At one time, Kanazawa possessed an impressive castle belonging to the powerful Maeda clan, but it was destroyed by fire several times, the last time in 1881. Kanazawa's main attraction, the 10-hectare (25-acre) Kenrokuen Garden, once served as the castle's outer garden. The largest of what are considered to be the three best landscape gardens in Japan -- the other two are Kairakuen Garden in Mito and Korakuen Garden in Okayama -- it's considered by some to be the grandest. Its name can be translated as "a refined garden incorporating six attributes" -- spaciousness, careful arrangement, seclusion, antiquity, elaborate use of water, and scenic charm. Ponds, trees, winding streams, rocks, mounds, and footpaths have all been combined so aesthetically that the effect is spellbinding. Best of all, unlike most other gardens in Japan, there are no surrounding skyscrapers to detract from splendid views, making this one of my personal favorites.

Altogether, it took about 150 years to complete the garden. The fifth Maeda lord started construction in the 1670s, and successive lords added to it according to their individual tastes. The garden as you now see it was finished by the 13th Maeda lord in 1837; only after the Meiji Restoration was it opened to the public. In addition to pines, cherry trees, irises, ponds, and other elements of natural beauty, there are several historic structures, including a tea-ceremony house dating from 1774 and, most important, Seisonkaku Villa . Plan on 1 1/2 hours of blissful wanderings. Tip: You may want to arrive early in the morning or near the end of the day, as Kenrokuen Garden is a favorite destination of Japanese tour groups, led by flag-carrying guides who explain everything in detail -- through loudspeakers.