It was time for what would be my longest day of transit while in Japan. From Sapporo I took a train to New Chitose Airport to get on a flight back to Tokyo. I could have gone by rail instead of by air, however that would have taken about 8.5 hours total—from Sapporo to Shin Hakodate-Hokuto Station is about 4 hours and from there the shinkansen (bullet train) back to Tokyo would have taken about 4.5 hours. Flying, on the other hand would only take about 1.5 hours, plus some extra time for getting to and from the airport and going through airport security, but even with those additional things I’d still be getting to Tokyo in less than half the time. I didn’t have any issues at the airport and it turned out to be an uneventful flight on Vanilla Air back to Narita International Airport. As I learned later, the air route between Tokyo and Sapporo is the busiest in Japan, though I wonder if that will change when the shinkansens finally go all the way to Sapporo.
From Narita Airport I took a N’EX (Narita Express) train to Tokyo Station since my rail pass covered it, and there I made a reservation for a shinkansen to Kanazawa—a town on the Sea of Japan side of the country. I had an hour before the train left and I took the opportunity to look around Tokyo Station some more, as well as to buy a light meal for the train ride. The meal was comprised of a sandwich and a bottle of Pocari Sweat, which is an athletic beverage with a gross name but actually tastes just fine. The train ride to Kanazawa took a bit over three hours and was moderately scenic. I had hoped for some nice views of the Japanese Alps but the shinkansen spent much of the time passing through tunnels, so I only got a few views of the mountains.
From Kanazawa Station I walked to my guesthouse, which was about 20 minutes away, very close to the Higashi Chaya District of the city. Google Maps took me on an interesting route through some narrow backstreets but I eventually came out onto a main road and was soon at my destination. For my two nights in Kanazawa I had a private room, which was notable change from the last few places I had stayed at. It wouldn’t be the last time I had a private room on this trip but most of the time in Japan and Korea I stayed in shared rooms to save some money. For dinner I walked over to a grocery store, but being the bumbling idiot that I am I forgot to bring a large bag and I even somehow forgot to ask the cashier for a large bag, and so I ended up carrying everything back in multiple small bags. I can only imagine was a hilarious and pathetic sight I must have been for anyone who saw me that night.
After dinner I went into the Higashi Chaya District to gather some photos of it at night. The Higashi Chaya District is a part of Kanazawa with a lot of teahouses and other traditional Japanese buildings. Because Kanazawa was never bombed in World War 2 and has had relatively few natural disasters over the centuries it has a number of districts like Higashi Chaya where you can get a glimpse of what towns used to look like during the Edo Period (when Japan was isolated from the rest of the world). Since it was after dark everything was closed but on the plus side there wasn’t anyone else walking around in the streets and alleys that night, allowing me work without danger of being interrupted. When I finished I returned to the guesthouse and went to bed.
The next morning, for the first time in my journey across Japan, I actually got up early and walked again to the Higashi Chaya District to get some more photos before the crowds showed up. Surprisingly, it was a full hour before I saw another tourist show up. From about 7:00am to 8:00am it was just me walking around, plus the occasional local passing through. Being early in the day, the sun was in a problematic position for certain photos but I still got some good shots. At about 8:30am, when more people started arriving, I wrapped up my photoshoot and went back to my guesthouse to eat and prepare for the rest of the day.
To get around town that day I’d be using a bicycle that the owner of my guesthouse very graciously allowed me to borrow. It was one of those commuter bikes with only a few gears, and the breaks were a bit squeaky, but it would allow me to see a lot more of Kanazawa than if I was on foot and gave me more flexibility than if I was taking public transit. Also it was free, and it’s hard to argue with free. As I biked around town I couldn’t help but notice that in Japan people tend to ride their bikes on the sidewalk. This was kind of weird for me since in America you’re generally expected to bike on the shoulder of the road and leave the sidewalk to pedestrians, and though I tried to imitate the locals as much as I could I ended up going into the street a few times when the sidewalks got crowded.
It was a warm, humid day in Kanazawa and I worked up a sweat cycling uphill to my first big sightseeing stop: the Kenrokuen Garden. When I first arrived I couldn’t find the appropriate bicycle parking lot but a kind attendant pointed it out on my map and soon I parked my bike and walked up to one of the entrances. The Kenrokuen Garden used to be the outer garden of Kanazawa Castle and today is regarded as one of the best landscape gardens in Japan. I’m no gardening expert but from my limited experience in Japan I can confirm it was among the best gardens I saw there, and from what I’ve seen online it looks really good during both the plumb and cherry blossom season, and in the autumn when the leaves change colors. Among the ponds, streams, teahouses, and other things in the garden, one of the things that stood out to me were the trees that had wooden posts to support their branches. I’m not sure what species of tree they are, but they have branches that extend way out from their trunks. Rather than let the branches sag or break, the garden staff have placed wooden posts under the branches to give them support. There’s one really big tree of this kind in the garden that apparently was planted a few hundred years ago by one of the former lords of Kanazawa. The other thing that really stands out in my mind from my visit to the Kenrokuen Garden were all the small groups of school kids who were running around asking foreigners like me where we were from. It must have been some sort of school assignment they were doing and they had maps of the world that they were filling in as they found foreigners from different nations. Judging by how seriously they were taking the assignment, I’m thinking there might have been some sort of prize for the group that spoke to the most foreigners.
