There’s more to Japan than just Tokyo and Osaka, and with a bounty of underrated attractions under its belt, the city of Kanazawa proves that it also deserves to be on any tourist’s radar.
Located in Honshu, Kanazawa serves as the capital of the Ishikawa prefecture and is often referred to as “Little Kyoto” because of the similar olden Japanese feels that it gives off to visitors.
If you’re into a nostalgic experience, luck is on your side because Kanazawa is chock-full of well-preserved temples, as well as samurai and geisha districts, giving visitors a glimpse into its colorful past.
Aside from being a cultural site, this city, situated by the Sea of Japan, is also a haven for nature lovers with its lush gardens perfect for a peaceful respite.
What was once a hidden gem is now slowly being discovered by plenty of wanderers, since travel time from Tokyo got cut down to just 2.5 to 3 hours when this destination became available via shinkansen in 2015.
Whether you’re looking to go to Kanazawa on a day trip or staying longer to explore all its nooks and crannies, here are the best things to do on your vacation:
Relax amidst Nature at Kenrouken Garden
When you’re in Kanazawa, you’ll have the privilege of basking in the beauty of one of the Three Great Gardens of Japan—the Kenrouken Garden.
Kenrouken Garden, which was once the private outdoor garden of the Kanazawa Castle, became open to the public in 1871.
The name “Kenrouken” translates to “Garden of the Six Sublimities,” with “sublimities” referring to the six features of the garden that are attributed to its perfect aesthetics, namely: spaciousness, seclusion, artifice, antiquity, water sources, and magnificent views.
Located in the very heart of the city, Kenrouken Garden spans over 11 acres.
At each corner you turn, expect to discover a myriad of beautiful sights that will take your breath away.
The Garden’s main focal point is the Kasumigaike Pond, a tranquil oasis surrounded by towering trees and lush, landscaped shrubbery.
On it stands the Kotojitoro Lantern, known as the symbol of the Kenrouken Garden’s entirety.
Kenrouken Garden is nice to visit all year round because of its beautiful flora and fauna.
Whether you opt to visit in spring when the cherry blossom trees bloom or during winter when frost covers the grounds and the pond, a magnificent view is sure to greet you.
You will also find an ancient villa within Kenrouken Garden.
Seisonkaku Villa, a traditional Japanese villa, was constructed to become a retirement home for the mother of a feudal lord of the Maeda clan.
Revisit History at Kanazawa Castle
No trip to Kanazawa is complete without a visit to Kanazawa Castle, located not far from Kenrouken Garden.
The historic castle was once the home of the Maeda clan, the ruling feudal family during the Edo Period.
Throughout its long history, the castle’s buildings burned down one by one until only a few of its structures remained in 1881.
A few sections of the castle have already been reconstructed and are open to the public, with more underway.
Enjoy a nostalgic stroll along its grounds as you try to picture the past events that this historic castle bore witness to.
See the Artworks at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art
Take a break from exploring ancient Japan and stop by the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art.
This modern art museum is located right next to Kenrouken Garden and boasts an impressive collection of contemporary artworks for art lovers.
Built in 2004, the 21st Century Museum is housed within a contemporary building with an open layout made to look like a park.
The museum holds numerous galleries all year round and has a few permanent exhibitions.
Some of the must-see works include “The Swimming Pool” by Argentinian artist Leandro Elrich and “Color Activity House” by Icelandic–Danish artist Olafur Eliasson.
Witness Traditional Japanese Art at Ishikawa Prefectural Museum of Art
Within the area, you will find another art museum showcasing traditional Japanese arts and crafts native to the Ishikawa Prefecture.
The Ishikawa Prefectural Museum of Art houses an impressive collection of traditional Japanese fine artworks and pieces dating back four centuries during the Edo period.
The museum highlights the 36 traditional crafts of the prefecture spread throughout its seven permanent exhibitions.
From porcelainware to vintage kimonos and samurai swords, the museum has a wide collection of historical Japanese art and has on display a few pieces from the Maeda clan’s private fine art collection.
