The 21st Century Contemporary Art Museum, gold foil

I’ve been thwarted! Foiled! My grand idea for today was to go to Takayama, a well-preserved old town in the mountains. I’d researched beforehand that you can get there by train from Kanazawa via Toyama, but today when checking the timetables I saw that there are only like three trains a day between Toyama and Takayama. I saw to my horror that our only option to get there would see us in Takayama no earlier than 14:30, and we’d have to take the train back before 17:00, so it’d be a lot of train hours for very few sightseeing hours… With Hiroshima it was totally worth it, but we’ve seen several old quarters already.

So we stayed in Kanazawa! I put together an alternative plan for the day and we took a bus to see the 21st Century Contemporary Art Museum in the centre of town. It’s a very modern disc-shaped building, in a low-key kind of way. The floor plan is a perfect circle, inside of which lots of smaller rooms make up the different exhibitions. I think they might not have a permanent collection at all, and instead change up their entire space with temporary exhibitions.
To our surprise, the place was packed, mid-morning on a Thursday! Lots of Japanese patrons, several classrooms of kids, and a few foreign tourists. The main exhibit was about pairs of everyday objects, like phones or kitchen utensils, one with a traditional design that has withstood the passage of time, the other a modern take on it. There were also paintings, a nice museum shop, and an interesting installation that looks like a swimming pool, except you can walk into a room under it and it looks like you’re under water.

The ticket to visit all exhibitions cost 1000 yen (€8.6), which felt a bit steep when we didn’t know what to expect (what if they ended up having only those awful installations where it’s just a tube TV playing a DVD on a loop?!), but we ended up spending the rest of the morning at the museum. The tasteful glass architecture is worth the visit alone, and on top of that we enjoyed the artworks too. Obviously Kenrokuen and the old quarters are a priority when visiting Kanazawa, but if you can find the time, drop by the museum!

We sat down to get our bearings once we were done -it’s deceptively difficult to find your way in a perfectly circular building because there are few reference points!- and we happened to witness the entire group of kids getting ready to leave. They were sitting in lines, all kids from the same class in one line, and the teachers were taking coats from bins. Each kid would take their coat, then sit down again. Once they were done, they put on their bright yellow hats, put their coats on, bowed to the museum staff, and yelled arigato gozaimasu all at the same time. When they left, like ten museum employees lined up along the exit to wave all the children goodbye. A spectacle! 

We had lunch a few blocks away towards the city, at The Cottage, a tiny restaurant behind a big mall where an Irish man and a Japanese woman make Italian food. We had delicious pizza while they made their own pasta from scratch, and they assured us that we had picked the best week of the year to visit Japan! I mean, today it was cold and rainy, but yesterday was glorious when we visited the garden, so go us!

For the afternoon, we went back to Higashi Chaya-gai, the geisha district. We came here on our first day, but it was night-time and lots of places were closed. It was nice to see the old streets in daylight, and we suspect we saw one or two geisha having an early dinner before work or walking hurriedly down a small side street.

We visited the Sakuda Gold Leaf Company, which has its headquarters a few minutes north of the main street. We went because they let you walk into the workshop where they work on the gold leaf. The “tour” is a shop attendant just letting you into the workshop and giving you a quick explanation of how they work, but I loved it nonetheless. 

They explained to us in English that they take very small amounts of gold and then pound it into very thin sheets, which they cut in four, pound again until a thinner sheet of the same surface is produced, then again and again over days. The resulting gold sheet is so thin, 0.1 micra thick I understood, that it’s literally translucent (we were able to see the ceiling’s lights through it). We also saw how a worker cut square sheets: she would use a wooden instrument to cut four sides off (the leaf is so thin that just pressing wood against it is enough to cut it) and then she would gently blow the remaining scraps into a box, where they would be reused. 

They also offered us tea with actual gold flecks floating on the surface -it didn’t taste any different but I guess I’m now richer inside!- and made sure we admired the restrooms on the second floor, where the walls are plated in gold and platinum. Again, it sounds very Saudi prince, but it’s done in good taste.

We also visited Shima, a 200-year-old geisha house that can be visited for 500 yen (€4.3). I was very interested to see the inside of the house, but it was dark, freezing cold, and crowded. Walking around inside I could easily picture the guests having dinner around a table while geiko filled their sake cups or played the shamisen, but all in all maybe give this one a pass.

On the way back down the street we walked into almost every single shop there, partly because they’re all amazing beacons of taste and beauty, but really mostly because we were freezing and we needed to get warm every few steps!

When we crossed the bridge to find our bus stop, the JR bus arrived almost instantly. We almost jumped on! So now it’s time for a well deserved rest, as we pack our bags to return to Tokyo tomorrow, in preparation for our flight back home the day after. Our Japanese adventure is coming to an end, but I feel we’ve seen everything we had set out to see and so much more. Coming to Kanazawa was a great choice, if I do say so myself. Tomorrow’s afternoon in Tokyo will be a wonderful bonus to an already amazing trip.

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