Kanazawa is a beautiful, welcoming city with a great history, one of Japan’s best gardens and it offers incredible seafood. It’s a big statement, but we think we possibly had our best sushi here. There are so many things to do in Kanazawa, as a day trip from Kyoto can be a great option and with the opening of the Hokuriku shinkansen line, a day trip from Tokyo is now also viable.
You might also consider an overnight stop here between Tokyo and Kyoto taking the longer route around the top but it adds in a few very interesting options along the way including Kanazawa and Nagano.
When travelling in Japan we find it can be very helpful to base yourself out of 2 or 3 cities to minimize the time spent changing between accommodations and to maximise the time you have available to explore using the amazing rail system.
Trains between cities are so much more comfortable than commuter trains and it is easy to start early and return later in the evening to give plenty of time at the destination, usually including staying for an early dinner and evening walk if there are light-ups or other events. If you are thinking you may get one of the last trains out in the evening, make sure you know what time that is and with the JR Pass, we usually book that ahead to ensure a good seat and no complications at the end of a great day.
Kyoto is one of our favourite cities in Japan to base from in this way because of its proximity to many other cities and because Kyoto Station is a great hub for taking day trips. With the JR Pass and some research, we had no problems making the 250km day trip to Kanazawa on the northern coast.
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Getting from Kyoto to Kanazawa
Using the Thunderbird Limited Express the trip takes just over 2 hours each way and if you have the JR Pass the cost of the tickets is included on that, you can also book your seats for your chosen date at the desk in Kyoto station. Without the pass, a standard unreserved seat is around Y7020 each way.
On arrival we made a quick stop at the information centre just outside the station to pick up an English map and bought a day ticket to use the sightseeing bus (Y500) which circuits around the main sightseeing attractions in the city every 12 minutes.
In hindsight we could have easily walked without losing much time, we only ended up using the bus to get to the Higashi Geisha District and then to Kenrokuen gardens but it’s excellent value, super cute and does enable you to save a bit of time especially if you want to backtrack between attractions during the day.
Things to do in Kanazawa
1. Kanazawa’s Geisha District
We started at one of the furthest stops from Kanazawa station and worked our way back in, this was also the area we wanted to visit before it got too busy later in the day. The Higashi geisha district is in the northeast of the city, unlike the Geisha districts in Kyoto there are a couple of historic O-chaya in this area that open as tea houses and one as a museum that you can talk a look through.
The Shima teahouse museum has been beautifully maintained and preserved with many antiques associated with the geisha performance and traditions on display. It was well worth the small entrance fee.
Higashi is one of three Geisha districts in Kanazawa, it’s a beautiful historical area and I understand if you are lucky you can sometimes glimpse a Geisha in the early evening heading out to an appointment. Whether or not you pass a geisha it would be a beautiful area to wander around in the evening if you’re staying in Kanazawa.
2. Kenrokuen Garden
You can get back on the loop bus for a few minutes from the Geisha district or walk 15-minutes to Kenrokuen Gardens. The gardens are on your left as you arrive and almost opposite is the main entrance gate to the castle. If you are doing the day trip circuit we suggest doing it in this order as you’ll walk through the castle grounds heading back toward town later in the day.
Kenrokuen gardens are renowned as being one of Japan’s top three gardens and they really are beautiful. One of the most striking features to me is the amount of water, everywhere there are lakes, ponds, waterfalls and small creeks flowing.
An interesting feature we noticed here, possibly due to the microclimate in the gardens, was that the Ume (plum blossoms) and Sakura (cherry blossoms) were in flower together in the garden after the long cold winter. In most places, the plum blossom is well and truly finished by the time the cherry trees are blooming.
The gardens are open from 7 am to 6 pm during Spring and summer, and in winter and autumn from 8 am until 5 pm. Entry is Y300.
3. Relax over refreshments or lunch
There are a few restaurants and a couple of souvenir shops selling local crafts around this main entrance to the castle and garden. Like many castles and heritage attractions in Japan, there is a small shopping street that leads up to it that is also in a heritage style with a range of interesting stores, cafes and restaurants.
We decided to stop for lunch at this point in our day trip knowing we’d almost certainly exit the castle grounds by a different gate and there was a good choice here. On day trips we like our meals to be part of the experience rather than grabbing something on the run. We found a lovely little ‘mom and pop’ place and ordered lunch menu sets which were delicious but there are several other choices and you can sit out on the sidewalk tables with a drink or ice cream.
4. Kanazawa Castle
Kanazawa castle was founded in 1546 but today only the Ishikawa-mon gate, Sanjikken Yagura, the Tsurumaru Storehouse and rock walls date back to feudal times. The Ishikawa-mon gate was built in 1788 and has been designated as an Important National Cultural Asset.
The other castle buildings are authentic replicas, the originals having burned down several times during its history.
There is no fee to enter the castle grounds and as we had been inside the original castles at Hikone and Himeji we didn’t go into the turrets and storehouses here. If you won’t be visiting other castles you can access the Hishiyagura Turret, Gojukken Nagaya Warehouse, and Hashizume-mon Tsuzuki Yagura Turret here at a fee of Y320 for an adult.
The castle grounds and park are very pretty and if you visit in early spring it is another great spot in Kanazawa to enjoy the cherry blossom, from what we saw most here were a slightly earlier blooming variety to those in Kenrokuen so if you miss one you may catch the other in peak flower.
5. Omiya Jinja Shrine
Walking west after the castle we found and wandered through Omiya Jinja Shrine, one of the things I like best about walking in Japan is the things that you just find tucked away in quiet corners, this Shinto shrine had a lovely old strolling garden with a big pond that you could walk around on a path within the pond.
The shrine is dedicated to Maeda Toshiie, the first lord of the powerful, local Maeda Clan and was constructed in 1599 by Toshiie’s successor, Maeda Toshinaga on Mount Utatsu. It wasn’t until later that it was moved to its present location. The impressive entry gate had earlier stood at the castle before being moved to the present location.
6. Omi-Cho Market
Heading back towards the train station is Omi-Cho market, a local fresh produce market. There are also lots of smaller places to eat within it and being on the northern coast there was a lot of really fresh seafood, every type of crab seems to be the specialty here but there was a good range of fish and other seafood too.
This can be a great option to have an early dinner before heading back to the train station and on to Kanazawa but it isn’t your only option. You will pass a few places on the way back and a few more in and around the station.
7. Kanazawa Station
It is a flat 15-minute walk back to the station from the market, keep walking straight down Kanazawa Ekidori Avenue, you can’t miss it.
The station has the usual mix of shops and eateries, there is a Starbucks outside the main entrance and we’ve picked up some mixed packs of deliciously fresh sushi at a great price at a kiosk inside to enjoy as train snacks on the trip back to Kyoto.
This station is of course now a shinkansen station on the Hokuriki line so it doesn’t take much longer to make your way all the way back to Tokyo so it is possible to include Kanazawa as a stop along the way between Tokyo and Kyoto.
Kanazawa is a beautiful city, a welcoming blend of modern and traditional. If you are planning to head to this part of Japan for the first time what is it you are most looking forward to?