From ancient castle gardens to contemporary art in Kanazawa

After our fairytale stay in Ainokura we travelled on to Kanazawa, another Japanese city steeped in history.

Located in the Hokuriku region, Kanazawa is best known for Kenroku-en, a castle garden dating from the 17th century. The castle itself was built in 1580, but sadly was almost completely destroyed by a fire in 1881. Having seen the magnificent Matsumoto Castle, it is such a shame that so many others across Japan didn’t survive.

The garden itself is absolutely huge though and a detailed map of the different areas, each with its own special name, is presented to visitors on arrival. Much to our delight when we arrived the cherry blossom was still making its way north, which meant many of the trees were in bloom and, as always, the tourists were making the most of every blossom-ladened bough.

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The Japanese take their gardens very seriously and I was always amazed by the amount of thought and planning which goes into even the smallest spaces. At Kenroku-en, the grounds are filled with small wooden bridges over pretty ponds, ornately designed bonsai trees and quiet areas designed for contemplation.

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Once you’ve explored the garden it’s possible to take a tour of the site of the castle, led by volunteers. As always, we caused quite a commotion with our arrival as the lovely volunteers tried to scramble someone who could speak English. We were eventually joined by a retired teacher who led us on an in-depth tour, bringing to life the history of the site and enabling us to imagine how impressive it would have been. The only part of the building which survived the fire was the Ishikawa-mon gate, which was built in 1788; and additionally a turret and an armoury were reconstructed in 2001, using traditional techniques.

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Kanazawa is also home to some well-preserved samurai and geisha districts, which was where the ryokan we stayed in was based. As we stepped through the sliding doors each day it was strange to think about the history under our feet as we wandered through the narrow streets, which were lined with wooden houses. We found the streets to be far quieter than Takayama, although we did bump into one of my favourite Japanese characters to date – a dog wearing a kimono!

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It’s easy to get around Kanazawa by public bus, with stops announced in English and, going from one extreme to the other, as is often the case in Japan, we also went to check out the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art. The museum was actually a total surprise, exhibiting works by both Japanese and international artists, and each large piece which dominated a room was totally fascinating. The highlight of the exhibition though is a ‘swimming pool’ which can be viewed from both above and below.

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One of the things I loved about it, as well as being able to view other museum-goers experiencing it from different directions, was that a number of Japanese people were making their own art within the piece. We saw people taking such interesting photos and really interacting with the art, which was so refreshing to see.

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Our stay in Kanazawa may have been short but, once again, it stole a little bit of our hearts.

If you enjoyed this post about Japan, why not check out our magical stay in the historical village of Ainokuaru or the cherry blossom viewing party we went to in Matsumoto.

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