>Bright and early we left the hotel for Kanazawa’s, or indeed one of Japan’s, star sights – Kenrokoen. This large sprawling garden is one of Japan’s top 3 gardens. This early in the morning, Kenrokoen was free of crowds. The morning light also made photography a delight.
From the hotel, we took the Kanazawa Loop Bus. We’d bought the full-day pass (500yen per adult, half price for kids) which entitled us to hop on and off the Loop Bus as well as any other city bus. The Loop Bus is a quaint, gaily painted mini bus that takes visitors round to 19 attractions around Kanazawa, beginning and ending at the Kanazawa station. This early in the morning though, the Loop Bus hadn’t even begun running yet, so we took a city bus, packed with locals and school-children beginning their day.
Just outside Kenrokoen, a voice coming over loud-hailers split the early morning calm. Elections! I don’t know what office they are running for, perhaps a city council seat or municipal seat, but it was interesting to see this. Obviously we don’t get much of this where I come from given all the walkovers by the PAP!
Trin had also gotten into an early morning tantrum so we left her at the bus-stop with KH to deal with her while the others and I walked ahead to get the tickets to the park. Between her ear-splitting screams of rage and the loud-hailers across the street, I think it was probably a tie.
Up the hill, we detoured to the bridge and plaza leading to Kanazawa castle’s entrance. The weather was lovely with deep blue skies. The reds of Owain’s and Gillian’s jackets glowed in that kind of light. Here you can see the castle walls in the background. Unlike most castles, this was not built upwards but spread out in a low-rise configuration. We didn’t go in because we were eager to visit Kenrokoen across the road.
To pacify a still-raging Trin, I let her touch the mossy ground and explained a bit about the moss and why it grew so abundantly here. Then we had some ‘breakfast’ at a teahouse near the entrance. They only had dango, balls of rice flour in various flavours, some with red bean fillings. Hot green tea was complimentary. Still, the kids liked the dango and it was gone in no time!
Our aim was to find the famous two-legged lantern in the garden’s lake. The scene of the Kotoji-toro can be found on many a promo brochure on Kanazawa and Japan. We thought we’d have to walk a long way, but barely 30m from the tea house, there it was. One foot in the lake and the other perched on land, a reddening maple fanning out its branches above it.
To be honest, after all the hype, I was a bit disappointed to see it. I don’t know what I was expecting, but the scene is not one of showy beauty but a restful one. As we stood around, taking pictures, it grew on me and I think it is a quietly beautiful scene, one that invites contemplation amidst all the admiration.
A nice Japanese gentleman offered to take a picture of us as a family on the stone bridge in front of the kotoji-toro. I don’t know if he was a professional guide, but quite coincidentally, the group he was with had some Singaporeans there. They had gone to Nagoya for a conference and detoured to Kanazawa for a flying visit before leaving.
I don’t know about you but whenever I meet Singaporeans while I’m overseas, I get a nice thrill of pleasure. It’s so nice to hear a familiar accent and meet someone from the same tiny dot that I hail from. How small is the world anyway right? But back home, catch me in a traffic jam, a crowded MRT train, or any incident that brings out the usual ‘lovable’ Singaporean traits and I’d be scoffing and rolling my eyes away at my fellow Singaporeans. Love-hate relationship. That, or I am just borderline pyschotic.
We chatted with the Singaporeans briefly before going our separate ways. We saw another emblematic scene of Kanazawa – the Karasaki pines with their familiar umbrellas of rope to break the heavy snowfall and prevent damage to the centuries-old pines.
We saw workmen putting up the ropes over a cherry tree which had lost most of its leaves. We wondered why until we read the sign. The trees were a rare species of cherry which produces 300 petals per flower when in bloom in spring. Must be a lovely sight to behold!
Adjacent to the park is the entrance to a simple-looking two storey wooden villa built by the daimyo for his mother. Seisonkaku Villa was a retirement home for the daimyo’s mother when she returned from Edo. Typical of Japanese design, it had wrap-around verandas which opened out pretty garden scenes. The admission fee was pricey at 700yen per adult but we went in anyway.
Seisonkaku was undergoing some restoration work but the lovely gardens could still be seen. Mossy ground, pines, a small stream, blushing maples, stone urns. Its so carefully put together but so pretty. As with major tourist attractions, Seisonkaku had stamps as well, so I gleefully stamped my little notebook!
