It was sunny when we stepped off the bullet train in Kanazawa, the capital of Ishikawa Prefecture, on Japan’s western coast. Five minutes later, a sudden lashing hailstorm had pedestrians scrambling for the closest shelter. “We have a saying here,” our guide told us as we huddled in a doorway. “You can forget your lunch, but you can never forget your umbrella.” She had forgotten her umbrella.
In addition to its unpredictable weather, Kanazawa has long been known within Japan for its enchanting Kenrokuen gardens, its 16th-century castle on a hill, and its abundance of fresh seafood. More recently, the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art (1-2-1 Hirosaka; kanazawa21.jp), designed by the renowned architectural firm Sanaa, has drawn more than a million visitors a year. But the city remained a relatively well-kept secret among foreign travelers until March 2015, when a new extension to the Nagano shinkansen line allowed direct bullet train service from Tokyo to Kanazawa in two and a half hours—rather than the five it used to take.
To call Kanazawa “Little Kyoto,” as guidebooks often do, is to discount the town’s unique character and history. During the Edo period (1615–1868), the wealthy Maeda clan, which governed Kanazawa, wanted to reassure the suspicious Tokugawa shogunate that it had no military ambitions. The best way to do that, the clan figured, was to spend lavishly on the beautification of the city—conspicuous consumption as a survival strategy. The result is a thriving crafts culture that continues to this day.
The city is particularly famous for its gold leaf, producing 99 percent of the stuff in Japan. (Kanazawa translates to “marsh of gold.”) There are a number of shops in the Higashiyama area that sell gold leaf souvenirs. For more authentic encounters with the region’s crafts, the Kanazawa-based outfitter Art of Travel can arrange private studio visits with masters such as third-generation lacquer artisan Masaru Nishimura.
The prefectural capital’s proximity to the Sea of Japan provides its fisheries with a stunning variety of species, much of which is on display at Omicho Market. When Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market moves to more insipid quarters this fall, Omicho will likely be the closest you can get to experiencing that emporium’s electric energy. There are several sit-down places on-site to eat the freshest sushi you’ve ever had. But as chef Kazuhisa Yoshida of Kanazawa’s excellent restaurant Sentori (1-17-3 Ishibiki; 81-762/21-5057) will tell you, that doesn’t necessarily mean the tastiest sushi, as only fish that has been left to mature for a day or two develops the crucial umami flavor.
The Kenrokuen gardens, considered one of the three great gardens of Japan, are a necessary stop, if only to marvel at their teepee-like yukitsuri structures: bamboo poles that extend high above treetops, attached to ropes that hold up branches and brace them against heavy snow. Just as serene, if more minimalistic, is the reflecting pool of the D. T. Suzuki Museum (3-4-20 Hondamachi; kanazawa-museum.jp), dedicated to the man who introduced American thinkers to Zen Buddhism in the middle of last century, and designed by Yoshio Taniguchi (famous for New York’s Museum of Modern Art). At regular intervals, a bubble breaks the pool’s glassy surface, sending ripples across the water that are meant to focus and calm the mind.
There are no bona fide luxury hotels in Kanazawa yet, though several are in the works. For now, the best place to stay is Beniya Mukayu (rooms from $677: 55-1-3 Yamashiro Onsen, Kaga; mukayu.com), a ryokan 50 minutes away in the nearby Yakushi-yama mountains. The Relais & Châteaux property features artwork and designs by Muji art director Kenya Hara, a library of Japanese and English art books, and the finest kaiseki cuisine of any ryokan we stayed at, accompanied by the not-half-bad house white wine. Its 17 rooms—a mix of traditional and Western—all offer private onsen and views of the lush, wild garden, with its maple, cherry, red pine, and camellia trees.