It was early morning in Kanazawa’s historical Higashi
Chaya district, a row of old latticed teahouses in a town
that’s convoluted in both its layout and history. Steam
wafted up from the stone road. A geisha scurried across
the empty street like an alley cat, only the clicking of her
wooden geta sandals giving her away. Yet I didn’t come
here looking for geisha. I wanted to learn about the world
of another Japanese icon: the samurai.
Located between the Sea of Japan and the Japanese Alps
in western Japan, Kanazawa is considered one of the
country’s best places to learn about samurai history. The
town was spared from destruction during World War II and
remains one of the best-preserved castle towns of the Edo
Period. It’s one of the only cities in Japan to still have a
samurai district. Of course, samurai were abolished in the
late-19th Century as Japan modernised, so you can’t find
samurai here today. But much of their world remains.
Making the 473km trip from Tokyo to Kanazawa used to
take five hours and require changing trains. But the trip
just got much easier. Starting March 14, 2015, the new,
direct Hokuriku Shinkansen (bullet train) run by West Japan
Railway Company cut the travel time in half. And like the
slower trains, it arrives at Kanazawa Station , often listed as
one of the world’s most beautiful.
I’d always been fascinated by samurai, those warriors who
were almost inhumanly stoic and ever willing to fall on their
sword for their masters or slay anyone showing disrespect.
At least, that was how I’d imagined samurai to be, thanks
to films like The Last Samurai and 13 Assassins . I was
about to learn there was more to their story.
On my first morning in Kanazawa, I made a beeline for the
neighbourhood of Higashi Chaya and met Kiyoe
Nagashima, a 6th-generation resident and Kanazawa
Excursions guide. The pounding of a taiko drum in a
nearby temple filled the air, summoning the feeling I often
have when in a foreign place: of following the city’s beating
“Kanazawa is not a place for theme parks, but a place for
living,” she said, her face beaming with pride. In fact, for
the most part, the city is a modern metropolis dotted with
luxury shops such as Louis Vuitton. Higashi Chaya,
however, is anything but modern.
Following Nagashima into the labyrinth of teahouses,
temples and restored samurai houses, I felt like Alice
slipping into the rabbit hole. We walked along the row of
beautiful latticed buildings and turned down a narrow
street lined with yellowing gingko trees. Then we careened
up a steep path that was so slender and discreet, I thought
we were trespassing in a private driveway. When we
arrived at the top, however, the path branched out into
more narrow, winding roads. Kanazawa’s streets were
partly designed to mislead and disorient outsiders, and I
was learning firsthand, they do so effectively.
From the top of the hill, we walked into the adjacent
neighborhood of Utatsuyama. Samurai once lived in
Buddhist temples here, Nagashima explained, working as
security guards called boukan . The roofs of the stately
wood buildings with detailed carvings sprouted from
clusters of gingko and maple trees.
Nagashima made it clear that the samurai who flourished
in this city during the Edo Period (1603-1868) were almost
nothing like the ferocious warriors I’d imagined them to be.
During this peaceful golden age, the feudal military class
focused most of its energy on scholarly pursuits and
craftsmanship. As the highest social caste during this
time, the samurai built extravagant residences and opulent
gardens behind thick, earthen walls; you can still see
evidence of the walls today. Of course, most samurai in
Japan never lived this luxurious, peaceful lifestyle. The
refined samurai of Kanazawa were an anomaly, made
possible by their ruler’s disinterest in violence and affection
for the arts.
Kanazawa’s largest architectural relic of the samurai age is the stunning white Kanazawa Castle, resting on a hill that
offers 360-degree views of the city. The castle was built in
the 16th Century by the Maeda family, the beloved rulers of
Kanazawa until 1868. During the Maeda’s rule, the castle
was their fortress, surrounded by a moat and stone wall
that still stands today. The castle\’s striking white tile roof
is made of weathered lead. Adjoining the castle, the
Kenroku-en garden is home to plum, cherry, and Japanese
maple trees and is considered one of Japan’s finest
We continued on to the Nagamachi neighborhood, which
was once home to upper- and middle-class samurai. Many
of the original houses were torn down during Japan’s
industrial revolution. Still, the district’s cobblestone streets,
towering mud walls and peaceful canal remain, and a
couple of restored samurai houses are open to the public,
including the Nomura House , which contains artifacts from
its namesake family.
I returned to the Nomura House the following day and
strolled inside, expecting to find swords, armor and
perhaps some paintings immortalising moments of
triumphant battles. Instead, I was greeted by a koi pond
and zen fusuma – or painted rice paper panels – created
by the Maeda family’s personal artist.
Then I recalled something Nagashima had said on the tour:
“To defend Kanazawa, the Maeda clan encouraged the
samurais to focus on arts and craftsmanship instead of
fighting. That way they did not pose a threat to the clan
with the highest power, and so were not invaded. As a
result, there was actually almost no fighting in Kanazawa
for 400 years.”
Maybe that was the real lesson of Kanazawa’s samurai.
Their greatest weapon was not the sword but their focus
on the arts – a sly defense tactic in disguise.
Culled from BBC