Down the road from Kenrokoen is the very unusual and interesting 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art. Its a circular building set amid grassy lawns. Here, you see the children sitting around – family meeting. There were other outdoor art installations scattered on the grounds. The kids had a lot of fun scampering on those. While Kenrokoen was a stately and beautiful park to stroll in, it was also nice for the kids to be able to run around freely and release some energy in the large lawns around the museum.
Inside the museum, it was equally interesting. Pity we didn’t have much time to really linger and browse the exhibits. The kids got to ‘drive’ these interesting and colourful vehicles for a while at least. These ‘vehicles’ are actually art pieces by an Italian artist.
Caitlin was fascinated with the design of the sinks and so was I. It had two nozzles for soap and water and on the other side, a slot for hot air so it works as a hand-dryer as well. Minimises drip issues on the toilet floor.
Built on the south bank of the Asano river, in the Teramachi district which is full of temples, Myoryuji looks deceptively like any other temple there, a simple wooden building with small grounds. But go within and you’ll discover that this temple is not like the others.
First a bit of background. Kanazawa was built in such a way that it is ringed by temples. The Teramachi district is just one of the outlying areas of Kanazawa that has several temples. In the past, while the daimyo or lord, could not build forts to protect his turf (it was deemed as aggressive and ambitious behavior that the shogun would not condone), the daimyo of Kanazawa decided to build a ring of temples instead. While these are really legit places of worship, they were also places where he could leave some soldiers or men, who could sound early warnings if the city was about to be invaded and pose the first line of defence.
However, Myoryuji is unique. It was constructed to defend and so within the innocuous wooden walls, is a warren of traps, cunning hidey-holes, hidden staircases, secret rooms and even a tunnel which was rumoured to go all the way to Kanazawa castle across the river. While no ninjas trained here, the place is called ninjadera because of the maze of tricks that were part of its construction. Incidentally though, the temple was never used in defence or in battle at all. The Maeda clan, who ruled Kanazawa for centuries, played a far shrewder game of political alliances and they were so good at it, the clan and the city was highly prosperous for many centuries, staying well within the shogun’s favour.
It was quite a hike from the Loop Bus stop across the river to Myoryuji. Children below the age of 6 were not allowed to join the tour. Admission and tour cost about 800yen per adult. The tour is entirely in Japanese but we were given an excellent English language translation in a file, complete with numbered sights and photographs. Isaac, Cait and I went first while the rest went for lunch. I was fascinated with the place and I think the kids were too.
How the Japanese maximise space and utilise it is a real art. You see it in their homes today (tiny and compact but they manage). And apparently not a recent architectural skill either if you go by how Myoryuji was designed. It looks like a two-storey building from the outside. But inside, there are actually six levels! There’s even a small windowless room for seppuku (suicide by ritual disembowellment) whose door once closed cannot be opened from the inside. Gruesome but the kids’ eyes lit up!
The rest of the day was spent with a ramen lunch, visit to the Nagamachi district where old samurai houses still stand, the Oyama shrine where the first lord of the Maeda clan is enshrined and ending off with seafood shopping at Omicho market and then gorging ourselves silly on sushi and sashimi – to the point of gagging!
The old Nagamachi district is the former samurai quarter. The little lanes and the ochre walls surrounding the compounds still stand. We didn’t really visit any house but stepped into one of the gardens for a look.
From there it was a short walk to the commercial Korinbo district and the Oyama shrine. Went the wrong way and ended up going in from the back entrance. But it was a good thing for it led us to the small wooded area and garden which had the look of being once cultivated but now forgotten and left uncared for, thus growing a bit wild. The kids loved the pond, the wooden plank bridges, the stepping stones. While horsing around, despite repeated warnings not to, the inevitable happened and Owain’s jacket fell into the pond. KH was fuming mad.
Its been a long day but we still had one more stop – dinner! We took the Loop Bus down to Omicho market where the kids eyes goggled at the massive crabs and salivated over the juicy cuts of salmon and maguro and roe. We ended up buying and buying. And as if it were not enough, we returned to the supermarket at the train station and bought some more! I must have been mad. Or greedy. Likely both!
We ate our haul around the small table as we did the night before. I was hauling out tray after tray and it still seemed never-ending. Got to a point when even Gillian gave up on the minced negi-toro and I found myself, for the first time in my life, pushing myself to finish sushi. It was just too much. But gosh, it was dang good and if I ever had to die of a sushi overdose, this would have been a good time.
Party over, we cleared up and KH did the laundry, dropping Owain’s jacket in the wash. Excellent washer and dryer. Everything worked well. Long day and we were really exhausted but it would be past midnight when I finally dropped into my comfy bed. Next: Kyoto!