Kanazawa City is located northwest of Matsumoto along the coast of Japan in Ishikawa prefecture. We spent 2 days in Kanazawa as a very calculated choice of destination at the tail end of our one week in Japan spring itinerary. We included Kanazawa on our trip as part of our 'hedge our bets' cherry blossom strategy. Because of Kanazawa's location, we expected the cherry blossoms to bloom later. When we visited Japan in mid-April, the sakura were just coming into bloom in Kanazawa. Read on to learn about what to do in Kanazawa on a spring trip to Japan.
Why Visit Kanazawa?
Aside from the cherry blossoms, another great reason to visit Kanazawa is because the city is rich in history and comes complete with a samurai village. Kanazawa was a city of greatness in the Edo Period (between 1603 and 1868). However, Kanazawa fell into decline during a period of industrialization and modernization. This turned out to be Kanazawa's saving grace for the city was spared destruction during World War II. Thus, Kanazawa has a more unique and historical vibe than many cities in Japan.
Getting to KanazawaKanzawa is about 2.5 hours from Tokyo on Japan's high speed train. It would take almost 6 hours to drive the 500 km distance from Tokyo to Kanazawa so the Shinkansen is by far the best way to go. We visited Kanzawa with an intermediate stop in Matsumoto for 3 days. It takes about 3 hours by high-speed train, with a stop to change trains in Nagano, to get from Matsumoto to Kanazawa. The views from the Nagano to Kanazawa Shinkansen line are pretty awesome with mountains out one window and sea out of the other window.
Where to Stay in KanazawaYou may be wondering about recommended hotels in Kanazawa. The UAN Hotel is a good, centrally located choice for your accommodation in Kanazawa City. UAN Hotel is a modern establishment but with Japanese-style touches including sumptuous robes and stylish but (much less comfortable) wooden sandals to wear around the hotel. The robes are also handy for when you need to do laundry, like we did, on our trip to Kanazawa. UAN Hotel features coin-operated washers and dryers. The best part about UAN Hotel was that you get to try Kanazawa food, specifically soba and sake. UAN Hotel offers a free bowl of soba noodles to guests in the late evening. Slurp your hot soba with a sake nightcap. UAN Hotel also offers a sake tasting menu. Over the course of two evenings, we tried six different sakes local to the Kanazawa region. I also liked that the UAN Hotel offers cold and hot drinks and small snacks all day. I tried an unassuming cube which had a wafer thin sugar shell surrounding sake jelly. Loved that sake cube!
Higashide CoffeeWe got an early start to our day and were immediately on the lookout for coffee upon arrival in Kanazawa. Having a single-origin cuppa at Higashide Coffee is definitely on my list of top things to do in Kanazawa. Highashide was a surprisingly good find. Sit in the dark wood-paneled cafe and enjoy your coffee served in a delicate porcelain cup. Settle in for some good people watching. We sampled a Costa Rican pour over coffee to fuel our exploration for the rest of the day. While in other places this type of coffee is the domain of modern hipster coffee shops, in Kanazawa the vibe was much more old school.
Nagamachi Samurai DistrictSpend the afternoon walking around the historic and impressively well-preserved Nagamachi Samurai neighborhood of Kanazawa. Definitely make time for a visit to Nomura Samurai House (550 JPY or about $5 USD at the time of writing). Take your shoes off and enter the traditional samurai house which dates back to the Edo Period and has become a living museum of sorts. Check out traditional samurai swords and armor. Admire delicately painted screens and clean wooden lines. Take a moment of reflection on the wooden porch overlooking a peaceful Japanese garden. We discovered museum exhibits and in particular a thank you note from the Shogun caught my eye. Who would have thought that doing your duty as a samurai might earn you a thank you note?
