It was now time for us to leave the Japanese alps behind and head closer to the sea for a change of scenery. The city of Kanazawa is located right at the coast of the japanese sea and a fairly big transport hub. Apart from being a tourist attraction itself it also serves as a jump of point for trips out onto Noto peninsula.
We managed to get back into couchsurfing and stayed with Tsuyoshi and his wife for three nights (thank you again!).
Once we got of the bus at the train station and armed ourselves with a map from the tourist information we headed for omi-cho market. About 90% of the stalls and shops there sell seafood in all variations, but there were fewer eating options than in Hakodate for example. The shops here were all located in buildings and the streets had been covered with tarpaulin rooves over metal frames which means when it starts raining you will know it at the bottom. The variety of products seemed to us wider than Hakodate with fewer shops specialising only in crabs for example. The sushi restaurants around the outer buildings had really long queues of people waiting despite being fairly expensive. Shoppers seemed to be almost exclusively locals; we were the only tourists at the time.
On our way back to the station we walked past a café advertising an origami tea time on certain Sundays and remarking that we should do it the next day, when two ladies charged out and round the outside to intercept us and invite us in for an origami introduction. Even though it was Saturday, there were five pensioners in the café waiting for somebody interested in the art of paper folding. We got a choice from a selection of figures to learn. Zoë opted for a balloon while Matthias went for the samurai helmet / fish. The old ladies were very good at teaching us and the men gathered around for a chat. They were all members of the wa-wa-wa club. One wa stands for peace, another one for conversation and the third for circle. The folding was a bit tricky but thanks to our well experienced teachers we had no problems. We were a bit sad, when we had to leave them too soon but the café closed and we moved on back towards the station.
Our host picked us up from the station and took us first to his house and then out for dinner. We got our first experience of ‘cook-you-own-ramen’. In such a restaurant you get your cold pot with the neatly arranged ingredients and cook it on a gas ring in the middle of your table. We also discovered that the local ramen speciality comes with a milky broth which became really rich and creamy towards the end. Japanese tend to not turn the gas off (only down) and just eat the solid parts of the dish while the sauce gets reduced. At the end, rice is added (served as a separate side) together with an egg (optional) and then eaten as essentially a second meal.
We were lucky with our timing both because of the season and weather and because Tsuyoshi had free time to show us around his home town. Together we went to the castle and the adjacent garden. The castle is consists of just a few buildings and only parts of them are original. The majority of what can be seen today is as you as the 20th century but still looks quite original. We decided not to go inside but to wander around the park on the castle hill which grants good views over the city. In good weather the japanese sea is visible in the distance.
Kenrokuen park on the other hand is beautiful; definitely worth a visit. Is it a large park that was originally set up as the private garden for the lord of the castle but has been open to the public for a long time. In it’s center is a big lake with turtle island in it and some nicely arranged streams flowing into it. At the corner closest to the castle is a famous two-legged stone lantern. Despite its rather small size it is famous only because two-legged lanterns are very rare; most of them have four or three.
Because we arrived there in November, we got to see another sight: all the pine trees at the lake shore had been tied up to large poles by dozens of ropes to stop them from breaking under the heavy snow load during the winter. We also found almost all the trees bearing their full autumn foilage for which Japan is so well known. While wondering around we got caught and interviewed by a group of you Japaneses girl scouts. They had a few sheets of paper with English questions on them which they read out to us asking about our origin and our experience and opinion of Japan. This was a good way of getting children to practise their English and to get used to talk to strangers even though they still were quite shy. We loved slowly wandering through the park and found it quite relaxing despite the tour groups and loads of locals. One reason for this was that it was the weekend and on those days locals can go in for free. For us it was ¥400 which is very good value since the park is big and well looked after.
In the afternoon we went to Kanazawa noh art museum for a quick look around the free part of the exhibition before heading to the samurai district. This district featured many traditional houses that used to belong to various classes of samurai but sadly only a few of them remain. We went into the house of a high-ranking warrior and even though the plot is only a fraction of its original size, it is still very nice to see. For us the garden was the highlight with it’s little stream, trees, bushes and stone bridges and lanterns.
At this point our guide/host had to leave us but promised to pick us up after dinner. Just a few hundred meters down the road is the house of a poorer samurai (free), which shows the simpler style of living.
