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Way of The Samurai: Authentic Japanese Cultural Experiences in Kanazawa

This journey through a traditional castle town is fun and enlightening for lovers of samurai history and followers of Japanese spirituality alike.

By 6 min read

Kanazawa is the capital of Ishikawa Prefecture in Japan’s Chubu region. A port town on the Sea of Japan, Kanazawa is famously known among the Japanese population as a destination rich with history, culture and—quite literally—gold. The name Kanazawa means “marsh of gold,” a moniker stemming from local legends of gold flakes in the region’s springs.

Visitors are drawn to Kanazawa by its beautiful castle remains and the lush Kenrokuen, one of Japan’s “Three Great Gardens.” The city also has a pristine, well-preserved samurai district—former residences of the nobles who once strolled the city’s streets.

Photo:
The Higashi Chaya District.

Even today, a popular activity is wearing a yukata (traditional Japanese robes) and exploring the tea houses and cafes of the Higashi Chaya District.

For lovers of samurai-influenced history and martial arts, Kanazawa offers an excellent opportunity to experience the spirit and principles of the practice. Here, the traditions of respect, weapon mastery and zazen meditation are in full practice.

The blade and the bow

Photo:
Learn from Toshihiro Enoki, a world-renowned kendo master.

The life of a samurai was filled with conflict—training for war was one of the essential tenets. However, just as important as knowing when to strike was knowing self-control. To wield a katana (Japanese sword) or yumi (Japanese bow) was more than life and death. It was the practice of bushido (samurai moral code), self-discipline and self-improvement.

These principles are most evident in the traditional Japanese martial arts that honed the samurai’s craft with weapons: kendo (the way of the sword), iaido (roughly “to always be prepared”) and kyudo (the way of the bow). While kendo teaches mastery, iaido teaches awareness and defense. More than simply drawing a bow, kyudo trains rhythm, patience and meditation. While these can take a lifetime of commitment to master, visitors to Kanazawa can experience traditional samurai martial arts in the span of one day.

A student explaining traditional kendo equipment.

At the Saishikan dojo, sensei (teacher) Toshihiro Enoki, a world-renowned kendo master, will instruct students (in English via a translator) on the fundamentals of Japanese swordsmanship. Guests are given traditional bamboo swords called shinai and learn basic movement, strikes and patterns. While swordplay may be a serious subject, Enoki offers a fun and lively presentation.

If archery is more your style, visitors can learn under the tutelage of kyudo trainees at the Ishikawa Prefectural Martial Arts Gym. Here, you will wear traditional kyudogi (kyudo practice robes) and learn the shaho hassetsu, or “eight stages of shooting,” before confidently drawing and releasing at a target. The final stage, zanshin (remaining form), is perhaps the most difficult stage and pertains to maintaining your focus long after you have let fly your arrow.

Visitors participating at the Ishikawa Prefectural Martial Arts Gym.

To hold the genuine artifact, visit Shijimaya Honpo. This fifth-generation samurai family keeps several katana, wakizashi (short sword) and other heirlooms. You can see the craftsmanship and details that go into Japanese swordmaking. The home is also an iaido dojo where you can wear traditional robes, wield replica swords and view real-life demonstrations.

Lifestyle and culture

Photo:
Walking along Kenrokuen Park.

Although we view samurai as warriors, samurai were also a class and social rank in feudal Japan. Samurai were given fiefs and servants by their lord, to whom they swore their loyalty and protection. Thus, samurai lived nearby their master’s castle and clustered together in entire neighborhoods such as Kanazawa’s wonderfully preserved Nagamachi Samurai District.

Along the narrow alleys and river, several samurai homes have been converted into museums for the public. At the Takada Family House, you can explore the dwellings of a middle-rank samurai family and view their private garden from a quaint second-floor tearoom. Nearby, the Ashigaru Museum starkly contrasts how lower-ranked foot soldiers lived.

Discover tasty century-old recipes at Restaurant Ootomorou.

Every family and home, from peasant to merchant to samurai, served the local lord in some way. Restaurant Ootomorou has been in business since 1830 when the family served as cooks for Maeda Toshitsune, the third head of the Maeda clan. Today, Ootomorou is operated by its eighth-generation manager and is renowned for 300-year-old recipes that use local ingredients from Kanazawa. The restaurant itself features a gorgeous garden-like aesthetic and a classic Japanese atmosphere.

Spirituality and meditation

The head priest of Eian-ji, Reiju Santou, will lecture in English.

Buddhism came to Japan around the sixth century. Although Shinto would become the de facto religion, the intensive concentration of Zen meditation appealed to samurai warriors seeking discipline of the mind and relief from war and death. On Mount Tsurumai and overlooking the Sea of Japan lies Eian-ji, a Shingon Buddhist temple founded 500 years ago. With its serene location, sounds of chirping birds, wind chimes and panoramic views above Kanazawa, one can’t help but feel a sense of tranquility.

Here, head priest Reiju Santou will guide visitors (in English) through the customs and history of the temple before experiencing a private Zen meditation in Eian-ji’s main hall. Not to be confused with a religious experience, Zen meditation involves clearing your mind and focusing your breathing—something easier said than done.

Photo:
The D.T. Suzuki Museum.

For a modern take on Zen, visit the D. T. Suzuki Museum, dedicated to Kanazawa-born monk and philosopher D.T. Suzuki who was considered monumental in spreading Zen to the West. Designed by the renowned architect Yoshio Taniguchi (famous for redesigning the Museum of Modern Art in New York), the D.T. Suzuki Museum emphasizes minimalism and Suzuki’s view that the artist’s world is made of free creation, formlessness and soundlessness.

The museum’s centerpiece is a large reflective pool surrounded by white walls and trees. A quiet and covered room facing the water allows visitors to meditate or ponder on their thoughts, diverted only occasionally by ripples in the water.

The tea ceremony

The tea ceremony at Saisetsu-tei.

Beyond meditation, samurai would seek solace and ways to find peace by strolling through a garden and admiring nature. Kenrokuen, built by the Maeda clan, is just such a place. However, not only does nearby Gyokusenen predate Kenrokuen by nearly 120 years, but it also served as Kenrokuen’s basis. The two-tiered garden, inspired by the monk artist Gyokukan, is lush with towering trees and picturesque with waterfalls, stone bridges and Japanese honeysuckle.

Gyokusenen is also home to Kanazawa’s oldest tea room, Saisetsu-tei. The tea ceremony (chado in Japanese) is perhaps one of Japan’s most culturally significant occasions. It uses the Zen notion that even the smallest occasions are significant.

Tea masters will lead you every step of the way.

Indeed, in the tea ceremony, it is said:  “Ichi-go ichi-e” (“One time, one meeting).” Every moment should be considered as happening only once in a lifetime.

At Saisetsu-tei, visitors are guided through the tea ceremony, history and rituals by masters of the tradition. For the first chawan (matcha tea cup), you’ll watch the ceremony unfold as they elegantly prepare the first cup of matcha. Then, for the second chawan, the masters will guide you step-by-step. It’s a peaceful but moving experience—a moment that only happens once but a memory that will last a lifetime.

Planning your samurai trip to Kanazawa

Photo:
The Tsuzumi (drum) Gate of Kanazawa station.

To begin your own journey in Kanazawa, you can book a trip via:

Of course, with so much to do and see, it’s a challenge just to create an itinerary for Kanazawa. Luckily, there is a three-day trip filled with samurai and martial arts experience for any aspiring Samurai:

Which of these uniquely Kazanawa experiences would you like to try? Let us know in the comments below!

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