JAPAN'S WEST SIDE STORY
“Now I have a question for you,” says curator Maiko Yamauchi, pointing to an ancient theatrical character mask at Kanazawa's Noh Museum. “Do you think that is a man or a woman?” I gaze at horns, red face, fearsome expression - a devil for sure, and so definitely masculine. “No! This is a woman,” exclaims Yamauchi with an air of bemusement at the strange perceptions of gaijin (foreigners), before explaining how any Japanese person would instantly recognise the mask as that of the Jealous Wife. I realise, not for the first time, that there is much about Japan I do not noh...
Japan's striking dramatic form is still performed regularly at the Ishikawa Noh Theatre, a sign of how a strong weave of tradition still runs through the fabric of this west coast port, once among Japan's richest cities thanks to producing the country's finest rice on its surrounding coastal plain.
Perched between the Sea of Japan and the magnificent Japan Alps, Kanazawa – like Kyoto, two hours away - avoided the devastation of WW2 bombing, ensuring the survival of swathes of its old architecture. But this laidback low-rise city seamlessly embraces its traditional neighbourhoods without the 'museum' feel of Kyoto, as if keen to offer an urban embodiment of the Japanese concept of wabi – roughly 'the indescribable elegance of an old and careworn object'. Buildings bear the patina of time with an ease you might see in rural Italy or Portugal – rough faded surfaces, smears of rust, walls bedecked with tangles of wiring like the strings of some strange instrument.
That isn't to say Kanazawa lacks high-profile tourist sights, and a regular tourist bus (Shu-yu 'Loop' Bus) links an array of places on the city's tourist compass – though all are also within walking distance of the station/town centre. There's a trio of star turns: the historic teahouses of Higashi Chayagai, the ravishing Kenrokuen Gardens and the 250-year-old Omicho Market.
Lovers of evocative ambience should also seek out the tiny but atmospheric Nagamachi Samurai District tucked away behind the shops of Korinbo, while just across the nearby Saigawa River you can visit the Myoryuji Temple, whose array of trapdoors and secret passages has seen it linked to the infamous ninja fighters, though its hideaways were far more likely for local rulers to escape in times of threat.
Whatever their history, Kanazawa's sights are a wonderfully diverse bunch. Developed over two centuries from the 1670s, the leafy hilltop sanctuary of Kenruoken was initially part of the adjacent Kanazawa castle. Now the Gardens are ranked among Japan's top three, and standing by a sunlit pond rimmed by dazzling trees and historic wooden buildings I won't argue. "It is very rare for this kind of garden to be located in a big city," points out Shigeo Okumura, who has overseen the gardens for the last decade, with particular passion for its 600 black pines. “But I also love Higachi,” he says. “I love the tea-houses for their natural beauty and classic atmosphere." Then he bows, and heads back into his arboreal dreamland.
Higachi attracts visitors from all over Japan to its lattice-fronted 19th century tea-houses, of which the most famous is Ochaya Shima. Inside its elegantly pared-back rooms, little has changed since it opened around 1820, and displays of classic Japanese instruments and other entertainment props illuminate a past when geishas entertained rich merchants keen to show off their wealth with lavish banquets.
Outside, a twinkly-eyed Japanese old-timer starts chatting, and reminds me of the area's more risque past when it also offered stimulation that didn't involve earthy green tea, pretty music or composing evocative haiku. “This was also the Red Light district,” he laughs. “Women sat in the ground-floor window for a man to choose, and then they would go upstairs to the second floor.”
I get my own dose of sensory stimulation at the riot of colour that is Omicho market. This is the beating heart of a city hailed in Japan as a gourmet hotspot, where food and drink are so revered several local dishes are scattered with flakes of gold - reputedly to bring down blood pressure but also to dazzle the eyes of appreciative diners.
Omicho's market diners also offer some of the most atmospheric and affordable places to try Kanazawa's renowned cuisine. Yamasan Sushi (Shimo-Omicho 68) is a 60-year-old local institution noted for its buri (yellowtail) and snow crab, while others include Kaisendon-Ya (Jikken-machi 32) and Omicho Shokudo (Aokusa-machi 1). Look for nodoguro (blackthroat sea perch) and hotaru-ika (a kind of squid), as well as the legendary shiro-ebi - literally "white shrimp" – plucked from the adjacent Sea of Japan.
