Much of Kanazawa's charm lies in the atmosphere of its old neighborhoods. Be sure to wear your good walking shoes, as the best way to explore various parts of the city is via your own two feet. One suggested itinerary for tackling the city's sights is to take the Loop Bus to the Higashi Chaya district, then another Loop bus onward to Kenrokuen and the sights in its vicinity, and then walk the 15 minutes to the Naga-machi Samurai district. Directional English-language signs to major sights are posted throughout the city. Or, if you wish, call the Tourist Information Center at least 2 weeks in advance of your visit to request a Goodwill Guide to show you the city; the service is free, but you're expected to pay for the guide's entrance fees, transportation, and lunch.
You should also check out cultural events and classes offered at the Ishikawa International Lounge, 1-8-10 Hirosaka (tel. 076/260-9901; www.ifie.or.jp/english/facilities/lounge; Loop Bus: Hirosaka), including those that cover origami, calligraphy, the tea ceremony, Japanese flower arranging, Japanese folk dancing, Japanese cooking, and even Japanese language classes. Classes are free, but you are required to make a reservation and pay for material costs (flower arranging, for example, costs ¥800). The Ishikawa International Lounge, open Monday to Friday 9am to 5pm and Saturday 9am to 4pm, can also answer questions or concerns (such as legal matters) regarding staying or living in Japan.
Tea for the Soul -- Just a few minutes' walk from Kenrokuen is a much smaller garden, the Gyokusen-en, 8-3 Kosho-Machi (tel. 076/221-0181; Thurs-Tues 9am-4pm). Built during the Edo Period and utilizing water from Kenrokuen, it contains waterfalls, a pond shaped in the kanji symbol for water, a stone lantern with a hidden statue of the Virgin Mary (Christianity was banned during the Edo Period), and Kanazawa's oldest teahouse, but what makes this place special in my book is the 1-hour formal tea ceremony (make reservations 2 days in advance), led by women in kimono who explain the history and the process of the ceremony in English. As Nishida Junko, whose husband is the garden's fifth generation of owners, explained: "The tea ceremony is not a show but rather the chance to share our one moment together"; the poignancy of her words brought tears to my eyes and made this my best tea-ceremony experience ever. Admission to the garden is ¥500, with the tea ceremony costing ¥1,000 more.
The Naga-machi Samurai (Buke Yashiki) District
About a 15-minute walk west of Kenrokuen Garden and just a couple minutes' walk west of Katamachi (Kanazawa's main shopping district), the Naga-machi Samurai District is basically a few streets lined with beautiful wooden homes hidden behind gold-colored mud walls (higher-ranked samurai had higher walls; the lowest rank had only hedges) and bordered by canals left over from the Edo Period. An unhurried stroll in the neighborhood will give you an idea of what a feudal castle town might have looked like. But only fleetingly: Lord Maeda had as many as 8,000 samurai retainers, who in turn had their own retainers, making the samurai population here very large indeed. To see how those in the lowest military class lived, stop by the Kanazawa Ashigaru Hakubutsukan, consisting of two homes open free to the public daily 9am to 5pm. In addition, the Kanazawa Shinise Memorial Hall (tel. 076/220-2524; daily 9:30am-5pm), a former Chinese pharmacy established in 1579, displays the old store and family residence and, upstairs, exhibits Kanazawa crafts and products from some 60 local stores for ¥100 (children are free).
To reach the Naga-machi Samurai District from Katamachi, take the side street to the right of the Excel Hotel Tokyu.
Higashi Chaya District
There are approximately 50 geisha practicing their trade in three old entertainment quarters in Kanazawa, including this one. A walk here reveals rather solemn-looking, wood-slatted facades of geisha houses dating from the 1820s, where men of means have long come to be entertained with music, dancing, songs, the tea ceremony, poem recitals, and other pleasurable pursuits. Geisha still perform at seven houses in the Higashi Chaya District, but most of the other former geisha homes have been turned into shops, inns, and restaurants. For an inside peek at the geisha world, visit the 190-year-old Shima Geisha House, 1-13-21 Higashiyama (tel. 076/252-5675; daily 9am-6pm), a former tearoom where merchants as well as men of letters came to watch geisha perform. Inside, you'll find rooms that were allotted to personal use, as well as to performing, along with displays of ordinary artifacts from combs, hair ornaments, pipes, and game boards to cooking utensils. Architectural details worth noting include several stairways (so that customers could come and go without being seen); a small Shinto shrine at the entrance to the home; a more elaborate family Buddhist altar in a place of honor in a front room; the gleaming wood-lacquered surfaces of furniture; and the cloisonné door pulls on sliding doors. Admission is ¥400 for adults, ¥300 for children; but you'll probably also want to enjoy tea in the new addition facing a garden, which, depending on the accompanying sweet, costs ¥500 to ¥700. It takes 10 minutes or so to tour the house.
Myoryuji Temple (1-2-12 Nomachi; tel. 076/241-0888) is popularly known as Ninja-dera (Temple of the Secret Agents) because of its secret chambers, hidden stairways, tunnels, and trick doors. Built by the Maeda clan for family prayer in 1643, it looks small from the outside, just two stories high to comply with height restrictions during the Edo Period. Inside, four stories are evident, but even this is false: Three more levels are concealed. The fortresslike structure contains an amazing 29 stairways and a labyrinth of corridors, along with such trick devices as pitfalls to trap unsuspecting intruders, slatted stairs where lances could stab at passing legs, escape hatches, secret stairways, and rooms that could be opened only from the outside -- just one more example of how deep paranoia ran during the Edo Period. Although rumor has it that a tunnel once connected the temple to the castle to serve as an escape route for the feudal lord in case of attack, a river running between them makes it unlikely. Unfortunately, photography is not allowed.
You must phone ahead for a reservation; chances are good that you'll be able to see it the same day you call. To ensure that you don't get lost (which would be quite easy because of all the trick doors), you must join a guided tour. Unfortunately, tours are in Japanese only, but there's an English-language booklet that lets you follow along, and demonstrations of the various trick devices are fairly self-explanatory. Tours, given daily from 9am to 4:30pm (to 4pm in winter), last 30 to 40 minutes and cost ¥800 for adults, ¥600 for children (however, the temple does not recommend tours for children of any age, due to their tendency to talk and make noise, and children 5 and younger are not admitted). To reach it, take the Loop Bus to Jusangenmachi, cross the bridge you see straight ahead of you over the river, take the second left (Teramachi), and then the first right. It will be on your right.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.