant.”
A smiling cartoon-like woman’s face on the awning greets us upon arrival at Fukuwauchi, which (loosely translated) means “happy inside.” Both our hostess and waitress beam as we enter, so it does seem to be a happy place.
Once our shoes are removed, we’re seated at a recessed table featuring eight gas burners to cook our noodle soups. Choosing from entrees of mushrooms, salmon, oysters, beef or pork, we all make our selections. Koji tells us, “I have been eating at this restaurant for most of my life.”
It’s a great choice if you want to have a delicious lunch for $20-$35. We add a sushi starter before the bowls of soup are brought to our table. Once the soup arrives, the staff fires up the burner, and all we have to do is stir it a few times over the course of 8-10 minutes. Then, we dive into the best soup you can imagine. The hardest part is waiting for the staff to signal when it’s cooked just right before we dig in. I have the mushroom soup with five kinds of fantastic fungus not easily found in U.S. restaurants in one bowl. It’s the best bowl of noodle soup I have ever had in Japan.
Next stop is the 16th century Kanazawa Castle, a free attraction. Though it burned down several times, some original parts are still standing. The Ishikawa Gate, Sanjukken Nagaya, and Tsumaru Storehouse give visitors a glimpse far back when Kanazawa was a rich and important part of the shogunate’s realm. After touring the castle, we check into Hotel Sainonwiwa, a newer boutique luxury hotel built in anticipation of bullet train visitors. The upscale rooms and free buffet breakfast impress us all.
Several attractions in Kanazawa are free and worth visiting. We love the Kenrokuen Gardens, one of the three great gardens of Japan. We follow pathways leading to stone bridges over koi ponds and marvel at the trussed trees, flowers and meticulously manicured bushes.
Back in the center of town, the “pleasure districts” of Kanazawa look much like they did in the Edo Period. Caramel-colored, worn wood exteriors front the narrow streets that once held gentlemen looking for geisha-style entertainment. It isn’t unusual to see tourist wannabe geishas in rented costumes strutting around, taking selfies and mingling with other tourists.
Shops selling famous gold-leaf-adorned laquerware can be found in eight locations. They offer a one to two-hour class to gild your own chopsticks in gold leaf for a handmade souvenir. We stop at Sakuda Gold and Silver Leaf, full of gleaming gold and silver-adorned lacquerware and make our own gold leaf chopsticks. This is a great activity and costs as little as 600 to 800 JPY/$6-8 USD. We then stop at a specialty sake shop that sells sake lees soup, a broth made from the leftovers of sake-making. It’s a fragrant miso-like soup that sends the winter chill away.
For the best Kaiseki (small plates), try Tsuruko, This family-owned restaurant had recently been invaded by a Japanese TV film crew shooting Japan’s best restaurants. Tsuruko provides us with an over-the-top meal with a procession of colorful, tasty dishes parading in front of us for three hours. The apple stuffed with Kobe beef is delicious and one of the most creative ways to serve beef that I’ve seen on my many trips to Japan. My favorite dish is probably the crab with rice. Several strips of succulent leg meat are perched on top of crab-fried rice that resonates in smoky-salty goodness.
We finish our two days in Kanazawa touring the Omicho Market to look at the yummy live crabs, big shrimp, dried squid and other seafood. Later, we visit the D.T. Suzuki Museum on yet another bright sunny day. The Suzuki Museum is a peaceful place to wander in quiet meditation by reflection pools. This Buddist philosopher, born in Kanazawa, is credited with introducing Zen Philosophy to the west.
We have lunch downtown at Benkay Restaurant in Hotel Nikko Kanazawa. Here, we’re treated to the finest sushi I’ve had in my eight trips to Japan. Don’t be fooled by the fact this sushi restaurant is in a hotel. If you love real Japanese sushi, this is the place to go in Kanazawa.
All great trips must end, however. Before leaving Kanazawa, the shopping court in the train station is a must before boarding the Shinkansen. If you’re hungry, look for Bento Box meals at the food counters in the market for your trip back. Pick the food counter with the biggest line to get the best Bento.
On this, my second trip to Kanazawa, I came away hooked on its charm, grace, and great food. As Mt. Fuji comes into view again, I feel inspired to return to Kanazawa to see what we might have missed.
If You Go:
Kanazawa Sainoniwa Hotel, a new boutique luxury hotel wowed us all. Built for the expected onslaught of wealthy tourists, this hotel ticks all the boxes for fine lodging. Considering rooms go for an average of $220, Sainoiwa is affordable luxury.
Fukuwauchi, 1-9-31 Hikosomachi, Tsuruko, 6-5 Takaokamachi
Benkay Restaurant in Nikko Hotel, 2-15-1 Monmachi, Phone: 81-76-234-1111