A statue found while strolling around Kanazawa. Uncannily representative of my travels. Away we go!
"What?" I said. I must have heard her wrong.
"Ninjas," my girlfriend repeated. "It has ninjas."
Well now, that changed everything.
We were planning our Golden Week vacation. My girlfriend was campaigning for a city called Kanazawa in the Ishikawa prefecture. She said it boasted a garden, a castle and some nice cultural activities. I said I had already been to Kyoto. That was when she pulled out the trump card—ninjas, a veritable shuriken right to the Achilles' heel of my resolve. She also went on to explain that the garden in Kanazawa was Kenrokuen, one of Japan's three most celebrated gardens. The castle that overlooked it was a sprawling fortress that had originally been built over five centuries ago. And the cultural highlights included a Kutani pottery studio unique to the area. She started to revisit the ninja topic, but by this point I had already begun packing.
Elegant interplay of curves and lines at Kanazawa Station.
That Friday, near midnight, we groggily boarded a Willer Express highway bus outside Shinjuku Station. I scrunched myself up in the seat. It was not a luxury suite, but it was hard to complain for 5,000 yen one-way. I was asleep in minutes, anyway.
I awoke to our driver telling us of our arrival at Kanazawa Station. It was 7:40 and the station was glistening in the morning sun. Even among Japan's many gorgeous stations, Kanazawa's ranks very high on my list. The station proper, although it opened in 1898, has evolved into a futuristic dome of undulating glass and geometric metal scaffolding.
The cyclopean Drum Gate stands ever vigilant
Outside, the iconic Tsuzumimon (Drum Gate), a towering construction of twisting woodwork, complements the contours of the station even as its ruddy hue contrasts the pristine palette.
We had arrived.
I took in the panorama, breathed the fresh air, and then... got back on a bus. This time, a brief 15-minute bus ride was all that was separating me from the ultimate warriors of stealth and shadow.
There are 17 ninjas in this picture. Can you find them all?
After harnessing my chi energy...Even local signs were forced to recognize that I had "The Power." Sho'nuff!
Myoryuji, or Ninja-dera (Ninja-temple) as it is affectionately nicknamed, is recessed a bit from the street. That serendipitously provides space for vendors to set up shops along the narrow walkway where they can peddle their wares - rice crackers and foam katanas - to those who dare approach the ninja's lair. Well, as it turns out, and I would have known this had I paid better attention earlier, there are not really any ninjas there. It is so named because of its complex and cleverly constructed layout. When Toshitsune Maeda ordered Myoruji built in 1643, it was said to have been the ideal outpost: easily defended and confounding to invaders. What appears to be normal two-story structure from outside actually conceals seven floors filled with traps, staircases and hidden passages. Some even say the architect was killed to guard the site's most dangerous secrets. This "temple" is what would happen if Akira Kurosawa directed a Saw film with set pieces by M.C. Escher. The site fascinated me with its unique history and devious design, even though I did not see a single ninja. (That doesn't mean they weren't there, I suppose.)
Inside the castle's ramparts. Ready the archers!
Newly-purchased foam katana in hand, my girlfriend and I headed back to the center-city area. There, perched on a cliff overlooking the splendor of the city, slumbered Kanazawa Castle. Built in 1583 by the Kaga clan, the mammoth stone Ishikawa Gate is the only remnant of that era that survived the fires that razed the rest of the castle to the ground.
One point that was repeatedly driven home time and time again as I traveled across Japan was that history is flammable. However, an extraordinary new castle stands there now, risen like a phoenix from the ashes.
Once inside, my girlfriend pointed out the subtle complexities of the interlocking woodwork, the strategically placed apertures for attacking invaders and the majestic view that the castle commanded. Gazing back toward the gate, I saw a lively festival being held in the courtyard. In the opposite direction, I gazed down upon on the verdant oasis of Kenrokuen.
Looking down on Kenrokuen, or as I like to say, surveying the kingdom.
Views from the inimitable Kenrokuen, which effortlessly blends various natural and stylistic elements. Can you find the ninja?
I am fortunate enough to have visited all three of Japan's most prized gardens: Kenrokuen, Korakuen and Kairakuen. Though I risk exile from my second home in Ibaraki (where Kairakuen is located), I must say that Kenrokuen in Kanazawa is the most impressive. There is no comparison.
Tsunanori Maeda began work on the garden in 1676. It burned down, too. But it also was reborn, and eventually took on the sublimity it continues to this day. Kenrokuen, roughly "Garden of Six Attributes," was landscaped to include spaciousness, seclusion, artifice, antiquity, waterways and panoramas. From the artifice of yukitsuri (ropes supporting snow-laden boughs in the winter) to the panorama of clear waters and ancient stone lanterns seen atop the garden's most prominent hill, Kenrokuen accomplishes everything it sets out to do.
The garden exudes a calm tranquility and yet always provides something new to feast your eyes upon. While strolling across the 25-acre expanse, I crossed bridges, weaved amongst gnarled trees, climbed hills, discovered a small fountain and relaxed by Yugao-tei, a beautiful tea house built two years before the United States gained independence.
It was not until the following day that I was finally able to try my hand at creating something of beauty as well. Back toward Myoryuji, there is a Kutani pottery studio. There they follow a tradition dating back to the mid-1650s and also originated by local heroes, the Maeda clan. Kutani ware is renowned for the quality of the clay used and also for the bold reds, blues, yellows, purples, and greens that adorn them. For the right price, anyone can make their own piece of pottery, but my girlfriend and I opted for the value pack and spent about 30 minutes just decorating our cups. Hers bore a masterfully painted kaleidoscope of Kutani color.
Weeks later, I was looking over some pictures at home when I heard a knock on the door. I put down the foam katana and went to answer it. There stood the mailman holding a package. I thanked him, took the box and carried it into the living room. It was like Christmas. Tearing through paper and tape, it was not long before I had my mitts on a one-of-a-kind piece of Kutani ware. That deformed fisherman and the ill-proportioned octopus shone like the sun the morning I first arrived in Kanazawa. And so, I was able to bring a lot of things back from that trip with me. I had that foam katana, countless photographs and now I had this masterpiece of a mug. But most important of all, I had memories and experiences that, much like the mug, could not be made anywhere else in the world. Now if I could just find a ninja.
Bonus! Now, I know after reading this article you are already frantically clicking around our page trying to find a hotel in Kanazawa. You can't wait to go, and the really scary thing is I didn't even mention the beautiful museums--featuring everything from modern sculptures to traditional woodblock prints--the other gorgeous temples and shrines, the rare Noh theater... there is just so much to see and do in Kanazawa. You are going to want to stay awhile. So, here are three hotels in the area that I recommend for their fantastic facilities and convenient locations.
Double Bonus! Like I said, there is a lot to see and do in Kanazawa. Actually, there is also a lot to see and do all around that area. Make sure you get the most of out of your trip. Don't waste time and money wandering around the countryside lost when you can have a Sunrise Tour take you right to the most enchanting locations. Transportation, accommodation, even an English-speaking guide—the following tours are a great way to experience the region in a manageable chunk of time, whether you are looking to leave from Tokyo or Kyoto.
Triple 7s Bonus! The tours shown above are just the tip of the iceberg; check out the following link for more great tours that feature Kanazawa. With 12 tours in all, there is a package that is perfect for you and your particular Japan getaway. Or you can try 'em all!