Japan Winter Itinerary Part 1. Kanazawa Japan Guide
When I was planning for a trip to Japan in winter, I wasn’t exactly looking for the best things to do in Japan in winter. However, I thought it would be nice to explore Japan’s winter wonderland as it was my first time to spend winter in Japan. (It was my third time to Japan.) I struck lucky to stumble upon “hidden” magical villages along the Japanese Alps. After lots of research, I came up with a Central Japan 5-day itinerary to visit Kanazawa, Toyama, Shirakawago, and Takayama. I will discuss all four cities in my Winter in Japan Series.
First, this post is all about the details you need to plan your perfect Kanawaza winter itinerary. It covers how to spend 2 days in Kanazawa, what to do in Kanazawa in winter, how to get to (and around) Kanazawa, the best place to buy Kanazawa omiyage, and many other details.
* Updated on: 09/08/19. This article was originally published in 2018.
This post is part of Winter in Japan Series:
- Part 1. Things to Do in Kanazawa in Two Days
- Part 2. Behind the Closed Doors of Geisha House in Kanazawa
- Part 3. Where to Stay in Kanazawa: Kanazawa Hotel Review
- Part 4. Things to Do in Toyama: Toyama City Guide for the First-timers
- Part 5. Shirakawago Winter Light Up Festival
- Part 6. Where to Stay in Takayama: Takayama Hotel Review
- Part 7. What to Expect from Traditional Japanese Ryokan Stay
- Part 8. What to Wear in Japan: Japan Winter Season Edition
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Kanazawa: Time Travel to the Edo-era (1603-1868)
Kanazawa is the capital of Ishikawa prefecture on Japan’s central Honshu Island. With the historic attractions from the Edo Period, the city is one of the most visited by Japanese while it is lesser-known to international travelers.
I discovered this off-the-beaten-path destination only after learning about Shirakawago, another nearby city in the region. The moment I saw a photo of Shiragawago Winter Light-Up, I was so determined to experience the fairytale town in person. Because Shiragawago is a small village tucked in the Japanese Alps, there is no direct connection from Tokyo. Kanazawa seemed to be the most convenient “layover” destination from Tokyo. Why not spend a few days to explore Kanazawa and the adjunct areas? However, I fell in love with this small historic town full of traditional charms.
Why Visit Kanazawa in Winter
I’ve only been to Kanazawa in January. But I’m convinced that the best time to visit Kanazawa is winter. Here’s why:
- Kanazawa in January is the snow season. Have you seen the magnificent sight of an ancient castle and temples in the snow? The centuries-old giant trees in Kenrokuen Garden wear snow-covered capes, which is the most iconic Kanazawa winter scenery you don’t want to miss!
- Snow crabs are in season. Kanazawa’s juicy, sweet crabs are one of Japan’s most highly regarded foods you must try. Due to the fishing restrictions, they are only available in winter — another reason to visit Kanazawa in December or January to enjoy the crabs in abundance!
Continue reading things to do in Kanazawa in winter below for more details.
How to Get to Kanazawa
Tokyo to Kanazawa
Thanks to the recently expanded JR Hokuriku Shinkansen line (high-speed rail), it took less than three hours to travel from Tokyo to Kanazawa. (Check Shinkansen timetable here.) However, be sure to tune in for weather changes as the Hokuriku region typically observes heavy snowfalls in winter. Our train was almost canceled due to the safety concerns with record-breaking heavy snow in the area.
If you have a JR Pass (purchase here), you can also get free rides on Kanazawa JR Bus. Otherwise, Kanazawa is a small, walkable town.
Toyama to Kanazawa
Because Toyama is connected with Tokyo and Kanazawa on the JR Hokuriku line, travelers to the region often choose to stay in Toyama and travel to Kanazawa, or vice versa. It only takes 15 min on Shinkansen from Toyama to Kanazawa.
