In an attempt to escape Kyoto’s increasingly insane heat in Early August a couple of years back we decided to take a mini-break to gorgeous Kanazawa. Had we known it was in the middle of a heatwave and it would feel every bit as hot and humid as Kyoto we might have chosen elsewhere.
Nevertheless it was a splendid diversion – due in part to booking an air-conditioned hotel room so were able to sleep, icepack and fan free for a night. To actually sleep soundly… instead of what we had been experiencing for month or so prior (and post) – laying awake in an airless hotbox, dreading the night – broken only by momentary lapses of consciousness from exhaustion – to be woken briefly afterwards in pools of sweat where we would again lay awake craving real sleep until it was light enough to get up and officially start the day. Truly dire.
Kanazawa is a couple of hours west of Kyoto by direct train and costs about 6000 yen each way from Kyoto Station. Its a tourist friendly, well planned out, artful city with a famous and wonderful garden, Kenrokuen, at its heart. You will find well deserved Samurai and Geisha districts lined with stunning machiya (shophouses) and kura (storehouses) etc and lots of gorgeous places to stop for tea and traditional sweets. Kanazawa people love their food almost as much as Kyoto folk and there is indeed some very fine fare to be had. And being on the coast – seafood dishes – particularly sushi and sashimi are foods to look out for. More on that later. However, before I forget – I recommend you seek out the dark chocolate yokan in the Samurai area and the sweet ginger senbei nearby. Oh my.
There is a completely daggy part of town very much stuck in the 80’s (when the “bubble” brought sudden growth) which houses some of the most ugly architecture known to man – but if you manage to avoid that pocket you will only see beauty in this city.
There is also a ninja house lurking somewhere – we didn’t make it there this trip but from my childhood memory it was a lot of fun.
And if you are staying in the area make an early visit to the fabulous Omicho food market.
On this occasion our first stop after arriving was the 21st Century museum of Contemporary Art
The striking petri dish of a building is worth a visit just for its circular design and internals -but do make sure you go for a ‘swim’ in the pool. What fun.
Watch your head if you are tall… my partner managed to knock himself to the floor on the door’s edge…
…then through to the adjacent temple district…
… and back across the bridge to the hotel via that 80’s eyesore part of town (actually it was worth it just for the giggle but so at odds with the rest of this elegant city).
We stayed at Kanazawa Excel Tokyo hotel, in a rather average and very small room (and trust me, I am not one of those foreigners who complains about small rooms in Japan because I am very well versed in them – however this did feel a bit like we were shafted into the dodgy room – most obvious after we witnessed many other rooms on our floor during the cleaning process) but it is in an excellent location so we have to give it that. And, as someone was a little under the weather and still rather shaken from his brush with ‘the swimming pool of death’ we stayed in and ordered room service which was surprisingly good for a hotel of this standard. And also reasonably priced.
The following morning we headed straight for Kenrokuen. We were both keen to grab a coffee somewhere but it was early and we didn’t like our chances. Lo and behold we walked by a restaurant and souvenir store where brilliant purple shiso leaves were drying in baskets out the front.
We stopped to admire them and chatted with the owner who then invited us into the restaurant for breakfast. I still don’t know if they were actually ready to open but the entire menu was available to us at 8am.
We ended up having the most pleasant and unexpected experience – tucking into an egg donburi (ricebowl) and a simple bowl of noodles with tofu and fishcake accompanied by ume (plum) juice and friendly service in a stunning 2nd floor room all to ourselves. What a way to start the day.
Just to confirm – it is this very restaurant on the left – situated, with several other cafes and shops on the walking path that hosts the main entrance to Kenrokuen.
If you look carefully you might find these tins of crab and prawn “drops” for purchase (they’ve been selling them here for as long as I can remember) I THINK they are confectionary…. and although Kanazawa is famous for its seafood I decided to pass on that particular treat. As I have done every time I have visited Kanazawa during the past 32 years!
We finally made it into the garden but sadly couldn’t last more than half an hour – the sun’s rays were piercing us like lazer beams. Before we took our leave I managed to grab a few snaps in order to share Kenrokuen’s beauty with you.
**Oh! hold up! before you view this stunning garden I would like to point out that I find it also incredibly beautiful in the snow and have in the past incorporated both Kanazawa and the stupendously well-preserved town of Takayama into the one blissful, whitewashed trip. I highly recommend getting to both these places if you have the opportunity. It is a 3-4 day getaway if you do it at a semi relaxed pace – and accessible by train from either Kyoto or Tokyo via Nagoya. Takayama is another of my favourite destinations in Japan.
Anyway – without further interruption – Kenrokuen…
Dehydrating faster than we could ever replenish with water we retreated to find somewhere cooler. Someone needed reviving with a sakura (cherry blossom) flavoured softcream.
