Japan Winter Itinerary Part 1. Kanazawa Japan Guide
When I was planning for the trip to Japan in winter, I wasn’t exactly looking for an off-the-beaten-path. Since it was my third time to Japan and the first time in winter, I thought it would be nice to explore Japan’s winter wonderland. I researched places to visit in Japan during winter. And I struck luck to stumble upon “hidden” magical villages along the Japanese Alps.
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. Why not spend a few days and explore the adjunct areas?
After more research and planning, my travel companions and I came up with a 5-day itinerary to visit Kanazawa, Toyama, Shirakawago, and Takayama in time for Shirakawago Light Up.
Long story short, thanks to our “almost perfect” planning, we saw the Japanese winter wonderland in Shiragawago but failed to fully participate in the Light-Up festival as we wanted. (I will write more about what you can learn from my mistake in Part 5, so you can plan accordingly.) Regardless, it was probably one of the best cultural trips I’ve ever had. No regrets whatsoever!
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. Toyama Japan 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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Table of Contents
- 1 Kanazawa: Time Travel to the Edo-era (1603-1868)
- 2 Kanazawa Itinerary Day 1: Higashi Chaya District & Omicho Market
- 3 Kanazawa Itinerary Day 2: Kanazawa Castle, Kenrokuen Garden & 21st Century Museum
- 3.1 Kanazawa Castle Park: Kanazawa Castle (金沢城, Kanazawajō) & Kanazawa Garden (Kenrokuen Garden, 兼六園)
- 3.2 How to Get to Kanazawa Castle Park
- 3.3 Kanazawa Castle Park Light-Up event:
- 3.4 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art (金沢21世紀美術館, Kanazawa Nijūichiseiki Bijutsukan)
- 3.5 How to Get to the 21st Century Museum
- 3.6 Kanazawa Gold Leaf Ice Cream
- 3.7 JR Kanazawa Station: Beautifully Designed Transportation Hub with Kanazawa Omiyage
- 4 Like this:
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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.
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. 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, 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. 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!
↡↡Where to Stay in Kanazawa? Book Your Stay Here! ↡↡
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, water sprinklers were installed 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 teahouses 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: Behind the Closed Doors of Geisha House in Kanazawa.
Hakuza Gold Leaf Store
- Hours: 9:30 a.m. – 6:00 p.m. (5:30 p.m. in winter); No closing days
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.
Omicho Market (近江町市場, Ōmichō Ichiba)
- Hours: 9 a.m. – 6 p.m.
- Closed: Sundays, national holidays
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. 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!
↡↡Book your Kanazawa tour here! ↡↡
Kanazawa Itinerary Day 2: Kanazawa Castle, Kenrokuen Garden & 21st Century Museum
On our day 2, we 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 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 our 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 following my edited itinerary below so you can fully enjoy two days in Kanazawa.
Kanazawa Castle Park: Kanazawa Castle (金沢城, Kanazawajō) & Kanazawa Garden (Kenrokuen Garden, 兼六園)
- Address: 1-1 Marunouchi, Kanazawa, Ishikawa
- Tel: (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
- Website: www.pref.ishikawa.jp/siro-niwa/english/top.html
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
If you go to Kanazawa, you must visit Kenrokuen Garden. (Or, some people simply refer 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.
Since our ryokan was 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.
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 Kanazawa Garden website for the schedule if you are interested. Free admission.
21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art (金沢21世紀美術館, Kanazawa Nijūichiseiki Bijutsukan)
- Address: 1-2-1, Hirosaka, Kanazawa, Ishikawa
- 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
- Website: www.kanazawa21.jp
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).
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.
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. At 500 yen, I thought it was worth. 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.
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. The time we had was not enough to enjoy all of what Kanazawa has to offer. On the bright side, as I always say, leave something for the next time.
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