We decided to stay in a ryokan in Kanazawa. A ryokan is a traditional Japanese hotel. I’m a big fan of ryokan in Japan and strongly recommend this cultural experience to anyone traveling to Japan. If you haven’t had the ryokan experience, Kanazawa is an excellent place for your first because the city offers many heritage properties.
Not sure what to look for and which one to pick? Read more about my experience at Kanazawa ryokan. I had a wonderful time there! And this is where I had amazing Kanazawa snow crabs for dinner.
↡↡Where to Stay in Kanazawa? Book Your Stay Here! ↡↡
Kanazawa 2 Day Itinerary
Higashi Chaya District (Geisha Teahouse & Hakuza Gold Leaf Store) – Omicho Market – Kanazawa Snow Crabs for Dinner
Kanazawa Castle – Kenrokuen Garden – 21st Century Museum – Kanazawa Gold-leaf Ice Cream – Kanazawa Omiyage shopping (JR Kanazawa Station)
>> I don’t always join tours because I prefer to take enough time to explore each city. However, I enjoy taking half-day or walking tours to learn about the city from a local expert. Especially if you only have less than a day, I recommend joining this half-day private tour or 4-hour walking tour.
Kanazawa Itinerary Day 1: Higashi Chaya District & Omicho Market
As soon as we dropped off our luggage at the Kanazawa ryokan, we headed out to Higashi Chaya District to experience Japanese traditional teahouse and geisha culture.
On the way, we saw a small shrine on the side of the road. We made a pit stop at the shrine because my travel buddy wanted to collect special stamps. Every shrine in Japan has a unique stamp you can buy and collect as a souvenir.
As snowfall is common in the Hokuriku region, Kanazawa city had installed water sprinklers on some streets. Our luck would have it, we were traveling during the time Japan experienced the record snowfall, the running water didn’t seem to help much. The streets were covered entirely in ankle-deep snow. What would’ve been a brisk 15-min walk took us a lot longer as we were careful not to slip.
Higashi Chaya District (東茶屋街): Kanazawa Geisha District
Chaya is a teahouse where geishas entertain the guests over tea (or sake). Kanazawa has three well-preserved Edo-era tea house districts: Higashi, Nishi, and Kazue-machi Chaya Districts.
We decided to visit Higashi Chaya District per recommendation by the information desk at the JR Kanazawa Station. Higashi Chaya is also the largest among the three. Most importantly, I was excited to learn we could actually go into a tea house!
In case you are not sharing my excitement, being invited into these tea houses is like joining a secret society. It is a rare opportunity for travelers or commoners like me to step into a tea house.
Kaikaro Teahouse and Shima Teahouse are two main geisha houses open to the public in Higashi Chaya. Although we didn’t get to see a real-life geisha, it was such a unique, rare experience that I decided to write a separate post with more details. Click to read Behind the Closed Doors of Geisha House in Kanazawa.
Hakuza Gold Leaf Store
Located across from the Kaikaro Teahouse, Hakuza Gold Leaf Store used to be a warehouse and later turned into a tearoom. The shop features a small room with all four walls completely covered with gold leaf. The chair in the middle is also gold leafed.
This shop displays and sells Kanazawa gold leaf products, which is a local specialty. From gold-leafed matcha pound cakes to decorative plates to jewelry, I didn’t know where to start looking! The store had many unique souvenirs that I didn’t see at other stores; it might be worth your visit. I ended up buying a gold-leaf dog, celebrating the year of the dog and my furbaby.
Hours: 9:30 a.m. – 6:00 p.m. (5:30 p.m. in winter); No closing days
Omicho Market (近江町市場, Ōmichō Ichiba)
On our way back from the Higashi Chaya District, we decided to stop by Omicho Market. We planned to buy steamed crabs at the market and bring back to our Kanazawa hotel.
We saw an in-train magazine on our Shinkansen ride that featured all the seafood Kanazawa was famous for, including Snow Crabs. Since then, I had set my eyes on crabs. Even the freezing temperature and heavy snowfall couldn’t stop me from getting those yummy crabs at the local market.
