Gold-leafed ice cream, a samurai neighborhood, and a legendary garden lit up at night

Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture

Kenroku-en garden in Kanazawa lit up at night
Worth the trip for this alone!

Everybody thinks that the best time to visit this ultra-famous Japanese garden is during cherry blossom season, but if you go in the spring with the crowdy crowds, you’ll miss one of the most spectacular sights in Japan: Kenroku-en Garden lit up at night in the late fall! Most Novembers, they open it again in the evening so you can wander among the lighted trees and gaze at their reflection in the mirror-like pond with the stars shining up above. If you arrive while the leaves are in all their glory, it’s an amazing sight, but I was there after it had become full winter, and (as you’ll see) it was still amazing then. Add a stroll through a restored samurai neighborhood and some modern art you can literally immerse yourself in, and a day in Kanazawa quickly becomes one of the most memorable excursions in Japan!

Nagamachi Samurai District in Kanazawa
In the beautifully restored Nagamichi Samurai District, each building is restored to its original use, and there are lots of interesting artifacts of samurai life preserved there (including seldom-seen artifacts like a document giving rather grisly practical advice to those condemned to commit honorable ritual suicide)
Bingata audience chamber at the Nomura Samurai Residence in Kanazawa
The high-ranking Nomura clan samurai residence is absolutely gorgeous, and features this costly audience chamber entirely plastered in red bingata clay, with a hinoki cedar wood ceiling—a combination so rarified it was usually reserved for Imperial residences. (This room was the inspiration for the one where Lord Inaba receives Saburo the poet in The Last Tea Bowl Thief)
Engawa veranda and garden at the Nomura Samurai Residence in Kanazawa
The house is set in a fine garden and surrounded by an especially beautiful engawa porch where residents could admire the garden from all angles without putting their shoes back on. (This is the kind of place where The Last Tea Bowl Thief’s Yoshi sat to cool off after his bath and think.)
Samurai armor at the Nomura Samurai Residence in Kanazawa
Naturally, there’s a fine suit of armor that belonged to the lord of the manor…
String of Edo Period coins at the Nomura Samurai Residence in Kanazawa
…and the small museum has an excellent display of 18th-century coins, which were made with holes through the middle so they could be strung onto ropes like the one above. (Now you can imagine how onerous it was for the Edo Period characters in The Last Tea Bowl Thief to lug money around in search of missing tea bowls and/or a new life—that stuff is heavy!)

When we finish strolling through the 17th and 18th Centuries, let’s walk a few blocks and time travel back to the present for something completely different—the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art. This museum is one of the most fabulous modern art museums I’ve been to in Japan. It’s filled with really thought-provoking pieces, and plenty of stuff that made me ooh and ahh.

Mirrored sculpture outside the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa
The free pieces outside are just an appetizer for what lies within
The Swimming Pool by Leandro Erlich at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa
My favorite one is an installation of Leandro Erlich’s “The Swimming Pool,” which allows a steady stream of vistors to enter the “underwater” room, move around, and be photographed in Insta-worthy splendor from above

After all that walking around, we’ve definitely earned a cuppa and a break. Weirdly, though, because Kanazawa used to be known for its gold, everything seems to be covered in it, even the local snacks!

Gold leaf soft serve ice cream in Kanazawa
We can have a cone of gold-leafed soft serve…
Gold leaf sponge cake in Kanazawa
…gold-leafed sponge cake
Gold in coffee in Kanazawa
…and even coffee flecked with, you guessed it, gold.
Gold leaf facial mask in Kanazawa
And for the very brave (or possibly the very rich): golden facials!

Now let’s head over to Kenroku-en garden for what we’ve been waiting all day for. They close the garden at 5:00, then reopen it at 5:30, because the evening hours aren’t included in the regular admission price—there’s a separate (very reasonable) evening ticket that you can buy at the ticket booths just outside the gate.

And…we’re in!

Kenroku-en garden in Kanazawa pond in late afternoon
Before the sun goes down, the big pond at Kenroku-en is pretty beautiful…
Kenroku-en garden in Kanazawa at twilight
But as day deepens into night…
Kenroku-en garden in Kanazawa lit up at night
It becomes downright magical
Kenroku-en garden in Kanazawa lit up at night
The whole garden is lit up, and it’s definitely worth a stroll down every pathway to marvel at trees we might have walked straight past in the daytime
Kenroku-en garden in Kanazawa lit up at night
But it’s the mirror-smooth pond that dishes up the most famous postcard views
Kenroku-en garden in Kanazawa lit up at night
As we walk around the pond, each stop feels more beautiful than the last, until…
Kenroku-en garden in Kanazawa lit up at night
WOW, we arrive at the most gorgeous vista of all

And if you’re REALLY lucky, it will snow. Can you imagine how gorgeous that would be?

Here’s where Kanazawa is:

Kanazawa Japan map

Here are the places where my pictures were taken:

Kanazawa city map showing locations
As you can see, I need to go back to Kanazawa, because there’s still a ninja temple to explore, and two tea districts (Higashi Chaya and Nishi Chaya)!

Here’s how to get to Kanazawa from Tokyo:

The best trains to Kanazawa leave from Ueno Station, and it’s possible to get there without a single transfer en route!

Train route from Tokyo to Kanazawa

Once you’re in Kanazawa, use the Japan Navigation phone app (the same one I used to figure out this route). This travel app is also great for planning your trip when you know your actual date and the time you’d like to leave or arrive, and for finding the easiest way to get to Ueno Station from where you’re staying. Here’s where to get the app and how to use it and here’s where to buy a Japanese transit card and how to use it.

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“A fascinating mix of history and mystery.” —Booklist

Jonelle Patrick writes mystery novels set in Tokyo, and blogs at Only In Japan and The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had

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