Ishikawa Prefecture: The Historic Townscapes of Kanazawa’s Samurai Neighborhood & Pleasure Quarters

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.

Kanazawa features a number of historical districts that have been well-preserved to this day, offering visitors a chance to not just peek into the past but actually walk through it.

Nagamachi Samurai Neighborhood

In centuries past when Kanazawa Castle still towered over the town in all its glory, the multitude of samurai retainers needed someplace to live with their families. Thus was born Nagamachi, a district of now-historical lanes, gates, and homes that once housed the fiefdom’s warrior class. Today, visitors to Nagamachi can walk in the footsteps of history down the narrow, earthen-walled streets that are punctuated by old, wooden gates from a bygone era.

Kanazawa Nagamachi
The scenery gives you the distinct impression that turning the next corner might put you face to face with a kimono-clad, sword-toting local…from a few hundred years ago.

Kanazawa Nagamachi
The old gates still guard the current residents of the homes within.

Kanazawa Nagamachi
The earthen walls are protected from the plentiful snowfall in winter by straw skirts.

But walking the streets and taking in the atmospheric scenery is not the only delight awaiting visitors. The Nomura Residence, which was home to the Nomura samurai family, is beautifully preserved and open for exploration. The home features a full set of samurai armor, painted sliding doors, a second-floor tea room, and more, including a beautiful Japanese garden.

Nomura Residence

Nomura Residence

Nomura Residence
The black set of armor just inside the entrance and bat-shaped decorations appearing in some of the rooms might have you wondering if one of the Nomuras was the Edo period Batman.

Not all Kanazawa samurai lived in houses quite as fancy as the Nomuras. For lower-class ashigaru, or foot soldiers, the housing arrangements were decidedly more spartan. Smaller in size overall, the ashigaru’s homes were not permitted second floors as this would challenge the glory of their higher-class neighbors. The ashigaru were resourceful, however, employing shallow lofts to achieve more floor space while avoiding the ire of their superiors.

Ashigaru Residence
The comparitively austere residence of a low-class foot soldier.

Chaya Pleasure Quarters

Kanazawa is also home to a rich geisha culture, where the traditional, female performers are referred to as geiko. They performed in tea houses called chaya, and these chaya districts still stand today, remaining much as they were in the past. These districts, like Higashi Chaya pictured below, offer another portal back in time where domestic and international tourists alike can stroll the picturesque main avenue and surrounding side streets. The tea houses are still in use, so why not stop in for some tea?

Higashi Chaya
The main drag of Higashi Chaya.

Higashi Chaya
The Coca Cola sign on this back-alley tea house is an obviously more recent addition.

Higashi Chaya
Back in the day, “a night on the town” to the denizens of old Kanazawa would mean a visit to one of these chaya districts, with the upscale tea houses (and accompanying geiko entertainers) lining the main thoroughfare.

Higashi Chaya
The narrow side streets and back alleys feature a slightly different scene where the comparatively low-rent tea houses were located. While the samurai and merchants higher on the food chain partied along the main street, tthose occupying the lower castes would be found here.

Kimono Rental

Since you’ll be walking the streets of such historical townscapes, why not look the part yourself? Kokoyui is a locally owned and operated kimono rental shop that offers a varied selection of traditional Japanese garb for women, men, and even kids. The staff will help you pick out and put on a kimono, and then it is yours for the day. Not only is this excellent for taking pictures (and turning heads), but it really lets you feel more “in character” as you explore the ancient castle town of Kanazawa. For more information, check out their website below (info and reservation form provided in English).

Kimono Rental Kokoyui Official Site (English)

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!