However, by the time, we got there around 5:30 pm, the Omicho market was already half-way closed. We managed to find one shop in business. For the size of the crab we wanted to buy for three people, it would’ve cost us 12,000 yen (USD 110), which was more expensive than expected. While we were hesitating, the one we wanted was sold to someone else.
Disappointed, we headed back to our ryokan for kaiseki dinner. We could barely see the front in the heavy snow and got lost. Once it got dark, the streets in downtown Kanazawa looked the same! One of us slipped and fell on the icy road. What luck!
However, once we finally made it back home, an amazing kaiseki dinner was awaiting us. And guess what? They served steamed crabs! Oh, that made my day!
Hours: 9 a.m. – 6 p.m.
Closed: Sundays, national holidays
↡↡Book your Kanazawa tour here! ↡↡
Kanazawa Itinerary Day 2: Kanazawa Castle, Kenrokuen Garden & 21st Century Museum
On day 2, we actually made a day trip from Kanazawa to Toyama. We visited Kanazawa Castle Park, Kenrokuen Garden, and the 21st Century Museum on our third day morning. It made sense for us to do this partly because of the Nohi Bus schedule from Kanazawa to Shirakawago the next day, but also it didn’t cost us any extra to travel between Toyama and Kanazawa as we had a JR Pass.
However, I wouldn’t recommend our itinerary for you. On day 3, we were rushed to squeeze in everything within a half-day in Kanazawa before catching the bus to our next destination. I suggest you follow my edited itinerary below so you can fully enjoy two days in Kanazawa.
Kanazawa Castle Park: Kanazawa Castle & Kanazawa Garden
Kanazawa Castle (金沢城, Kanazawajō)
Since our ryokan is a block away from the Kanazawa Castle Park entrance, we walked to the park then continued walking into the Kenrokuen Garden. Depending on the location, you may choose to go directly to the Garden.
There is always a castle in each town of Japan. I castled out on my first trip to Japan a few years ago (plus we are running against time due to our bus schedule), so we didn’t choose to go into the Kanazawa Castle. However, I didn’t mind walking through the gate and taking a few shots.
>> Don’t miss out on this opportunity to fully immerse yourself in Samurai tradition for a day.
Kenrokuen Garden (兼六園)
If you go to Kanazawa, you must visit Kenrokuen Garden. (Or, some people simply refer to it as Kanazawa Garden as it is the most famous destination in town.) It is one of the three most beautiful landscape gardens in Japan, featuring the characteristics of a typical Edo-period style. Although I’m not sure what it all meant in technical terms, I can confidently say this garden is a beauty. It absolutely should be on your list for things to do in Kanazawa.
Passing through the Kanazawa Castle, we arrived at the Kenrokuen Garden’s one of the six entrances. Here, don’t get tricked by a line of people. Even with a massive sign in front of the information booth, many people mistakenly were in line to buy admission tickets there. You will see a ticket booth after going up a few steps on your right.
I heard that Kenrokuen Garden in Kanazawa is beautiful no matter which season you visit. The garden boasts beautiful sakura trails and plum blossoms in spring, fresh greenery in summer and a magnificent maple garden in fall. In winter, everything is covered in snow.
Although what I saw there in winter would be a very different scenery and I haven’t visited in other seasons, I might just say winter is my favorite time. To me, there is something about the ancient places in the snow. Snow-covered castles and shrines are absolutely gorgeous! The ancient architecture in solitude magnifies the feeling of awe and majesty.
The Kenrokuen Garden is enormous. Besides the cherry trees, Japanese plum, maple and pine trees, there are many vista points including Ishikawamon Gate, Yugaotei (the oldest building in the garden), Shiguretei Tea House, Hanamibashi (flower-viewing) Bridge, the oldest fountain in Japan, the statue of Prince Yamato Takeru, etc.