"We appreciate that you worked so hard to kill 1 high ranked soldier on the 4th of last month...We are very happy that you brought us his head"
Oyama Jinja ShrineThe Oyama Jinja Shrine is another top Kanazawa point of interest. If you like photography, visit Oyama Jinja Shrine just before sunset during the Golden Hour. The light shines through the stained glass at the top of entrance tower at this time of day. You'll also find some quiet forested paths to explore and a small pond.
Japanese Craft Beer at Oriental BrewingThe Japanese craft beer scene has definitely improved between our first visit to Japan in Autumn 2015 and now. Grab a pre-dinner drink at Oriental Brewing in Kanazawa. We tried a fantastic Yuzu Ale. Yuzu is a sour Japanese citrus fruit (like a pomelo). Oriental Brewing has a few different locations around Kanazawa and serves light bites in addition to beer. We visited the location that is about a 5 minute walk from Oyama Jinja Shrine.
Sushi Set for Dinner at Takasakiya SushiNo trip to Japan is complete without sushi. Pop into Takasakiya Sushi, a small family-run restaurant, for dinner. The sushi set comes with about 8 pieces and is a good choice if you are feeling adventurous. I tried salmon roe and sea urchin (uni) which I would not have ordered otherwise but was glad I got to try through the sushi set. Takasakiya Sushi features both a counter and Japanese-style tables. For westerners not used to sitting cross-legged, I recommend eating at the sushi counter. If you do sit at the tables, remove your shoes and sit with your legs crossed in front of the low table.
Kenrokuen GardenWhat to do in Kanazawa in Spring? A visit to Kenroku-en is a must. Rated one of the most beautiful gardens in Japan, you'll find a variety of cherry blossoms including some species that bloom quite late into April. Buy a combo ticket for Kenroku-en and Kanazawa Castle Park (a so called "Kenroku-en + 1" ticket) for 500 Yen (about $5 USD at the time of writing) to save a little money. Budget at least a few hours to explore Kenroku-en. There are lots of little nooks and crannies to explore in the park. Kenroku-en is quite popular and also quite hilly. It seemed to us that the further we moved from the entrance and the further uphill we went, the quieter it got. Try and get to a higher elevation and look down on the central pond. Kenroku-en truly is beautiful, especially if you visit Kanazawa in the Spring.
Kanazawa CastleYou can walk around the Kanazawa Castle grounds and gardens for free. Fun fact: Kenroku-en used to be Kanazawa Castle's private outer garden. Dating back to the late 16th century, Kanazawa Castle burned down in the early 17th century. Kanazawa Castle burnt down again in 1759. Much of Kanazawa Castle is a reconstruction of how the buildings looked in the mid-19th century with a few older artifacts like Ishikawa Gate which dates back to 1788. Take your shoes off and explore the inside of the castle and museum exhibits which highlight the history of the building and the region. You won't need much time, an hour at most, to see Kanazawa Castle.
Japanese Curry for Lunch
Just outside Kanazawa Castle, we spotted a small restaurant that seemed to be popular with local business people. We'd arrived at peak lunch hour and had to wait about 10 minutes for a spot at the counter to open up. It was worth the wait though as we really enjoyed our pork cutlet curry with thick udon noodles. Beware that Japanese curry is thick and udon noodles can be unwieldy. You may want to tuck a napkin into your shirt to avoid splashes and stains.
Omicho MarketOmicho Market is a much visited point of interest in Kanazawa; definitely worth taking the time to browse. Discover all kinds of cool Japanese produce, like melons and lotus root. Spot piles of dried squid two feet high. We took a few random turns down different winding halls and ended up discovering a stall that sells craft beer. Hyakuman Johana sells a tasting flight with a focus on fruit beers. Hyakuman Johana blood orange was a winner in my book!
Note that Omicho Market is just a short walk from UAN Hotel (less than 10 minutes away). Pop into Omicho Market for breakfast. We tried freshly fried Japanese crab cakes. Combine the crab cakes with some fresh oranges and you've got the perfect sweet and savory start to the day.