Explore the Samurai District of Nagamachi
Feed your fascination with samurai culture further in Nagamachi District.
The samurai played vital roles in society during feudal-era Kanazawa, and they resided with their families in the houses in Nagamachi, located at the foot of Kanazawa Castle.
The location boasts a whole stretch of well-preserved samurai houses and olden buildings that all survived the destruction brought on by World War II.
A top attraction in the district is the Nomura-ke Samurai Residence, a restored samurai villa that once belonged to the Nomura clan.
The samurai villa showcases the beauty of traditional Japanese architecture, features a sprawling landscaped garden, and has various artifacts of the Nomura clan on display.
Spend Some Time at Higashi Chaya District
Kanazawa has three geisha districts and Higashi Chaya is known to be the biggest and most prominent.
During the Edo Period, the nobility frequented the “chayas” to have tea and sake and to be entertained by the geisha.
On your visit to Higashi, explore the well-preserved chayas and get the feel of the olden days of the entertainment district.
Many of the original buildings have been converted into shops but there are still some chayas that are functional.
However, if you wish to be entertained by geishas, you must be a regular customer otherwise you are not eligible for the experience, as it is a tradition since the Edo Period.
Higashi District is home to another must-try experience and that is enjoying soft-serve ice cream topped with an edible gold leaf!
As you must know, Kanazawa is a major manufacturer of gold leaf products, and one way you can enjoy it is by consuming it, so don’t forget to drop by Hakuichi Ice Cream Shop and try out this unique cuisine.
Take in the River Views at Kazuemachi Chaya District
If you’re looking to escape the crowds at Higashi Chaya, you may want to head to Kazuemachi, one of the other geisha districts.
Kazuemachi is located on the south side of the Asano River, offering awesome river views to anyone who visits.
At Kazuemachi, you’ll get a similar experience as Higashi but with added peace and quiet.
You’ll find that their chayas are also well-preserved and they also have nice rows of shops worth exploring.
Experience Zen at D.T. Suzuki Museum
Near Kenrouken Garden is a unique museum, unlike anything you’ll ever see in Kanazawa.
Simple, minimalist, and peaceful, the D.T. Suzuki Museum was constructed in 2011 as a tribute to Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki, or D.T. Suzuki, a Japanese-American monk who was credited for bringing Buddhism to the West.
The museum is comprised of three buildings that surround a reflecting pool and is designed by world-renowned Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi, who also remodeled the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City.
As you explore the premises, you will learn more about the life and times of D.T. Suzuki, as well as his achievements and philosophies.
When you’ve finished learning about the ideologies of this visionary, you can simply bask in the peace and quiet that the contemporary museum offers each of its visitors.
Be in Awe at Kanazawa’s Ninja Temple
While there weren’t actual ninjas in Kanazawa’s history, the Myoryuji Temple is a house that might very well be a fit residence for a ninja with all its deceptive defenses.
Also built in the Edo Period, Myoryuji Temple served as a secret military outpost to protect the ruling Maeda clan at a time when the shogunate or the military leaders of Japan wanted to reduce the power of the feudal lords.
Trapdoors, secret rooms, hidden tunnels, and a maze of over 20 rooms and staircases are only some of the interesting features of the temple meant to ward off intruder attacks.
Located in the Teramachi District, the Ninja Temple can only be visited through a guided tour, so it’s highly recommended to make reservations.
Gorge on the Freshest Seafood Dishes at Omicho Fish Market
Omicho Fish Market has been around since the Edo Period, and for more than 280 years, the vibrant market has been serving the freshest seafood caught from the Sea of Japan.
There are about 200 shops and stalls in the market, selling a variety of goods from fresh seafood and local produce, ranging from fruits and vegetables to clothes and souvenirs.
Of course, a visit to Omicho Fish Market would not be complete without sampling the local fare at one of the many restaurants in the area.
Don’t miss out on the freshly-cooked seafood dishes and other Japanese cuisines.
There are also a few sake shops where you can have a cup of Ishikawa Prefecture’s native sake to wash down the delicious meal you’ve just had.
