Ishikawa Prefecture: Arts & Crafts…and Sake in Kanazawa

Ishikawa Prefecture lies on the west coast of Japan’s main island, a part of Hokuriku in the larger Chubu, or “central”, region. It is best-known perhaps for its capital city of Kanazawa, an old castle town rich in history and natural beauty and surprisingly compact in size (a good thing — more on this later). Kanazawa offers a range of sightseeing destinations and cultural experiences — not to mention the tasty food — that will delight history buffs and artisans alike.

Ishikawa Prefecture is not just rich in history; it is also historically rich. The prosperous Kaga Domain — led by the Maeda clan — which occupied this area during the Edo period precipitated the development of an array of fine arts, crafts, and products. On a recent trip to Kanazawa, I experienced a few highlights including Kanazawa gold leaf, Kutaniyaki porcelain and Ohi-style pottery, and locally brewed sake.

Kanazawa Gold Leaf

Kanazawa Gold Leaf

There aren’t many flashier ways to show off your wealth than to cover everything you can get your hands on with gold, and that’s pretty much what the Meada clan decided to do back in the day. Thus, Kanazawa’s traditional gold leafing (gilding) was born. The craft is still practiced today, and with almost all gold leaf in Japan being produced right here in Kanazawa.

I visited a long-established gold-leafing shop, Sakuda, where I watched prefessionals at work, perused a sea of glimmering items, and took a workshop to gild my very own pair of chopsticks. Call ahead to make a reservation for a workshop.

Sakuda Gold & Silver Leaf (English)

Kanazawa Gold Leaf
A Delicate Touch: Handling the unbelievably thin sheets of gold requires a steady hand, traditional bamboo tools (to which the gold does not stick), and the ability to hold your breath. Not a job for those with allergies, perhaps.

Kanazawa Gold Leaf
All in a Day’s Work: A worker prepares square sheets of gold leaf. After cutting them by lightly pressing them with a bamboo frame, the sheets are carefully transferred to paper with bamboo tweazers. A light breath flattens the gold leaf against its new home (being sure to hold it down lightly to prevent it from quite literally flying away), and the leftovers are discarded with another gentle puff.

Kanazawa Gold Leaf
Hold Your Breath: Think you have what it takes? At Sakuda, you can try your hand at gilding your very own pair of chopsticks (makes an excellent souvenir, by the way). Call ahead to make arrangements.

Kanazawa Gold Leaf
How About a Snack: It’s not dirt that gets stuck under your nails in this line of work. Our workshop teacher even encouraged us to take a nibble of the extraneous gold leaf trimmings; I thought about trying to gild one of my front teeth, but better judgement prevailed.

Kanazawa Gold Leaf
Showing Off: The first floor of the shop features an incredibly wide range of gorgeously gold-leafed products that are great for souvenirs and gifts. The second floor features larger items like the intricately decorated screen partially pictured above. Did I mention that the second floor women’s toilet is gilded, while the men’s is covered in platinum leaf? The Maeda clan would be proud.

Kutani Porcelain

Kutaniyaki

Kutani ware (“Kutaniyaki” in Japanese) is a well-known traditional style of ceramics. The Maedas were responsible for bringing this art to Kaga as well, after rich deposits of clay were discovered, with the production method and colorful designs influenced heavily by Arita in Saga Prefecture, where a Maeda lord sent a member of the clan to study that region’s ware. Kutani is of course still in production today, and many places around Kanazawa proudly use the locally produced porcelain every day, so keep your eyes peeled the next time you’re offered a cup of tea!

Kutaniyaki
A vibrantly colored example of Kutani ware.

Ohi Pottery

Ohi Pottery
A tea bowl (chawan) for the tea ceremony crafted by the progenitor of Ohi himself hundreds of years ago.

Pottery also thrived in Kaga, with a very heavy link to the tea ceremony. The Maeda clan was also responsible for cultivating this art, which is named after the Ohi family who has historically produced it, the first master potter of which took the name Chozaemon. The pottery is created entirely by hand (i.e., no wheel) and, having been originated specifically to create vessels for the tea ceremony, consists mainly of chawan tea bowls.

Ohi Pottery
Another piece by the first Chozaemon, the beautifully simple design of this vessel is accented by a shrimp-shaped handle on the lid.

