Kanazawa Photo Drift

Aaron Paulson
“wonderful, wonderful, and most wonderful wonderful! And yet again wonderful” — D.T. Suzuki, channeling Shakespeare from As You Like It

For about one hundred years, until the late 16th century, Kanazawa ruled as the capital of the so-called Peasant’s Kingdom, a nominally Buddhist independent province in west Japan, until the shogun Oda Nobunaga sent his main man Lord Maeda to put down the factious state.

What Lord Maeda took with one hand, however, he gave with the other. After quelling the rebel farmers and monks, the tonosama invited artisans from Kyoto and Edo (now Tokyo) to the wealthy castle town, where they mingled with the local samurai to produce a unique artisanal culture. By the 19th century, Kanazawa was Japan’s fourth-largest city.

Today, Kanazawa has dropped out of the top ten cities. What it lacks in citizenry, however, it makes up for in cultural and historical impact. Traditional arts and crafts thrive in the historic streets and alleys of the old town, among well-preserved samurai houses and geisha teahouses. When my wife, R., was still a teen in rural Niigata in the 1980s, Kanazawa was apparently the place to go for Japan’s burgeoning indie music scene. Traditional silk dyeing, lacquerware, and gold leaf ornamentation continue, even flourish, and in 1996 UNESCO recognized Kanazawa as a “City of Crafts and Folk Arts.”

R. and I took an overnight bus from Tokyo when we visited last year. In March of 2015, the Hokuriku shinkansen bullet train started its run from Tokyo to Kanazawa by way of Nagano, and takes 2.5 to 3 hours — and is, apparently, included on the JR Pass.


R. and I really enjoyed getting lost, cameras in hand, by day and by night in the narrow lanes between these 100-year-old wooden houses and teahouses in the old entertainment district along the Asanogawa River. Today some of these old buildings still operate as geisha teahouses; others are open to the public as living museums — see the Kaikaro Tea House, below.

Kaikaro Tea House

One of the geisha teahouses open to the public — and photographer friendly!

Kenrokuen Garden

Kenrokuen is, apparently, considered the best of “the three most beautiful landscape gardens” — or maybe it’s a stroll garden — in Japan. Unfortunately, we arrived, like, a week too early for the sakura cherry blossoms to be in bloom. In any case, a stroll around Kenrokuen’s ponds, teahouses, and mossy forest struck us as a pleasant interlude in an early spring day of siteseeing, and that was enough. Besides, the precocious plum blossoms were on full display…

21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa

A 10-minute ride by public bus from Kanazawa Station, and near major tourist spots such as Kanazawa Castle and Kenrokuen Garden, the museum provides a place for locals and visitors to Kanazawa to take an art break, either outside in the interactive installations or inside, in the peripheral galleries or the main exhibition space. Here’s how the English-language pamphlet explains the concept:

“Museum open to city like a park”

21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa is designed by Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue nishizawa/SANAA. It is situated in the center of Kanazawa city. Anybody can drop in whenever they want. The museum is designed as a park where people can gather and meet one another. The glass-made circle results in an ambiguous spatial definition, a kind of reversible membrane, through which visitors can sense each other’s [sic] presence. The Museum pays careful attention to its openness and brightness from the courtyards with skylights.

… The aim of the Museum is “casualness”, “enjoyment”, and “accessibility”.

They also serve a mean buffet lunch, if you can get a table.

Unfortunately, the main exhibition space happened to be closed the day we visited, as curators prepared for the next event. So R. and I made do with exploring the outlying exhibitions. Enjoy the pictures…

D.T. Suzuki Museum

“wonderful, wonderful, and most wonderful wonderful! And yet again wonderful” — D.T. Suzuki

Great 雰囲気, funiki, as we say here in Japan: great atmosphere.

In his 2006 book on practical aesthetics The Architecture of Happiness, Alain de Botton writes

“A feeling of beauty is a sign that we have come upon a material articulation of certain of our ideas of a good life.”

Buildings shape our moods and ideas and experiences. Thus, every time R. and I visit an art gallery or museum I find myself mentally re-decorating: my computer desk goes here, by the picture window onto the rock garden; we can hang the Clifton Karhu on this cool grey concrete wall; some portable screens will break up the space nicely, but the gift shop has GOT to go…

So, when we visited the D.T. Suzuki Museum in Kanazawa, designed by Yoshio Taniguchi, who also apparently is responsible for the redesign of the MoMA in NYC, my biggest impression was, “Of course! Who needs a garden when water will do?” Seriously, there is something almost hypnotically tranquil about the Water Mirror Garden which surrounds the minimal Contemplative Space at the heart of the small, intimate complex of buildings.

Clifton Karhu Collection and Ema Boards

“If you do not like my pictures, then hang them upside down.” — Clifton Karhu

There’s a term for foreigners who come to Japan and end up becoming, as they say, more Japanese than the Japanese: henna gaijin, or “strange foreigner”. Doesn’t sound very nice in English or in Japanese, does it…

Clifton Kahru is probably one of the more successful westerners to embrace a traditional Japanese art form, moku hanga, the woodblock print technique made famous by ukiyo-e landscape — and erotica — masters Hokusai and Hiroshige. Kahru used the technique to depict scenes of old Kyoto and Kanazawa — and, apparently like these earlier masters, some erotica — albeit with a pretty soft, whimsical touch. Kahru also produced a series of 12 ema boards, each with a different animal from the Chinese zodiac, which is on limited display at the shrine in Kanazawa. Many of Karhu’s prints are on display, and on sale, at the Kahru Collection gallery in the Chaya District, near the Asano River. Friendly and informative curator, though doesn’t speak much English I’m afraid. Nevertheless, he tells me, many international collectors visit his gallery to view and buy Karhu prints.

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