Hiyashi Chaya-gai

Although it rained heavily all throughout the night, by the time we left our apartment with our bags the morning was cloudy but dry. Today saw us on the road again, as we took a THUNDERBIRD train to Kanazawa. With such a bombastic name I had assumed it’d be a state-of-the-art shinkansen, but it’s in fact a regional line. No thunder or birds spotted on board either.

It takes a little over two hours to make the trip from Kyoto north to Kanazawa, and it can be booked with the JR Pass. The landscape during the journey seemed nondescript from my seat, but it’s likely due at least in part to the gray, drab mist that clung to our train for the majority of the ride.
We arrived at Kanazawa Station, which is yet another massive city-within-a-city with a mall, shops and restaurants. On top of that, there’s another 7-storey mall literally next door to the station. We’re staying at the Dormy Inn Kanazawa, a mid-range hotel just three minutes from the train station. It’s very well priced for what it offers; we have to take buses to get to the sights, but they’re all quite spread out so even if we had stayed somewhere more central, we’d have to take buses for other things anyway.
The outside of the station is covered in a striking glass and steel canopy, held up by a beautiful wooden gate. It reminds me of a reimagined modern torii gate.

We dropped our things off at the hotel and went over for lunch at the mall next door. At the katsu place, where nary a word of English was spoken, I ordered everything in Japanese and as a reward the waitress basically redid my entire order, because apparently for what we wanted, there were better cuts of meat available for the same price. For dessert, we walked ten paces to the café next door where I got my second “Nihongo wa jozu desu ne” of the trip. Thanks for the encouragement!
For the afternoon, we went into town for a walk. We were delighted to find a line of JR buses that go to all the sightseeing spots in the city, meaning that we could get on with our JR passes.
The bus took us very promptly to Higashi Chaya-gai, a 19th century geisha district where all the old wooden houses have been preserved. We got there just as the sun was setting, but even in the dark we could see that it’s a charming neighbourhood.

All the two-storey houses keep their dark wood façades and black tiles. Even the shops that have opened inside keep the wooden lattice fronts, so you often have to walk inside to see what they offer. 

Kanazawa is famous for its gold leaf artisanship, unparalleled in all of Japan. Apparently the artisans here developed unique techniques to melt and mold gold into extraordinarily thin leaves that they then apply to lacquer or ceramics. There are two amazing shops in Higashi Chaya-gai where you can see the results of this craft: one is Hakuichi, the other Hakuza; the former is bigger and more affordable, while the latter is more upscale and has an amazing courtyard with a room that they have covered entirely in gold, on the inside as well as on the outside:

When we walked into Hakuichi, I felt like a kid at a candy store: everything in it was golden and shiny and beautiful! They put gold leaf in everything you can imagine -ceramics, lacquerware, jewellery- and also in everything you can’t: they sell coffee with gold flecks in it, cakes with a layer of gold on them, an actual gold shaker (as in, you use it to sprinkle actual gold onto your food, like salt and pepper), all kinds of cosmetics with gold in them… It was as if they had King Midas stocking the shelves. And, because this is Japan, instead of looking like Elvis’ purveyors for Graceland, it was all very tasteful. I got a pair of chopsticks with gold flecks on them and a black lacquered bowl with a golden brushstroke on it.
We walked around the old quarter a bit more, even as a cold air was settling down on us; you can really tell that Kanazawa is well further north from both Tokyo and Kyoto. We peeked through the lattice into shops, restaurants, galleries, workshops (many already closed for the day at merely 17:30!), and as we turned a corner it was like being transported to an older time. For a moment we were alone, and we could hear the shamisen being played on the second floor of a house, above us. We walked a little bit further, and we saw a maiko fixing her makeup inside a taxi; a geisha walked out of what I assume was a tea house and hastily went over to join her. Geisha in kimono and sandals can move deceptively fast!

By 18:00 everything was closed and everybody was going home like it was two in the morning, so we took another JR bus back to the station -this one gave us the long route, but I didn’t mind the chance to get acquainted with the layout of the city as I tracked our progress on the map.
We had dinner near the station again, after walking past a paella restaurant (they offered shrimp or beef paella; I wouldn’t be able to face you guys if I had come all the way to Japan only to have Spanish food, even as an experiment). Once again, the waitress spoke a grand total of zero English words. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a problem if I can just say my order and they say yes to everything, but if there are issues I’m not likely to understand them, so we hit a stumbling block when our order of a Caesar salad was met with objections. The waitress tried to explain it to me in Japanese; I tried to paraphrase what I understood in English, but she ended up taking out her notepad. “She’s so insecure of her English that she’s going to write down the words so as not to mispronounce them?”, I thought. “Is she going to write a symbol to mean not available, or lunch only? She turned the note over to us, and there were four little stick figures in it, standing side by side. The main plate is for four people. Would you like to order a smaller, individual plate, she was trying to say! It reminded me of the time I got lost in Tokyo looking for the Kill Bill restaurant and a shop attendant drew me the most detailed map ever, you can check it out in this very blog.
That’s it for our first foray into Kanazawa! Full day tomorrow!

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