Kenroku-en and Nagamachi

After a big, hearty breakfast at the hotel, the first order of business today was to visit Kenroku-en, Kanazawa’s most famous attraction and one of the Three Great Gardens of Japan. Its name means “Garden of the Six Attributes” because it has all six classical attributes that a garden is supposed to have in the Chinese and Japanese tradition: “spaciousness, tranquility, artifice, antiquity, water courses, and magnificent view from the garden,” according to the tourism information centre’s documentation.

We took a bus from the station, packed with people, that stops unnecessarily in six bus stops where nobody gets off before reaching Kenroku-en in the city centre, where the entire bus vacated. We walked a little bit uphill to find one of the garden’s multiple gates and paid 320 yen for a ticket (€2.7).

Right off the bat we were greeted by Kenroku-en’s main sight, that of the pond with the famous two-legged stone lantern in the foreground. It was cloudy and cold, and before ten in the morning the garden was already busy with tourists, overwhelmingly Japanese and Chinese.

It’s hard to overstate the elegant, timeless beauty of the garden. It’s very wide, with lots of meandering paths that reward exploration with the discovery of narrow streams, or pavilions hidden by leaves on top of small hills, or vast views of the city below, or commemorative monuments with statues… I could go on and on! We had walked for only a few minutes when the skies began to clear above our heads and the sun began to shine, filling us with warmth and bringing out the autumn colours of the trees.

One of the many monuments in the garden is to Matsuo Basho, the celebrated haiku poet, and it displayed a sign with one of his haikus that was apparently written here in Kanazawa in the 17th century. If the websites I’ve checked are correct, it’s a haiku about the sun shining in the face of cold autumn winds. It was an amazing feeling to read that in this stunning garden while, almost four hundred years later, the sun is indeed shining in the face of cold autumn winds.

The deeper we went into the garden, the more vivid colours we seemed to find. Many trees were still green, many were transitioning from yellow to orange, some were bright red, some were even a darker, rust shade, which I hadn’t seen before (in Kyoto, maple tree leaves seemed to fall before reaching that shade). 

A very typical Kanazawa sight is that of giant cherry trees with ropes tied to their branches; they do this all through winter so that the heavy snows won’t weigh the branches down. Other trees had crutches or girders to support or to guide them; this is the principle of artificiality, the painstaking work required to make something look natural and spontaneous.

Most of the people in the garden, although as eager to photograph everything as we were, were very respectful and non-intrusive, except for a woman who insisted on loudly dragging her wheelie-suitcase all around the garden’s gravel paths, and a Japanese tour guide with a microphone who kept yelling at her elderly guests to hurry up so she could move on to the next spot. Rude! Also, buy headsets and leave the rest of us alone!

We made sure to cover all the different areas of the garden, sitting here and there to take in the view, but eventually and begrudgingly we had to accept that we’d seen the place and we had to leave. On the way out a girl asked us to fill out a park survey and gave us a hand towel as a souvenir. It came wrapped in the shape of a flowerpot (just take my word for it) and the wrapper said “Dolce à la mode.” I don’t have the heart to tell them that those are two different languages. 

We crossed over to the Kanazawa Castle Park, where the castle used to be. It burned down long ago, but the walls and the moats remain or have been reconstructed, with some sections like a turret or an armoury available to visit. 

We decided to skip those and instead wandered around the castle grounds, which include another garden. It wouldn’t be fair to compare it to Kenroku-en across the street, plus it’s more of a landscape garden than a strolling garden.

When reaching this garden and looking at the map, I realised we were only a 10 min walk away from Nagamachi, Kanazawa’s old samurai district. It’s a very small but amazingly conserved neighbourhood from the Edo period of Japan, where the houses of samurai and the shops of the merchants have survived WW2 and been exquisitely cared after. 

There are two ancient houses that can be visited by the public, for a fee; one is an old pharmacy which was either closed or not where I thought it was, and the other is a samurai’s house that we opted not to walk into; we were happy to keep walking around the old streets. We did go into a gorgeous Kutani porcelain store inside one of the traditional houses -we had to leave our shoes outside to step onto the tatami-floored shop- showcasing fine examples of the region’s traditional pottery. Some of the most intricate incense burners cost between €800 and several thousand euros. Wow! There were also moderately priced saucers or chopstick rests for plebs like us, thankfully. There are also renowned yokan stores nearby, for those who want to buy sweet omiyage.

After this fruitful and soul-enriching walm across history, we went back to the modern part of town for lunch. We ran into a Tokyu Hands store on the way, which I had been recommended to visit. It’s like a more ragtag version of Loft, with a bigger emphasis on DIY, but still very fun to browse through!

What a productive day! I am so glad to have found the time to add Kanazawa to the itinerary. It’s absolutely worth the visit!

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