The most famous of all is the Karasakinomatsu Pine. These are centuries-old pine trees. In winter, the garden sets up yukizuri (ropes) to protect the branches from heavy snow, making the Kanazawa’s iconic winter sight.
I also liked the Gankobashi Bridge (flying wild geese bridge). The bridge is made of eleven red tomuco stones, supposedly laid out in wild geese flying formation. The pond behind it was almost completely frozen, which made a great photo spot.
- Kanazawa Castle and Kenrokuen Garden sit next to each other. It would be a vast area to cover on foot. Be sure to wear comfortable shoes. A good pair of waterproof snow boots is recommended for winter.
- Take your time and enjoy the beautiful scenery. I recommend allotting a half day here.
- Free guided tours of Kenrokuen Garden and Kanazawa Castle are available. No reservation required. Just go to Kanazawa Castle Park Information Booth to sign up.
Kanazawa Castle Park Light-Up event:
Gyokusen ‘inmaru Garden within the Castle Park is illuminated on Fridays and Saturdays, September through February. Kenrokuen Garden is also illuminated for a few weeks during this time, so check out the Kanazawa Garden website for the schedule if you are interested. Free admission.
How to Get to Kanazawa Castle Park
- City Bus: Catch a bus at Kenrokuenguchi of JR Kanazawa Station (East Gate). It’s a 5-min walk from “Hirosaka” stop or 7-min walk from “Korinbo” stop.
- Kenrokuen Shuttle Bus: Available from JR Kanazawa Station
- Taxi: About 10-min ride from JR Kanazawa Station
Address: 1-1 Marunouchi, Kanazawa, Ishikawa [Open Google Map]
Phone: (81) 076-234-3800
Hours: [Mar. 1 – Oct. 15] 7 a.m. – 6 p.m. [Oct. 16 – Feb. 28] 8 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Admissions: Adult 310 Yen, Children (6-17 yo.) 100 Yen
21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art (金沢21世紀美術館, Kanazawa Nijūichiseiki Bijutsukan)
The most famous exhibit in this museum is The Swimming Pool by Leandro Erlich. From above, you can view the inside of a swimming pool filled with water. Underneath the water, you can look up to see others looking down from above through the water.
I would say it’s an interesting experience. I think I saw a similar exhibit somewhere else, so I’m not sure if this is the original work that only exists here. After I already purchased the ticket, I realized no ticket is needed to view the work from above. (If you want to enter the pool, you will need pay for admission.) If you just want to take a quick photo, you can save yourself 1,000 yen.
Out in the public areas, this museum has many permanent exhibits. Color Activity House by Olafur Elisasson was popular with people going in and out of colored glasses. It was fun to see the changes in colors. I also spotted many metal sculptures in the lawn area, although I didn’t get to see closely due to the time constraint.
I wish we had more time to spend in this museum. I felt like we didn’t even have enough time at the Kenrokuen Garden. We rushed out of the Garden to stop by this museum, but by the time we waited in a long line to buy the ticket, we had less than an hour.
- Before purchasing a ticket, think about which areas or exhibits you would like to visit. Many public areas are open for free.
- The museum doesn’t allow guests to bring a bag inside the exhibit areas. There are coin lockers in front of the 1st-floor restroom. When you take out your belongings, you will get the deposit (100 yen) back.
How to Get to the 21st Century Museum
The 21st Century Museum is located across the street from the Kenrokuen Garden’s Mayumizaka Entrance. (It’s super easy to spot from the Garden.)
If you are coming from JR Kanazawa station:
- Take a bus from bus terminal 3 or 6 at East Exit, get off at the Hirosaka/21st Century Museum stop.
- You can also take Kanazawa Loop Bus, Kenrokuen shuttle or Machi Bus (limited on weekends and holidays).
Address: 1-2-1, Hirosaka, Kanazawa, Ishikawa [Open Goole Map]
Tel: (81) 076-220-2800
Hours: Exhibitions open 10 a.m. – 6 p.m.
