Sunday, 20 April 2014

Spring Break in Kanazawa

It has been three years since the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that caused devastation across northern Japan and since that time, the country has been working vigorously to encourage the return of overseas tourism back to its shores. Encouraged by the gradual devaluation of the Japanese yen, sightseers have begun to return, although there remains determined competition between the various cities to attract its share of the tourist dollar. One place that continues to make positive strides in generating local and overseas interest is the city of Kanazawa. Positioned north east of Osaka, it is nicely nestled between its picturesque mountains and the Sea of Japan. With a population of less than half a million people, this ‘castle-town’ offers a very manageable alternative to many of the larger and more familiar destinations. It is also one of the few locations in Japan that has not suffered from the ravages of war or natural disaster. So with Kanazawa only a few hours away by train, Jules and I thought that we might indulge ourselves with an over-night stay to celebrate the beginning of Spring.

Emerging from the impressively modern railway station, we could feel the warming sun and while there was still snow on the mountains, there were signs that Kanazawa was beginning to thaw out from a particularly cold winter. Council workers were beginning to dismantle maypole-like structures often used as supports for tree branches laden with snow, while the first signs of pink and white blossom could just be seen. Of course the best place to observe the transformation into spring would be at the famous Kenrokuen Garden, which is widely regarded as one of the best in Japan. It sits alongside Kanazawa Castle Park, which is also a pretty impressive sight, with each capturing perfectly the symbiotic relationship between traditional Japanese culture and nature. As we wandered around the fastidiously manicured gardens, we constantly came across beautifully harmonious tableaux with visitors sitting on benches quietly absorbing the scene. A bride and groom in traditional dress were being photographed amongst the blossom of the Japanese plum grove, while close to the Meijikinen monument an old man could be seen balancing a spinning plate on a bamboo stick. There were quaint wooden teahouses jutting out over reflective ponds that narrowed into winding streams as well as the occasional gently flowing waterfall. Kenrokuen Garden was certainly living up to its reputation and with such perfect spring weather, we couldn’t imagine it looking much better.

Another reason for visiting Kanazawa was to have a look at one of the most cutting edge art galleries in Japan. The 21st Museum of Contemporary Art was opened in 2005 and has already attracted over 1.5 million visitors. As we approached the impressive low lined circular glass building, we sensed that this minimalist environment would provide us with some interesting encounters with modern art. With permanent works from artists such as Leandro Erlich, James Turrell and Anish Kapoor, the gallery gained a reputation for innovation and has openly set itself the mission of ‘awakening Kanazawa’s creative energy and becoming a compelling regional cultural attraction’. Sadly, our creative energy was left a bit flat when we discovered that the majority of the gallery was actually closed due to preparations for its next exhibition. All we were able to do was just wander around the buildings outer perimeters, catching sight of the odd piece of art here and there. Still, we remained positive, as we have learnt over years of traveling that there are occasionally such disappointments. It certainly didn’t dampen our enjoyment of the city, after all there were plenty of other things yet to see in Kanazawa before heading home.

Kanazawa has quite a few historic districts and over the two days we were there, we spent quite some time wandering through backstreets exploring them. To the east, the Higashi Chaya area is still regarded as the geisha district of the city, with a streetscape of wooden houses that wouldn’t have changed too much since the feudal-period. To the west, the Nishi Chaya district is known for its traditional tea houses, while just a short walk away is the beautifully preserved walled residences of the Nagamachi area that allowed us to see where the samurai once lived.

Over the past few years, Jules and I have seen many Buddhist temples, but we hadn’t seen quite as many in such a concentrated place as we did in the Teramachi district (meaning ‘temple-town’). With over seventy temples packed into just a few streets, we could easily imagine how in feudal times this district would have been regarded as a major religious centre. While most of the larger temples on the main street had been well preserved, we felt that the smaller, less maintained structures in the back streets also tended to provide a valuable insight into how this area might have once been many years ago. Clearly Kanazawa was becoming more mindful of its past and was now making every effort to preserve what remains of its historic districts. By revitalizing its artistic and cultural traditions, it was not only celebrating the city’s unique place in Japanese history, but would also ensure a strong economic future through tourism.

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