Chozaemon’s descendents, including Chozaemon X and his son Toshio, are in Kanazawa creating hand-made Ohi masterpieces to this very day. Their family home and gallery, as well as the Ohi Museum, can be visited for a unique glimpse at living history.

Ohi Pottery
The Ohi family’s traditional home serves as their base of operations to this day.

Ohi Pottery
Connected to the house (and acting as the main entrance) is the gallery where visitors can browse and purchase works by the current generations of this venerated artisanal family.

Ohi Pottery
Behind the house and gallery stands the Ohi Museum, containing centuries of artistic Ohi history.

The Ohi family also offers tea ceremony experiences which can be arranged by calling ahead. English is spoken very well here, so there is no need to worry about a language barrier. For more information, please visit their official website below.

Ohi Museum (English)

Ohi Pottery
This author highly recommends arranging a tea ceremony, which you will enjoy in a tatami-floored tea ceremony room of the Ohis’ historical home.

Local Sake

Yachiya Sake Brewery
Welcome to Yachiya Sake Brewery. Inset: A sugitama — literally “cedar ball” — indicates that sake is being brewed here.

Visiting a local sake brewery is an absolute must for fans of the libation on a trip to anywhere, really, and Kanazawa is certainly no exception. A personal recommendation is the Yachiya Brewery which produces the fine Kaga Tsuru line of sake and liqueurs. Besides sampling their delicious products, Yachiya offers tours of their brewery (JPY 300/person, calling ahead recommended). To get the most out of your time there, a winter visit is recommended as that is when the sake is actually in production. Either way, the brewery is a charming old building, and the fruits of Yachiya’s labor were quite possibly this author’s favorite souvenirs from the journey.

Yachiya Brewery (Japanese)

Yachiya Sake Brewery
Behind the Scenes: Moving from the front shop back into the production area, you pass this offering to the gods for a successful brew.

Yachiya Sake Brewery
Living and Breathing: As the yeast does its job mid-brewing, the fermenting mash is a lively, bubbling affair.

Yachiya Sake Brewery
The Big Squeeze: This hefty machine is used to filter the sake from the mash…by squeezing it really, really hard!

Yachiya Sake Brewery
Just a Taste: Genshu, the freshly squeezed sake prior to maturing. Let me tell you from experience, it packs quite a punch.

Yachiya Sake Brewery
Ready and Willing: Bottles eagerly await the finished product. Yeah, I’ll just go ahead and reserve the entire top row, please…

Recommended Hotels

Hotel Nikko Kanazawa

Hotel Nikko Kanazawa

This high-rise hotel located just outside Kanazawa Station is the top-rated hotel in Kanazawa on TripAdvisor.com (as of April 2012). It goes without saying that the hotel offers great access, but it also offers a variety of quality accommodations to choose from at reasonable rates, and the higher floors offer spectacular views of the city. Enjoy the night view from the hotel’s restaurant on the 30th floor, or venture out to one of the local restaurants or pubs in the area!

Book a room at Hotel Nikko Kanazawa!

Dormy Inn Kanazawa

Dormy Inn Kanazawa

Coming in at number 2 on TripAdvisor.com right on the heels of Hotel Nikko (as of April 2012), Dormy Inn Kanazawa is a perennial favorite for its extreme proximity to Kanazawa Station coupled with its functional, stylishly designed and very affordable rooms. It is also one of the only hotels in Kanazawa offering natural hot spring spas and the only one this close to the station. Besides the other establishments in the area, the shopping mall across the street offers a number of dining options.

Book a room at Dormy Inn Kanazawa!

Kanazawa Hakuchoro Hotel

Kanazawa Hakuchoro Hotel

If visiting Kanazawa Castle and Kenrokuen is at the top of your list, Hakuchoro Hotel just might be the perfect place to stay. Located right next to the park, and with a loop bus stop in the area, getting around to other Kanazawa destinations is a breeze. Popular spots like Higashi Chaya and the 21st Century Museum are just a 10-minute walk away. Hakuchoro also offers natural hot spring facilities. It offers spacious rooms and a quaintly nostalgic design mixing European furnishings with Japanese motifs a la the Taisho period (1912 – 1926).

Book a room at Kanazawa Hakuchoro Hotel!