Kanazawa home of the famous Kenrokuen. One of only a few Japanese gardens labeled as perfect. Kenrokuen is also famed for being an all seasons garden so if you’re lucky enough to visit on different occasions you will see its many expressions. I’ve been fortunate enough to see Kanazawa and the Kenrokuen in winter and in spring, but I suspect autumn will be the most spectacular with all the maples and the colours of deciduous trees that seem to be spread very liberally about the gardens.
Just 2.5 hours from Kyoto or Tokyo, even Kanazawa is doable as a day trip, but I’d strongly recommend staying here at least overnight so that you can see the gardens at different times of day so you can see the different moods.
We arrived in Kanazawa at 9.30pm after an epic day trip via Yoshino. Being so exhausted, we took a cab for ¥1,100 to Shaq Bighouse (¥2,800 for 8 bed dorms) about 20mins from the train station.
The next day we headed out to try and do a day trip to Shirakawa-go, but all the return buses were booked out. Afterwards we spoke to a lady in the train station’s information centre and found out there was another bus leaving from nearby Takaoka which required no reservations, but was a little more expensive at ¥3,500. This is a great option if you get stuck and have a JR Rail Pass.
In the end though we decided to try again the next day and so we grabbed a tourist map and headed south to the old samurai quarter. There’s also a geisha quarter on the other side of town, but I think we had enough of that in Kyoto. There were a few nice houses and alleyways, but we soon headed up to Kanazawa Castle.
From the way we approached there was a fairly dry looking garden situated around a pond. It was all looking a bit sad until we climbed over the retaining walls and into the castle grounds. The grounds were filled with cherry blossoms and tons of Japanese people were having picnics and enjoying a particularly sunny spring day.
It seems to be one of those British style castles that have been destroyed, because it felt like you had to really use your imagination. In the end we settled on a sunny patch of grass under the blossoms and soaked up the sun ourselves. We were probably the only people trying to get a tan and probably also the only people who were hippie enough to also sit there making origami. The Japanese people found it quite amusing as they strolled about.
Once we got tired of paper cuts (nah just kidding, we ran out of paper) we resisted going to the Kenrokuen to wait for golden hour and headed down to Ohmi-cho Markets. It’s mostly a food market and with such a craving for fresh fruit and vegetables (most Japanese eat out meals seem to be meat with rice/noodles only – good luck if you’re vegetarian) we bought a heap of stuff for dinner. Greens, funky yellow mushrooms, strawberries and kit kats. Oops, wasn’t all healthy I guess.
Finally we headed over to the Kenrokuen. Funnily there was a huge part of the castle grounds that we’d missed which were again lined with avenues of cherry blossoms. We reached the gates of Kenrokuen to find heaps of food stalls and also free entry due to the Sakura peak which was a plus (normally ¥310).
Remembering how amazing the Kotoji Toro lantern scene looked when I saw it a few winters ago, I headed straight there again to try and get some snaps with sakura in the background. Funnily though, the vast majority of cherry blossom trees appear to be outside the gardens and so I was left looking at largely the same scene, minus the snow, but still with all the people taking to the stone bridge like ants to honey. The bridge must be strong to take all that punishment!
After a few shots I gave up on trying to make that look pretty again and scouted the garden for blossoms. The gardens were still just as amazing as the first time I saw them, but there was no good light left and people were everywhere you looked.
When it hit 6pm closing time we headed back to the hostel for gym day (yep we were those people) and cooked up our veges. The greens were a great supplement to some 7 Eleven noodles, but the mushrooms were just kind of slimy and strange.
The gardens were actually open for extended hours due to the Sakura peak so they were open until 9pm, but by the time we found out from Shaq himself it was too late. That probably explained why the gardens were still chockers at 6pm.
The following day we woke at 6.30am to try and see the gardens again before the crowds and before heading to Shirakawa-go. We hired bikes from the hostel the night before for ¥500 which made things much easier.
The gardens were almost completely empty at 7am. It was brilliant. So peaceful and well worth the effort.
We rushed off to the station soon after to grab the 8.23am train to Takaoka. We arrived with plenty of time to spare before the 9.30am bus to Shirakawa-go which took about 1.5hrs.
I have to say Shirakawa-go is probably more of a winter destination. It looked a bit lacklustre with all the mod-cons strewn about the place and with no snow to cover them up. The houses are nice, but up close I couldn’t help but notice all the things that stick out and don’t seem to belong. Plus it’s super touristy and loaded with souvenir sellers as you’d expect.
If you spend the time and money (neither bus company are JR affiliated) go in winter. It looked so much more magical on the posters.
Maybe I’ll see Shirakawa-go again one year because I really feel like I need to see the Kenrokuen (and Japan for that matter) in autumn.
From here we went to Tokyo to spend a birthday with a friend, but our next true destination was Nikko and it’s national park.