Right next to the Kenrokuen Garden is Kanazawa Castle. The ticket I had bought to enter the garden was actually a combo ticket for both the garden and one other attraction in town of my choosing, and I selected Kanazawa Castle as the second place for my ticket because I’ll never say no to a castle. Like many other castles across Japan, Kanazawa Castle has burned down a few times over the past several centuries, and that means much of what you see of it today is a reconstruction. I entered the castle grounds and ran into some more of those school groups, though these kids were slightly older and had school uniforms. Before going into the parts of the castle that require a ticket to enter I walked around some of the rear areas of the castle grounds. At one point a snake slithered across the path right in front of me. I then entered the ticketed parts of the castles. There’s not too much on the inside of Kanazawa Castle, but there are lots of dual-language displays on the castle’s construction and some of the notable people who have lived in it. Two of the castle turrets can also be climbed for decent views of the area. Be aware that the stairs up into the turrets are very steep and since you have to take your shoes off when entering the castle you need to be extra careful when climbing them if your socks slip easily on hardwood.
Upon leaving the castle I went back to my bike and rode it first to the Kazuemachi Chaya District, which is another tea house district but much smaller than Higashi Chaya, and then I moved on to the Omiecho Market. The market is a colorful network of covered streets that mostly sells fresh seafood as well as some produce. I wasn’t feeling all that hungry so I didn’t buy anything while I was there, but I remember the owner of my guesthouse said that the restaurants at the market are a popular place for lunch among Kanazawa’s locals.
It was now getting into the afternoon and I continued on to the last two major sightseeing stops of the day. The first was Oyama Jinja Shrine. Dedicated to the first lord of the clan that used to rule the city, the Oyama Jinja Shrine has a very unusual entry gate for a Japanese shrine. The reason it doesn’t look like other Japanese structures is because it was designed by a Dutch architect who combined both Western and Eastern influences when creating it. Originally the gate was within the grounds of Kanazawa Castle but was later moved to where it now stands at the entrance of the shrine. Within the shrine grounds you can find a small garden and a pond with an interesting series of wooden bridges. The next place I visited was Myoryuji Temple, aka Ninjadera (“Ninja Temple”). Even though there’s no historical evidence that there were ninjas at Myuryuji Temple, it is sometimes called Ninja Temple because it’s full of clever defenses meant to confound potential attackers. The building was the home and headquarters of a regional lord and is full hidden passageways, secret rooms, traps, and escape ways. Photography is strictly prohibited within the temple, so I can’t show you what the inside looks like, and when I visited it was also mandatory to make a reservation prior to visiting the temple. Online reservations weren’t available when I was there, but the owner of my guesthouse was kind enough to call the reservation desk for me and got me a 4:00pm tour of the temple. The tour guide didn’t speak English, but I was given an English guidebook that explained everything we were shown on the tour. When I walked out of Myuryuji Temple the thought on my mind was “Wow, the guy who built this place was super paranoid.”
To finish off my day I then rode to the Nishi Chaya District, the third of Kanazawa’s teahouse districts. I went there not so much to look around, though I certainly did spend a few minutes checking it out, but mainly to pose a photo of my bicycle to send to a friend of mine who’s really big on cycling. After that it was time for the long ride back to my guesthouse. I had covered a fair amount of Kanazawa on the bike that day—more than I could have gotten to on foot or even by bus—and I got a good amount to exercise while I was at it. When I got back to the Higashi Chaya District I saw that the tourists were starting to clear out and many of the teahouses were closing for the day. With all the sweating I had done that day I thought it best to do laundry rather than head out again that night, and I was kind of tired anyway. It had been a long day of cycling the city.
Compared to the previous day, getting up at 8:00am the following morning felt like sleeping in. My departure train didn’t leave Kanazawa until the early afternoon, so after eating and packing up my backpack I had time to squeeze in one last bit of sightseeing. Again borrowing the guesthouse’s bicycle, I rode all the way out to the Nagamachi District, which used to be where Kanazawa’s samurai lived. Though most of Nagamachi is now comprised of modern buildings, the historic part of the district still has a few streets that show how that part of the city used to look. Some of the homes in Nagamachi also have small gardens that are open to the public. I wandered around the district until I needed to start cycling back towards my guesthouse and before arriving I stopped to get a photo of the Asano River that’s right by Higashi Chaya.
Once I got my backpack from the guesthouse I took a bus back to Kanazawa’s train station. When I had first arrived in Kanazawa I just walked out without taking a look at it but this time I stopped for a moment to get a picture of the main entry gate, which is meant to look like a pair of giant Japanese drums. Kanazawa had been a cool little stop on my journey across Japan, but the beat of those drums indicated that it was now time to leave and head for one of the country’s most popular destinations. It was time for Kyoto.