Buffered by the ocean and Alps of central Honshu, Kanazawa has over the centuries enjoyed longer periods of peace and prosperity than most Japanese cities. This has enabled it to develop its own, unique cultural life and earn the affectionate nickname ‘Little Kyoto’. A good example of its many understated wonders is the 17th century Kenroku-en, regarded as one of the country’s three great gardens. Its stands of ancient pines, ornamental lotus ponds and pretty fruit orchards extend over 7 distinct areas and 25 manicured acres. The name means ‘Six Elements’, referring to the attributes essential to any harmonious Japanese garden: space; tranquillity; artifice; antiquity; water; and fine views.
As Kanazawa escaped the carpet bombing that levelled so many Japanese cities during World War II, many of its neighbourhoods retain great, period character, particularly the samurai quarter of Nagamachi. A more traditional style is on display in the Higashichaya teahouse district – a heritage enclave of double-storeyed, wood-fronted shops, among which the Shima Geisha Museum offers insights into the cloistered life of the Japanese geisha (around 40 remain active in the city). Gold leaf features prominently in the district’s many craft shops – the lustrous foil is a Kanazawan speciality. Local ice cream parlours sometimes offer it as a luxury embellishment, claiming the leaf improves digestion.