In the Edo period, Kanazawa boasted not just one but three entertainment districts. Today these three areas – Higashi Chaya, Kazuemachi and Nishi Chaya are still more or less intact. The old dark wood machiya buildings still stand, a gathering of upscale shops, boutiques, souvenir shops and restaurants instead of the former teahouses and geisha houses.
The streets were mostly deserted by late afternoon and the rain had kept most tourists away – which suited us just fine. The light rain and dark skies only added a sense of mystery and romance to the hours we spent wandering the streets of Higashi Chaya and Kazuemachi that afternoon.
Kanazawa is not new to us but we did miss the chaya districts the last time we visited. So on the wet and dark afternoon after arriving in Kanazawa from Unazuki Onsen, we took Kanazawa’s tourist loop bus to the Higashi chaya district. For 200yen per person per trip or 500yen for a day’s pass, this is the easiest fuss-free way to get around Kanazawa.
Much like the old Dutch shophouses and Peranakan courtyard homes in Malacca and Penang, the modest frontage of these houses do not hint at the generous space and length within. The elegantly dark minimalist lines of the wooden latticework so typical of these houses gives an aloof and enigmatic feel, well-suited for the discretion required by a geisha house.
We visited the Shima teahouse, a former geisha house now converted into a museum. 400yen gets you into the house. On the ground floor, you can have tea with sweets for about 700yen.
It was a good day to visit the former geisha house. Perhaps because of the rain or the hour, there was hardly anyone else there. Sitting and gazing at the postage-stamp sized garden in the middle of the house while listening to the patter of the rain on the roof tiles provided a calm introspective space in the day. The garden may be small but still charming. In the subdued light of a rainy day, the old stone lanterns gave a soft orange glow and the wet moss glowed radioactive green. Not hard to imagine a girl sitting exactly where I was, a hundred years ago, contemplating the same view.
Remember that geisha are not prostitutes. Rather they are consummate hostesses, highly skilled in the art of refined entertainment. Today, all over Japan, the geisha numbers are dwindling. But here in Kanazawa, as in Kyoto, you just might catch a rare glimpse of one if you are lucky enough.
In the Shima house, I was mindful that this was a space where girls were groomed to be skilled professionals, masters in the art of beauty, pleasure, song, dance and conversation, where they entertained their clients over hours of music and wine. I delighted in wandering the tatami-mat rooms, looking at the details -a trio of shamisen lovingly encased in girlish flowery fabric pouches, the blue and white porcelain sake bottles standing neatly in rows in a kitchen cabinet and the dainty hairpins and accessories that once adorned their hair.
In Higashi Chaya, we also visited the Hakuza Gold Leaf store. Kanazawa is known for its gold leaf and you’re likely to find flakes of it even in your food! Well, you can’t take a girl to a shop that sells pretty gold leaf accessories and leave empty-handed, so KH bought me an elegant pair of gold-leaf dangly ear-rings. The centrepiece of the store is a former kura (storehouse) converted into a dramatic showcase of gold-leaf with its walls entirely coated in gold inside and out!
Our walk through Higashi chaya also threw up a nice surprise. A friendly Japanese lady tending to her plants outside her machiya stopped us for a chat. She was born in that house and it has been in her family for at least 150 years already. In fact her house is considered a historical asset under the protection of the city government. Wish we could have had a peek inside but we didn’t want to impose.
The Kazuemachi is another geisha district an easy walk across the road and the bridge from Higashi Chaya. Sited on the river bank, this was equally quiet and deserted that day with most houses and shops already shuttered. Kazuemachi exuded a more intimate feel than Higashi Chaya with its narrower back lanes and leafy riverside setting.
An old neighbourhood shrine with unknown graves and a mossy stone wall:
And finally to close the post on Kazuemachi, something to give new meaning to the term ‘red light district’: From this point, we cut back from the river side to the main street heading back to the hotel beside the Kanazawa JR station. We stayed at the Dormy Inn. Have to say we love it. Each time we come to Kanazawa we stay here. It’s clean, comfortable, value for money and right next to the train station and the bus terminal, making transfers and sightseeing a cinch. On top of that, their breakfast buffet is generous by Japanese standards and gives a good variety.
We said goodnight and goodbye to Kanazawa with a sushi meal at Nishiki market. This being Kanazawa, known for its seafood, the freshness of the fish did not disappoint. It was a great way to end our short visit to Kanazawa. The next day we would be headed back to the mountains for our journey across the Japanese Alps in the Kurobe Alpine Route.