The city of Kanazawa, often referred to as a 'little Kyoto', happens to be one of my favourite places in Japan. I can't quite put my finger on why, but I think it might be the fact that the city reminds me somewhat of the image I had of what Kyoto might be like before I came to Japan. Kyoto, as beautiful and attractive a city as it is, is also quite a large and modern city, and happens to be on the main tourist routes for both Japanese and foreign travellers alike.
Kanazawa, on the other hand, is a little bit off the beaten track, and hasn't had as much exposure to the outer world as other parts of Japan. This could explain why the city maintains a sense of individuality, and while exploring it, it's difficult to ignore the fact that there is a lot of style and art intertwined in the landscape of the town.
The Kanazawa Chaya ryokan appears to be heavily influenced by this tradition of art and good taste that pervades the town in which it can be found. A facade of dark wooden lattice, a tile-roofed porch with white noren hanging from it, and bamboo growing neatly in front of the windows; this small, compact and stylish city ryokan can be reached on foot easily in roughly 3 minutes from the East Exit of Kanazawa Station. Despite its urban setting, the traditional Japanese inn provides a small oasis of calm for the weary traveller making the pilgrimage to Kanazawa in search of cultural and artistic stimuli.
Rooms are Japanese style, with tatami floors and all the traditional trimmings. As with the entirety of the building, the interior design is tasteful and attractive; instilled with the old school of wabi-sabi aesthetics that Japanese architects have aimed to encapsulate in their work for centuries. Yet, while there is clearly respect for conservative designs, the rooms also have a sense of modernity, freshness and cleanliness - oozing quality and opulence.
The ryokan has a small number of rooms - 9 on the 3rd floor, and 9 on the 4th floor, making just 18 in total.
Male and female baths can be found on the first floor of the building. Guests can enjoy a nice warm soak in the hot waters of the public baths, either in the morning or the evening before bed.
The ryokan also has 6 private dining rooms on the 2nd floor, as well as a larger banquet hall for dinner functions. The nakai-san wait on guests while wearing kimono.
Notice in the photo below how a phone has been covered with a beautiful print cloth with a butterfly design - a perfect example of how the Kanazawa Chaya ryokan fuses art with functionality to create an attractive and pleasant atmosphere.
The ryokan has its own restaurant, Kappo Tsuzumi, which serves the finest traditional Japanese cuisine. Pictured above is a selection of sashimi, served in a sleek black wooden box. The tempura was absolutely delicious!
Kaikaro Tea House
Kanazawa, with its long and uninterrupted history provides the visitor with a wide array of activities and attractions to fill up their days. Sightseers really are spoilt for choice, and this time I was lucky enough to be visiting one of the old chaya (tea houses) in the Higashi Chaya district.
The tea house I visited is called Kaikaro and, having been established more than 180 years ago, has been refurbished and is still functioning as a working tea house to this day.
Stepping through the entranceway, I was immediately struck by the exquisite decor inside - everything was completely balanced and tasteful. I didn't have much time to take in my surroundings as I was greeted kindly, and enthusiastically, by the staff. They ushered me into the front room where there was an open-hearth and sat me down.
Presently they brought me some maccha green tea and a sweet local to Kanazawa.
After I'd had my tea and cake, I was whisked upstairs to a main hall where I sat and waited quietly until the okami (proprietress), Baba san, came to introduce herself. She sat in the seiza position on the tatami floor and proceeded to explain to me in a beautiful and confident voice about some of the histories and workings of the tea house.
Some of which included: the tea house offers members a chance to hold parties in the evenings ranging from 2-30 people on the upper floors. Geisha attend these parties on occasions, and entertain the guests. Membership is by introduction only - new members may only be admitted if they are introduced by an existing member. The parties last 90 minutes, due to the traditional Japanese method of measuring time - in the old days burning a stick of incense was a measurement of time which lasted approximately 45 minutes. An average party length is 2 sticks of incense, hence 90 minutes. Guests do not bring their wallets to the tea house, so they do not have to worry about paying bills after their meals, however, they are expected to pay their tab twice in a year.
The more I listened to Baba san explaining about the exclusive members-only parties, the more it got me curious to experience one of them! Unfortunately, that was not going to happen today...
Baba san showed me around the rest of the chaya, including backstage where the geisha get ready before their performances. There was so much of interest to see: red-lacquered stairs, a tea room with tatami made from gold-laced woven straw, and absolutely astounding fusama-e, which are the lovely paintings and illustrations on the sliding doors.
Although it would prove difficult for casual visitors to attend dinners at the Kaikaro with geisha in the evenings, there are still activities open to members of the public during the day. Baba san showed me downstairs to the area I'd had tea in before, and I experienced an extremely popular calligraphy activity at the tea house. I was taught how to write my name in Japanese kanji characters using a traditional fude brush and black ink. After a few practice runs, I was given a fan to write my name on and take home with me as a souvenir.
Many thanks to Baba san and the staff at Kaikaro for being so kind, patient and entertaining!
Click here for a map for Kaikaro Tea House
No trip to Kanazawa would be complete without paying a visit to Kenroku-en Garden. The garden was developed under the ruling of the Maeda family - an influential and powerful family in the area. The garden was initially a private one, but was opened up to the public in 1871. Now, it is considered to be one of the top three gardens in Japan. Some argue that it is the finest of the three.
One thing that the garden is famous for is one of the gardening techniques carried out here yearly. Due to the large amount of snow that falls in Kanazawa in winter, the trees' branches are protected from the weight of the snow by slings that are attached to the tops of each tree. This is known as yukizuri in Japaneses, and a common winter sight in the gardens is of the trees bound up and covered in snow. Unfortunately there wasn't any snow when I visited, although the trees were braced and ready for it!
My visit to Kanazawa was a short one this time, but for those interested in other activities while in the city, I would suggest The 21st Century Museum, Myoryu-ji Temple (Ninjadera), the old samurai houses of Nagamachi, and to wander the cherry blossoms around the castle area in spring.