Well-preserved Kanazawa more accessible on Japan's new bullet train

kanazawa
The new high-speed Shinkansen line travels from Tokyo to Kanazawa in about two hours. The trip is covered by the Japan Rail Pass and reservations are required. The city became much more accessible last year with the opening of the line.

KANAZAWA, Japan - In Japan, history is frequently right around the corner: a venerable little shrine, a neighborhood temple that's survived both war and redevelopment, maybe even a castle. But the sense of being immersed in the past is rare. Even Kyoto, famed as the country's redoubt against modernity, has no large area that meets the Western definition of a historic district.

But there is another city that, like Kyoto, was spared U.S. firebombs during World War II. Kanazawa is not quite a Japanese Williamsburg, but it does contain numerous neighborhoods of Edo period (1603-1868) structures. Long more popular with Japanese than foreign visitors, the city became much more accessible last year with the opening of a new Shinkansen line. The high-speed trains hurtle from Tokyo in about two hours. It's a hop worth making.

The train station, like Kyoto's, is emphatically modernistic. But it does bow to the past with a mammoth wooden gate called Tsuzumi, after the hand drum it somewhat resembles. The gate faces east, toward the city center and a large bus plaza. Unlike most Japanese cities of its size, Kanazawa has neither a subway nor trams. The main attractions are mostly within walking distance, but a loop bus circles past them.

One morning in late July, the argument for the bus was immediately evident. Kanazawa is one of the wettest nontropical cities in the world, soggy in summer and snowbound in winter. Midsummer in Japan can wilt even an August-tested Washingtonian, and if Kanazawa felt no muggier than the rest of the country, the breezes off the Sea of Japan were bringing more dampness, not relief.

Heading clockwise, the bus' first notable stop is the Higashi ("east") Chaya-gai, with many wooden structures and a reminder of the Japanese genius for euphemism. Chaya means teahouse, but tea wasn't the principal attraction of this area, once known for geishas. Today, a few preserved geisha houses, notably the elegant Shima, are open to the public. Built about 200 years ago, it was among the city's first two-story structures. Inside is a collection of instruments of the sort played by hostesses and a view of a tiny garden, misted by fake rain sprayed from an apparatus that's conspicuously modern.

In a Western precinct that preserves the bygone, such machinery would be carefully hidden. But that's not the standard in Japan, where overhead electric lines and even satellite dishes are often seen in neighborhoods of historic homes, temples, and warehouses.

Many of the area's other buildings have been converted to gift shops and restaurants. The number of the latter that serve only sweets and (nonalcoholic) drinks may surprise first-timers in semi-historic Japan, but such establishments abound everywhere in a country with a steady flow of tourists.

According to its sign, a teahouse that actually serves tea has been in business since 1625, although its 17th-century clients probably wouldn't recognize the place. One eatery serves a rice-ball lunch for $15, which would be exorbitant except that the price includes a lesson in making them. At the shops, wares range from art to kitsch; one refined establishment was selling $2,900 teapots and $10 bottles of "Ninja Sauce."

Kanazawa means "gold swamp," a name traced to a legend about a peasant who found gold in a bog. The story is unlikely, but the city's craftspeople have taken it to heart. Kanazawa is home to virtually all of Japan's gold-leaf production. Because gilding is essential to Buddhist art, business is golden.

In Higashi Chaya-gai, several shops sell gilded items, ranging from jewelry to cosmetics to postcards. The largest is Hakuza ("gold-foil place"), whose products include gold-infused liquor and green tea cake edged in edible gold. The shop boasts the world's first gilded outside wall, although the siding - on a small warehouse that also has a glittering interior - is not exactly outside. It's in an interior courtyard, sheltered from the juicy air.

Adjacent to the teahouse area is Utatsuyama ("rabbit dragon mountain"), a hilly district packed with Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. There are no major edifices, but the small compounds and winding lanes make for a picturesque (if often sweaty) stroll. On the west side of town, the balance is reversed: There's a smaller old teahouse district, abutting Teramachi ("temple town"), one of Japan's largest temple precincts.

Kanazawa's other major historic area is the Nagamachi ("rowhouse town") Samurai District, a residential area in which a few houses have been converted to museums. Most of the buildings don't actually date to the samurai era, but the newer ones respect the traditional style. I walked this area in the early morning before the museums were open and was able to explore some small gardens and outbuildings. The sun was not yet scalding overhead, and I was refreshed, at least psychically, by the waters of the narrow canal that bisects the neighborhood.

These old-fashioned areas set Kanazawa apart from most Japanese cities yet are not the town's primary attraction. That's Kenrokuen, generally ranked as one of the country's top three gardens. The 28-acre expanse was created by and for the Maeda clan, which ruled the area from the 17th to the 19th century. It's on a hill affording views of the city, and manmade summits within the garden provide vantage points on the nearly 9,000 trees (supported by ropes during heavy snows) and other features. A teahouse built in 1774 is the oldest surviving structure; a geyserlike fountain powered by natural water pressure was the first in the country.

Kenrokuen means "garden of six attributes," a reference to a Chinese poet's checklist of essential characteristics: antiquity, artifice, panoramas, seclusion, spaciousness, and waterways. As is typical of Japanese gardens, Kenrokuen offers a circuit through various landscapes and suggests an entire world, albeit miniaturized and much tidier than the real one. At the center is Kasumi Pond, the Pacific of this demimonde.

On an adjacent bluff, and linked by a short bridge, is Kanazawa Castle. It's impressive at first glimpse, but the fortress won't make any top-three lists. As a second look reveals, it's mostly new. A few parts remain from the original, but the bulk of the castle has been built since 1989, replacing the buildings of a university that relocated nearby. Yet the pristine white walls and gull-wing roofs make a dramatic setting for what has become a pleasant landscape. Kenrokuen was once the castle's outer garden; now the castle grounds have become a sort of annex of the adjacent landmark.

Japanese tourist sites are always flanked by drink vending machines, which are especially welcome in the summer. But the castle has something I'd never seen before: an air-conditioned vending-machine lounge. It was more crowded than the walkway along the parapets.

Down the hill from Kenrokuen and the castle is the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, which has no interest in such dated phenomena as cubism or abstract expressionism. Opened in 2004, the museum emphasizes interactive and site-specific work, such as Argentinian Leandro Erlich's The Swimming Pool, which simulates the experience of gazing through water from above or below. One of the most engaging pieces is outside: Danish artist Olafur Eliasson's Color Activity House overlaps curved glass walls in cyan, magenta, and yellow, which combine to yield various hues from different points within or without.

I didn't have time for the city's many other museums, which include collections not only of art, history, and traditional crafts but also (Japanese) modern literature and (international) phonographs and records. At the last, an Edison wax-cylinder machine is demonstrated thrice daily. I also skipped Myoryu-ji - the so-called "ninja temple," full of secret rooms and passages - because it must be visited on prebooked tours that offer commentary only in Japanese.

Instead, I followed a sculpture-lined path along the canal that edges the castle mount, headed toward my hotel and the bustling, seafood-heavy Omicho market. Along the way, I visited Oyama ("big hill") Shrine, whose name refers to the location of the castle that towers over it. The shrine is notable for a gatehouse with a most un-Japanese touch: stained-glass windows.

Despite such curiosities, Kanazawa's temples and shrines are no match for Kyoto's. But thanks to the new Shinkansen line, there's no need to pick one city over the other. The next day, I boarded a limited express for the two-hour trip to Kyoto. The total traveling time from Tokyo was only slightly longer than if I'd gone to Kyoto directly.

Jenkins writes about film, music and visual art for The Washington Post and NPR.