Marvel at the Beautiful Architecture of Oyama Shrine
Oyama Shrine is constructed in 1599 in honor of Maeda Toshiie, the ruler of the Maeda clan.
It first stood on Mount Utatsu and was moved to its present location near Kanazawa Castle in 1873.
The most interesting feature of the shrine is its gate.
Built in 1875 by a Dutch architect, the eccentric gate harmoniously marries Japanese, Chinese, and European designs to form its unique design.
The highest story is adorned with beautiful Dutch-style stained glass windows.
Aside from enjoying the architectural prowess of the shrine, you can also have a serene stroll along its blooming gardens surrounded by lush greeneries and a peaceful pond.
Explore the Kurando Terashima House
Another must-visit samurai house when in Kanazawa is the Kurando Terashima House.
Located between Kanazawa Castle and Higashi Chaya District, the house was also constructed during the Edo Period and offers a glimpse of the olden days of feudal Japan.
The house belonged to Kurando Terashima, a samurai who served the Maeda clan and held office until his final days.
A trip to the house will give visitors an idea of how the middle class lived during the Edo Period, and through the artifacts and heirlooms that are put on display, you will gain more information about the original residents of the home.
The traditional-style house boasts an amazing backyard garden, teeming with azalea trees and a variety of other lush greeneries.
Learn about Phonographs at Kanazawa Phonograph Museum
There’s no shortage of eccentric museums at Kanazawa and the Kanazawa Phonograph Museum is just one of those places off the beaten path that simply must be given a chance.
Hiroshi Yokaichiya, a phonograph store owner during World War II, donated his personal collection of phonographs and SP records to the Kanazawa Government, who later created the museum to educate the public.
The museum showcases an impressive collection of phonographs gathered throughout the 18th and 19thcenturies, most of which are functional to this day.
For those who want to know how phonographs work, the museum holds demonstrations every day at 11:00 am, 2:00 pm, and 4:00 pm, so make sure to schedule your visit during those times to get the most out of your experience.
Other Things to Do Nearby
Leave Your Stresses Behind at Kaga Onsen
For further relaxation, head to Kaga Onsen from Kanazawa on a day trip on board an express or local train, and you’ll arrive after only a 25- to 60-minute travel time.
Kaga Onsen is made up of four hot spring towns adjacent to Mount Haku, one of the highest mountains in Western Japan.
These spring towns—namely, Yamashiro, Yamanaka, Amazu, and Katayamazu—were said to have been discovered by monks who were on a pilgrimage to the mountain.
Whether you opt to try the public bathhouses called “soyu” or check-in at their hotel called “ryokan” with its own bathhouse, you’ll feel the energy of the mountain when you take a dip in the hot spring baths.
While the hot spring towns are situated away from each other, the Canbus shuttle bus can get you to each of them so you can explore all.
Witness Magnificent Coastal Views at Noto Peninsula
If your goal is absolute seclusion from all the hustle and bustle, then head north from Kanazawa towards the Noto Peninsula, an underrated coast location that’s a 90-minute drive from Kanazawa.
Noto Peninsula’s charm is its rugged beauty— from its breathtaking coasts and its untouched forests, the location takes you away from civilization and unites you with nature.
The best thing about taking a rental car to explore the Noto Peninsula is you get to take your time as you explore the many stops before your destination and the many attractions of Noto Peninsula as well.
Ganmon Sea Cave, Shiroyone Senmaida Rice Terraces, and Mitsukejima Island are just some of the must-see spots on your day trip to the Noto Peninsula.
If you’re looking to enjoy the vibe of olden Japan similar to Kyoto but minus the crowds, then Kanazawa is the destination for you.
An underrated city by the Sea of Japan that’s begging to be explored, Kanazawa has everything for all types of visitors—from history to gorgeous nature views and delicious seafood.
Kanazawa’s attractions are enough to make you stay, but a visit to its nearby attractions, like the Noto Peninsula and Kaga Onsen, would definitely complete the experience.