The other thing Kanazawa is famous for is gold leaf. The city’s market share within Japan is 99% and so it comes to no surprise that it is also omnipresent everywhere in the city. Places even sell food decorated with it. The most common example for this is gold covered soft-serve ice cream. There is a whole district dedicated to this local product (the gold; not the ice cream) which is great to wander around. All houses are of the traditional Japanese style with wood lattice works on the outside. Tsuyoshi recommended going to a family run gold beater workshop (free) rather than the museum. This was a very good tip because we got to see people working with those thin-as-air sheets as well as seeing a broad range of products decorated with gold. To get to this level, gold is rolled into sheets and cut, before being placed between waxed paper bound to books and then hammered. Workers transfer the gold to bigger ‘books’ after each hammering stage until they reach their final thickness of as little as 0.0001mm!
Having learned from experience that some highway buses get booked up very quickly, we went to the train station to book our tickets to Kyoto. We generally recommend booking buses in advance, but this is not always possible if you don’t speak Japanese. This time we were lucky to get the tickets we wanted.
The next day our host offered to take us up north and show us around Noto peninsula. This stretch of land is very popular for its beaches, nature and scenery. Getting there and around without your own set of wheels takes quite a while and only gets you to a few places i.e. the two main towns. Our great host showed us his favourite spots along the western coast. Along this shoreline, sandy beaches alternate with tall cliffs and rocky outcrops. One beach is particularly noteworthy since it is the only beach that people are allowed to drive on. The track is called chirihama nagisa driveway and just a smidgen under 9km long. Even buses drive along it. During the peak (summer) season it gets jam packed and people come from as far as Tokyo (even by public transport!) just to see this beach and go for a swim. Driving is still tricky and we saw one bus and a few cars getting stuck in parts with soft sand.
Our next stop further north was at a cliff outcrop with some small rocky islands and a cave through which we walked. It was quite cool especially with the small sea tunnel next to it which created big swirls with the incoming waves. On the other side was a rocky shore line offering short walks around and a tourist boat trying to lure us in for a 20min ride costing ¥1,800 only to go to the next bay which we could see all of from the cliff top for free.
As it was getting late we stopped for lunch before crossing over to the east to relax in wakura onsen in Nanao. This is one of the two main town on the peninsula and a fairly famous onsen town.
Entrance to the baths was surprisingly cheap (¥400) and soon we found ourselves relaxing in the hot water and steam. It was hotter than our last hot springs in Hoheikyo and we were happy about the slight cool breeze while sitting in 42 degrees hot spring water. The baths also featured a sauna each for men and women and while Matthias stayed with our host, who was not a big fan of the hot air boxes, Zoë made full use of it. She was amazed to find a tv inside and enjoyed watching sumo wrestlers while sweating away before diving into the small cold pool outside. Two hours later we were back on the road, but before we drove back Tsuyoshi had a surprise for us: he took us across the bridge to Noto island just in time to watch the sun go down behind the hills beyond the sea, setting both sky and water on fire in the process.
The onsen had made us all tired so a coffee stop was required on the way back. For dinner we opted for a Japanese curry which by this point was still new to us. It tastes a little bit like a medium-spicy Indian curry but more earthy and is always brown. We had seen it before as plastic food models but it never really appealed to us. Like most curries it comes with rice and options usually include beef or hamburger (no, not with the bun). Despite the rather plain looks it tasted very yummy and needless to say this was only the first of quite a few more curry dinners.The best part of the restuarant was the free refills of thinly cabbage as we were noticing a lack of vegetables in most japanese meals.
Post-onsen tiredness and full tummies saw us crawling into our futon beds rather soon after some green tea and chatting with our nice host and his wife.
The next moring our host drove us to the station where we got on our bus to the city of 1000 temples, Kyoto.
During this couchsurf we slept on propper futin beds for the first time. We had heard many stories about this infamous sleeping-on-the-floor arrangement but we slept very well and found it quite comfortable. Even bony Matthias, who usually struggles with rather hard sleeping surfaces, had three good nights sleep and no aches.
Overall we found Kanazawa to be quite a nice place. The highlights to us definitely were Kenrokuen garden and the leafgold district. With its good transport connection it is easy to get to and a good hub to explore the area. Noto peninsula seemed to be popular with cyclists and Kanazawa is a good place to start exploring this big part of Honshu stretching into the Japanese sea. Overall we recommend two days there if you want to see all the sights in the center. Distances are easily walkable if you have time but there is a circular bus route connecting all the main points of interest. For a full day of hopping on and off you should buy the day pass for ¥500 (single fare ¥200).