Closed: Mondays (or Tuesdays if Monday is a national holiday); Dec. 27-Jan. 1
Admission: Varies by exhibition, typically 1,000 Yen
Check current exhibits here
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Kanazawa Gold Leaf Ice Cream
While we rushed out of the 21 Century Museum, we had to stop by to get Kanazawa’s famous gold leaf ice cream. The shop was a two-minute walk away from the 21st Century Museum’s main entrance.
What makes it so unique is a slice of edible gold leaf on top of the ice cream. The texture was a bit thick for soft-serve ice cream. It was delicious even though it was probably too cold to eat ice cream outside. I thought it was worth 500 yen. After all, it was made of gold.
JR Kanazawa Station: Beautifully Designed Transportation Hub with Kanazawa Omiyage
Our first and last stop of the Kanazawa trip was JR Kanazawa Station. The train station is sometimes the first impression of the city for many visitors. I liked the futuristic architecture of the station with traditional Japanese decorations.
The JR station is the central hub for public transportations in Kanazawa. Whether you like to take JR bus, Kanazawa loop bus, or Kenrokuen shuttle bus, this would be an excellent place to start your journey.
JR Kanazawa Station is annexed to a department store. It is convenient to pick up some lunch box to eat on train or bus, or get Kanazawa omiyage to bring back home.
Did you know? Omiyage refers to a local-specialty snack in a beautifully wrapped package that makes a perfect gift or souvenir. In Japanese culture, people often gift omiyage representing their hometown because each town has a specialty omiyage. It’s considered a good manner to bring back omiyage from the region you traveled to share it with your friends and co-workers.
The Kanazawa omiyage selections at the department store might overwhelm you. If I hadn’t set my eyes on which one to buy, I probably would have spent hours sampling every single one of them at each shop. Upon our arrival, our Kanazawa Ryokan served us tea and gold-leaf manju. The manju was so delicious that I made it my mission to bring a box home. I couldn’t find it at any souvenir or omiyage shops in Kanazawa. After inquiring our host, I was directed to this department store. So I went straight to that particular shop. What else can make a great souvenir than Kanazawa gold leaf omiyage?
You can also find many souvenir shops here. Some are expensive, and others are affordable. I found a set of giggling cats that I wanted to bring home. I thought I was going to scoop up after buying the manju first, then for some reason, I completely forgot. Although I saw many cats in many other gift shops later, I didn’t see the giggling ones again. Bummer!
Pro Tip: If you are in a rush to catch your train, you can also make a pit stop at 7-eleven or a gift shop right inside the JR station. Note that the selections are limited compared to the department store.
>> Looking for day trip ideas from Kanazawa? Don’t miss UNESCO World Heritage villages: Shirakawago, Gokayama, and Takayama.
Before this trip, I haven’t even heard much about Kanazawa. I went without much expectation or a long list of things to do in Kanazawa. However, it turned out I had a great time and came back with lots of stories to tell. Two days in Kanazawa did not seem to be enough to enjoy all of what Kanazawa has to offer, although I was able to see the highlights of this charming city. On the bright side, as I always say, leave something for the next time.
Where to Go Next in Japan
>> Where to Stay in Tokyo First Time: A detailed guide of 9 best neighborhoods to stay and things to do in each area
>> Tokyo District Guide – Ginza: the glitzy shopping and entertainment district in the capital city of Japan
>> Tokyo District Guide – Omotesando & Aoyama: A hip, modern neighborhood dubbed Tokyo’s Champs-Élysées
>> Tokyo District Guide – Asakusa: Imbibe in traditional Japanese architecture and visit Sensoji Temple, Japan’s spiritual center
>> How to Rent a Kimono in Asakusa: Wear a beautiful traditional Japanese dress and take photos of a lifetime for the ‘gram!
Did the gold on the ice cream taste like anything? Or did it stay in your mouth?
Nah, it’s more decoration. It doesn’t taste like mental or anything. It is digestible, so no worries about that, either!