Kyoto is renowned for tea. So, too, is Kanazawa. Over many years a wealthy samurai class for whom tea culture was integral dominated Kanazawa. Kyoto aims to impress. Kanazawa aims to stand out. There is gorgeous pageantry to their love of green tea. Walls are brightly coloured. Wajima laquerware is dusted with gold. There is greater variety of sweets and wagashi using more ingredients than red or white bean paste, but even chestnuts and, more recently, grapes. Within the Chaya-gai District rows of two-story wooden houses are the centre of Kanazawa’s tea culture. Romance and exclusive social traditions are all evident as a shamisen guitar echoes in the distance. Antique lamps light narrow streets while Geisha flutter between passages. Specialty shops sell gold leaf cosmetics, gold-flecked tea and even soft ice cream wrapped in edible gold. Gold leaf is a symbol and specialty of Kanazawa. It’s not mere ostentation. It’s also considered a very healthy mineral. Floorboards chirp as I enter a teahouse to sample kaga-bocha, a smoky, toasty green tea. It pairs with local Castella cake that, I’m told, is made from a special egg, for more dense texture, bold flavour and deep golden colour.
Across town is the renowned Kenrokuen, considered one of the three great gardens of Japan. Spring shows a profusion of cherry blossoms; summer is vibrant green; autumn is a still life of fireworks in mid-explosion; and winter lays a blanket of snow with shimmering innocence. I marvel at the soft contours and manicured trees around the pond that just make nature look better. It’s as if the landscapers got together and said, “Okay God, you’re pretty good, but watch this.”
Outside town is Yunokuni no Mori which, at first, seems kitschy, but is actually an enterprising destination consolidating all the local crafts and folk arts from earthenware and lacquer ware to papermaking and wood lathing; from silk dyeing and glass blowing to music boxes and tea ceremony. My visit wouldn’t feel complete, however, if I didn’t attend a gold leaf workshop, layer my own lacquer tray with a thin sheet of gold, and etch into it the Japanese kanji for “love.” I could spend all day here enjoying one workshop after another.
In addition to its flourishing craft tourism, Kanazawa is also renowned for its Kaga cuisine, which boasts a bounty of sun-kissed rain-nourished produce. Following a relaxing hot soak at Hanamurasaki ryokan in Yamanaka, I wrap myself up in a kimono and dine on local treasures like thick amberjack, soft deep-sea prawns and meaty snow crab; and regional specialties like walnuts in miso paste and hearty, seasoned duck stew. Located between the Sea of Japan and the Japan Alps, Kanazawa has plenty of precipitation, and what locals discovered long ago is that where rain pours, so too can good sake. Like everything else here the sake is clean, pure and delicately sweet.
Leaving Kanazawa I feel I’ve tasted ancient tradition. The experiences to be found here are completely different from that of Kyoto, which is completely different from Tokyo. Like the ritual of the tea ceremony, it’s about maximizing appreciation with minimal space and components. Nobody does that better, yielding more diversity in culture and arts, than the Japanese.
Adam Waxman is an award winning travel journalist focusing on food, wine and well being. As well as an actor in film, television and formerly, the Stratford Festival, he is the Publisher of DINE and Destinations magazine.