Enjoyable boozing is another pleasurable aspect of daily life, whether it's helping dinner go down with some shochu – a spirit little-known outside Japan but highly popular within – or enjoying the vibe at a backstreet place like Gold Star behind the Excel hotel in Korinbo where a veteran bow-tied barman spins classic jazz vinyl that reflects the bar's wood-panelled 1950s ambience.
A much older aura infuses Takayama, a couple of hours from Kanazawa climbing through verdant hills dotted with yellow warning signs for bears and stands of bamboo as thick as my arm. Nestled in a high river valley surrounded by the Hida Mountains (part of the Japan Alps), this historic market town glories in traditions. The most renowned are the festivals in which towering ornate floats – displayed in the town's Float Exhibition Hall – parade its ancient streets as they've done each spring and autumn since the 16th century.
Outside the festival dates, just enjoy the old town stretching away from the banks of the Miya-gawa river. My first stop is Takayama's 17th century Jin'ya (magistrates court), though its floor is so cold on my shoe-less feet that I start empathising with the prisoners brought to the torture room that forms an equally chilling part of the building.
To warm up, I skip the craft shops selling the area's highly-regarded wood carving and lacquer work, and dive into one of the buzzing sake houses housd in ancient buildings along the town's iconic 'Old Street' (Kamisanno machi), where a trendy young barman takes me through a half-dozen variations on Japan's famous rice brew, surrounded by fellow drinkers knocking back their drinks with cheery cries of 'Kampai!'.
Food and drink are as elevated here as in Kanazawa – a common local greeting, for example, translates as “Are you as healthy as a soya bean?” As well as superb sansai (mountain vegetables, often served pickled), revered soba noodles and river fish such as the trout-like iwana, the area is famed for its beef. Fed on lush mountain pastures, Hida beef is rated in Japan as highly as the internationally-acclaimed Wagyu/Kobe, and I get to try it two traditional ways here - for lunch, cooked in bite-sized chunks on a hot griddle at my table, for dinner as melting wafer-thin beautifully marbled slices simmered 'Shabu shabu' style in hot stock.
Given its stupendous location, traditional beauty and great food, I'm not surprised Takayama has a lot of temples to offer thanks for it all, with a dozen mainly 17th century beauties neatly clustered together across a wooded hillside just outside the town centre, providing a perfect place to wander as twilight falls on the Land of the Rising Sun.
The next morning, after a stroll among the stalls at a riverside food market piled high with unfamiliar produce, I hit another trail of historic buildings at the Hida Folk Village. Set around a little lake high above the town, this open air museum showcases over 20 traditional Japanese houses going back 500 years and filled with period artefacts. It's a lovely place full of character, but I'm also itching to see a much lesser-known museum just down the hillside. The Hida Takayama Museum of Art is a pale concrete-and-glass modern shrine to Art Nouveau and Deco glassware and furniture, a gaijin art form much admired by the Japanese. The museum itself is as striking as its contents, with a cafe whose terrace view of the surrounding peaks must be one of the most scenic settings for a coffee in Japan.
Rather than views, my final city stop Nagoya majors in urban energy, its metropolitan buzz providing sharp contrast to Takayama and Kanazawa. Apart from an imposing castle – rebuilt in the 1950s after the original was bombed in WW2 – Nagoya celebrates modernity, proudly celebrating its role as the birthplace of two very different icons of contemporary Japan – Toyota and pachinko.
While the latter remained something of a mystery despite spending time hanging around cacophonous arcades watching rapt players tumble cascades of ball-bearings through gaudy displays, the early history of Toyota proves more enlightening at the company's massive museum. I'm particularly intrigued by the vast hall revealing Toyota's beginnings as a 19th century builder of looms for European weavers before its 20th century shift into motor production, at which point my interest wanes as displays shift from beautiful vintage cars to the technology of mass production.
Not to say there isn't beauty in modernity. The neon and noise of Nagoya's hip Sakae shopping district fills the senses in its own way, proof that this is part of Japan with a distinctive blend of old and new crying out to be discovered.
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