When friends heard I was heading to Japan, the first question they asked was whether I would be attending the tuna auction at Tsukiji market, in Tokyo. Then they asked me if I would be eating at Jiro’s restaurant, owned by a man who was renowned throughout Japan but catapulted to the global stage with the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi.
After the tuna auction at Tsukiji.
I did go to Tsukiji, though not the tuna auction. During my market exploration, I had the good fortune of meeting the son-in-law of one of the vendors, and he spoke a little English. Along with his visiting parents, the group took me under their wing and guided me through the chaos. Walking up and down the wet aisles filled with fish, we finally emerged right at the door of a sashimi restaurant.
Upon leaving Tokyo, I wished we’d had more time in Tsukiji because there is nothing I love more than visiting a market in search of new experiences and foods – especially with these two as my impromptu volunteer guides.
My guides for the morning at the market.
Luckily, the trip took me to Kanazawa, to fresh produce and another market filled with fish.
Crossing the bridge in Kanazawa. A smaller city of under half a million, it has a comfortable and calm feel.
Founded as a castle town in the late 1500s, the city has managed to both escape damage from significant natural disasters and from World War II. While it used to be a powerful and strategic city for the Maeda clan, it lagged during Japan’s Meiji period in the mid 1800s, never fully industrializing like some of the other metropolises.
Kanazawa sits between the Sea of Japan and the Japanese Alps, and is subject to a significant rainy season. Because of the precipitation, the mountains, and some rich, volcanic soil, the land yields some incredible food including highly-valued Koshihikari rice (grown using mineral water from Mount Hakusan), fresh seafood that varies by season, and a variety of vegetables.
Fruit for sale at Omicho market.
Crabs for sale at Omicho market.
Much of that food is available at a bustling and colourful local market, Omicho, which is teeming with vendors and the kind of spirit I love. A good part of why I enjoyed Kanazawa was the many hours I spent at Omicho, sampling, enjoying the fruit and watching the vendors as they went about their day. Seafood was not only for sale to take home, but also available for purchase on the spot – oysters served raw, broiled scallops, sea urchin, shrimp, and so much more.
Broiled eel at Omicho market.
Shucking fresh oysters.
The remnants of other people’s seafood consumption.
Sushi so fresh it came straight from the adjacent market.
Broiled scallop at a stall in Omicho market.
In addition to these natural riches, the city has an interesting past. During the Edo period (1604-1868) it was the richest region of the country outside the Tokugawa shogunate, and had access to products from Hokkaido as it lay on the trade routes from Hokkaido to Osaka during that time. Crafts, gold leaf production, and a vibrant art culture flourished and deepened even after the Edo period ended. UNESCO named Kanazawa a City of Crafts and Folk Art in 2009.
A Japanese garden in the Samurai district.
Painted umbrella in Kanazawa.
It also houses a huge garden, Kenroku-en, which remains one of the draws for tourism to the city, and one of the top three gardens in Japan. That said – and with all due respect to this gorgeous garden – I was more excited by its ninja temple.
Myoryuji Temple, also known as Ninjadera, was a Maeda construction, built during in 1585 as a traditional temple, then moved and fortified to protect the clan from Tokugawa shogunate intruders in 1643. Though there were apparently no ninjas housed here (a girl can dream), it is so named because of the insane subterfuge that goes on within its walls.
It has fake offering boxes, staircases with light panels to better stab at someone’s feet, walls that swivel into traps, a “middle floor” and a “middle middle floor” to hide the actual height of the building, tunnels, secret rooms, 29 staircases, and much more. Said to link directly to Kanazawa castle via a tunnel from its water well, Ninjadera remains one of the most interesting buildings I saw in Japan.
Transparent panels on the stairs allowed those inside to stab the feet of intruders as they passed along them.
Outside Ninjadera temple.
Lending an air of additional mystery to my visit was the fact that the tour is conducted in Japanese, with an English-language book for our group to follow along. Single file, flowing up and down stairs and around trap doors, we discovered just how much you can hide in a simple-seeming building’s walls and floors.
A change from the metal bridges and buildings of the business district, the preserved Samurai and Geisha (Chaya) districts provided me and a few others on the tour with a full afternoon of meandering around side streets and down curving alleys in an attempt to find them all. And by ‘meandering around’ I mean ‘got a bit lost’.
Definitely no idea where we are going.
We finally did make it to the well-preserved Higashi Chayagai (Eastern Chaya District) near the end of the afternoon. With its grey-tiled streets and wooden buildings in shades of brown, it felt like a whole other city from the market that morning.
Higashi Chayagai in the late afternoon, at ground level.
Sunset over Kanazawa’s geisha district.
Inside one of the Geisha houses.
While Kanazawa was the only city I was unfamiliar with on the “Discover Japan” itinerary, it became one of my favourite places during my weeks in the country. While wildly popular with Japanese tourists, the city had few foreign visitors during my visit, and a totally unscientific poll of my friends netted me only three who had heard of it. So despite the splendour of Fuji and the chaos of Tokyo, I wanted to highlight this dark horse of a place with its captivating market and delicious food.
Kanazawa’s city crest, a stylized kanji in a plum flower used by the Maeda clan, decorates a manhole cover.
With only one free afternoon in Kanazawa, some hard choices had to be made in terms of food and wandering. For those with a bit more time, some additional suggestions below.
Visit the D.T. Suzuki Museum. Designed by Yoshio Taniguchi, who also redesigned the MoMA in New York City, the Suzuki museum is a tribute to Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki, a Buddhist philosopher who was highly influential in sharing Zen Buddhism with the west. While the museum is an homage to both Suzuki and Zen Buddhism, its immaculate construction and meticulous design make it one of the more peaceful places in town.
Visit the 21st Century Museum of Modern Art. The stated aim of the museum is to connect the region with the future of art by showcasing the “richly diverse art of our times [that] cuts across genres and transcends barriers of time and space.” But it also is shaped like a UFO, has giant glass walls, and a dizzying amount of hands-on experiments. Well worth a few hours of time, especially during one of Kanazawa’s signature rainstorms.
For those who love sushi, two dinner options:
With a big budget: The “Jiro of Kanazawa”, Kazuhiko Tsurumi, is the sushi master at Otomezushi – reason enough for many to try his food. For those who love sushi, artful presentation, and careful creations, try the omakase (chef’s choice) at Otomezushi (4-10 Kiguramachi, Kanazawa). More praise here.
For those with a smaller food budget: With counter seats only, this tiny eatery with a long wooden sushi bar serves delicious, fresh fish at an affordable price. A good recommendation for those craving simple but fresh food without worrying about also eating into their travel budget. (1-5-29, Katamachi, Kanazawa, Phone 076-261-8674)
Wanderer-in-Residence Jodi Ettenberg travelled on the Discover Japan tour to be able to have such amazing experiences. Don’t wait to have some of your own – check out G Adventures small group trips here.