These Kakigori on the right ( shaved ice sweets) certainly looked refreshing too… but I was still full from breakfast…
And we were about to pack our bags and head to lunch…
Ishiya is a restaurant serving local specialties – recommended by fellow foodie friends -Kyoto-ites Tad and Bridget.
|Ishiya||2-8-3, Hikoso-Machi, Kanazawa||076-264-0161|
The restaurant space itself was a cool oasis. The small man-made river running through the restaurant helped us to feel immediately refreshed.
The subtle welcome from the hostess asleep at the front desk afforded us a smug chuckle. Ha! The heat had beaten her but we were still holding fast. Yeah!! OK, so she had about 40 years on us so I guess the fact she hadn’t actually expired in that heat was a sign she was doing more than alright at her advanced age.
When she awoke (with a start – she wasn’t expecting foreigners!) we were led to a private tatami room and handed cooling oshibori to cleanse our hands before the feast. There was one other customer in the restaurant – a regular who’d clearly settled in for the afternoon. A bottle of 17 year old Hibiki whisky resting by his glass.
We chose to start with a quenching ale, served in frosted glassware complete with indentations in case you weren’t quite sure where to put your fingers..
As we sipped the restorative golden ale (it’s a hot day when I drink a beer of any kind…) we took some time to inspect our surroundings. Considered and elegant. Traditional hospitality in a modern setting. Textured paper walls, zen inspired window design, subtle sculpture, polished concrete, interesting use of light and mirrors.
We had finally escaped the heat and were truly relaxing. The menu for our set meal arrived and we quickly perused it -picking out the hiragana and katakana and the handful of Kanji we could understand between us. We had a general idea what we were about to experience – but there is nothing like a little mystery in your meal? yes? no?
Ah… sea snail – a local delicacy. It looked harmless enough at first and it was rather tasty having been simmered in dashi until tender.
But the most sought after bit, the greyish brown … er liver I think.., looking more like the tongue of tiny dead bovine, was not to my liking and I have to admit to secreting a piece of it back into the shell, pressing it deeply into a corner with the aid of a chopstick. A dining sin I’m reluctant to share but even those of us who claim to eat pretty much anything do have our limits sometimes. I had reached mine on this day. I ‘d washed most of it down with a chug of beer (from here on to be referred to as slug and chug) but the last little bit proved a little too challenging. I guess it was a textural thing more than anything. The flavour was not really to my liking but it certainly wasn’t offensive. Many Japanese absolutely adore this little critter. I’ll be happy to share mine any time.
Thankfully some wonderful sashimi arrived next. Including sweet raw prawns and the suction caps from an octopus tentacle.
Next came a delicious Kaga Ryori (meaning cuisine of the Kanazawa region) specialty known as Jibuni – a little hotpot containing lightly floured duck pieces (sometimes chicken) and vegetables, sometime fu (wheat gluten) simmered together in a broth containing soy and sweet mirin.
Next we plucked some manju gai (large manju/dumpling shaped clams) from their shell and cooked them briefly on the hot rocks which had been placed in front of us.
For the second time this meal I felt considerably challenged. The partially raw clam was certainly edible but as the soft, creamy, orangey innards oozed into my mouth and coated my teeth I was once again forced to turn to alcohol. The excellent local sake rinsing away any sticky residue.
Next up was tempura of seasonal vegetables and Gori -a small, locally famous fish. You eat him whole and he is derish.
Closely followed by Kani-su. A chilled dish of vinegared Crab with cucumber and wakame. The perfect food for hot, hot weather.
And finally, ojiya, a soupy rice dish with local seaweed and Japanese herb seri. Served with pickles.
I have no recollection of the dessert -likely a simple piece of fruit and a small spoonful of ice cream or sorbet… we were far more intrigued by our Whisky drinking co-patron who had tapped on our shoji, asking if he might enter. Bottle in hand he called for the waitress to bring two glasses. How lovely I thought… until he poured only for himself and my partner. Oh, that’s right… I’m a woman. What a quaint custom… My partner is a smart guy and insisted I taste his. Our new friend was a little surprised but said nothing. Later he sent us both a glass of sake. Then returned to top us up so I really can’t complain.
Soon after the chef came to join our party and we were quickly touring the restaurant and laughing with the crew (if slightly deliriously?)… all of whom by that late stage would have been forgiven for attempting to quench their own thirsts with a little of this or that.
We waved goodbye to our charming hosts and exited the restaurant as some wandering minstrels tooted by advertising a community event. Tres colourful…
Although it was still extremely hot we made the most of our remaining time in Kanazawa by visiting Higashi Chaya (one of the two main Geisha districts – loosely translating as East Tea district) where we greedily snaffled small, tasty gifts to share with friends back in Kyoto. If only we’d had some room to stop for tea and sweets… Take a peek below and get a feel for the place. But be warned – you’ll be wanting to hop on the first plane. Just Gorgeous.