We spent 4 nights in Kanazawa in the Teramachi temple district. When we opened our window we realized our backyard was actually a temple and could hear the temple bells ring in the morning and at night – a wonderful sound.
There are not many shops in the area but it is home to the Myoryuji temple (nick-named the Ninja-dera temple because of its trap doors and secret passageways) – highly recommend taking a tour. In reality, ninjas were never here but there were definitely samurai, helping to guard against adversaries. They even had a menacing seppuku room where samurais were forced to disembowel themselves with their own blade. The tour is only in Japanese, but they kindly give you a guidebook in English to follow along. We felt this was a very special tour because when you visit a temple, you don’t get much of a chance to see the inside and this was a beautifully detailed and unique temple.
Also close by was the Nishi Chayagai tea district. We took a free tour of the geisha house at the Shiryokan museum and also had matcha tea at a geisha house across the street. The manager took us on a tour upstairs as we listened to someone playing the shamisen through the walls, perhaps a maiko (a geisha in training)?
As for the center of town, we felt a little disoriented when we first arrived in Kanazawa. The train station leading through downtown is like a mini-Tokyo with lots of shopping, high-end store and bright neon lights. It was not what we were expecting.
But head off into the side streets and suddenly you will find yourself in an ancient Samurai district called the Nagamachi Bukeyashiki, full of little canals with small bridges leading from the street to the shops or houses. A few streets still have pale yellow, mud walls where you can feel what it may have been like to walk down the street and bump into samurais, especially at night when it has a romantic and mysterious feeling.
During the day we went to check out the Nomura family samurai house which looks small from the outside, but is incredibly detailed inside with a beautiful garden. It was exciting to finally see a samurai outfit that had been used with tears and marks on it, as well as a collection of the Nomura family samurai swords!
There was even a note displayed thanking Mr. Nomura for killing a man and delivering his head! Wow… I would not want a confrontation with Mr. Nomura in real life. On the gentler side, we enjoyed the gardens and drank tea in the tea room with some friendly guests. We can now say that we drank tea at a samurai’s house and would not be lying.
In the center of town we walked around the castle and the famous Kenrokuen gardens, said to be one of the top 3 gardens in Japan. They are stunning. There is definitely some magic happening in the Kenrokuen gardens.
Not only did we get to see the ancient trees strung up with string to keep the coming winter snow from breaking their limbs, but we got a chance to take part in a grand tea ceremony in the main tea house. We were not sure what we were getting into because we couldn’t read the signage that was only in Japanese, but it turned out to be an incredibly grand tea ceremony! Complete with an exhibit of priceless tea ware in the waiting room that was overlooking an incredible tea garden. We were ushered into the main tea room with many guests who were very gracious. The tea ceremony itself used many rare and beautiful tea utensils and tea bowls that were displayed after the ceremony for everyone to admire. An over-whelming experience. We felt lucky to take part in it.
Also central is the new D.T. Suzuki museum, which is one of the best designed museums I have ever experienced and it is quite an experience to visit. First of all it is super modern with a conceptual zen design aesthetic. But, most impressive, is that in order to learn about Mr. Suzuki (Zen Buddhist philosopher, one of the figures responsible for bringing zen to the West via various books he’s written) they give you a beautifully designed folder and you can pick up pamphlets as you go through the museum in your language to keep. However the numbering system of the objects is non-linear, so it really keeps your mind fresh and awake as you wander through. At every turn is a marvel of landscaping, nature and architecture even though it is a small museum. A very moving experience as well. Shall I say “wonderful, wonderful, and even more wonderful!” – Suzuki was a big fan of Shakespeare and William Blake, he introduced Blake to Japan.
We had a difficult time making a reservation for the tea ceremony at the Nishida Family Garden (Gyokusen-en Garden), a lost in translation moment. But, it all worked out and so happy it did, we had a private tea ceremony in an ancient tea house with an absolutely wonderful temae (tea host) who truly gave us our first real tea ceremony in Japan. She explained the philosophy of the ceremony to us, as well as showed us the aspects of the tea house that were special including a small, private tea room that was once used for lords and their samurais.
The furo (tea kettle) she was using is considered a national treasure and is imprinted with tree leaves. The name of the tea room is the Saisetsu-tei Roji, which means “snow flutters tea house,” and our temae had a scroll with a haiku poem about snow flutters on the wall. She also wrote haiku herself and is a member of the haiku society. It was definitely the best and most heart-felt tea ceremony we had experienced because of our gracious host and the great conversation we had together. Oh yes and not to mention all the national treasures that were part of our ceremony including the garden itself. In tea ceremony there is a saying called “Ichi-go, Ichi-e” which means, “one time, one meeting” – this gathering will only happen once in our life. We felt this to be so true at this moment. Once again we were overwhelmed as we departed, our hearts overflowing and full.
Up the road, going south, is the Ohi pottery gallery which we stumbled upon after our tea ceremony just as it was closing. We happened upon a private tour by the owner and 11th generation son of the Ohi pottery family. He was gracious enough to let us listen in and view his priceless collection of family tea ware. Also interesting is that Mr. Ohi Toshio has started to innovate his craft into contemporary modern art through “clay painting” – amazing work. He exhibits in NY and has been to San Francisco many times, and knows the director of the SF Urasenke foundation personally! What a small world and chance meeting. Lucky again.
Further up the road are two more chaya (tea) districts where the geishas would entertain their guests. You can see a geisha performance in the Higashi Chayagai district, but we just wandered around the beautiful and romantic atmosphere of the old geisha houses. The Kazuemachi Chayagai tea district (shown above)on the other side of the river is also romantic at sunset and we happened upon a sake bar having an art exhibit.
Last but certainly not least, was not only visiting the Daijoji temple, but spending the whole, rainy afternoon practicing zazen with the locals. Daijoji temple is the third oldest Soto Zen temple in Japan. They are very welcoming to foreigners and give you a wonderfully designed and descriptive pamphlet in English on how to do zazen, but everything else is strictly in Japanese. You are ushered into a room to read it and wait with others before they give a small class on how to do zazen properly and how to behave once you enter the temple zendo hall. There are various forms you need to learn, how to hold your hands in mudra, how to walk into the temple, how to bow, how to sit, etc. Then it’s time to enter the zendo to meditate for almost an hour with everyone. I was happy that I had been practicing Soto Zen at the zen center in San Francisco and felt right at home at Daijoji, but the one big difference was that in Japan they have a monk who walks around the hall as you are meditating with a Kyosaku (a tall wooden stick). If you want to, you can bow as he walks behind you and he’ll tap you on the shoulder with it. It makes a loud, quick smacking sound and definitely wakes your mind up. I missed my chance to do it, since he only comes around twice. He walks so slowly and silently you can’t hear him! After zazen meditation they ring the bells and there is a dharma talk with tea and a tea sweet in the next room, all in Japanese.