Saturday, 16 January 2016

Eating Well (and other fun things) in Kanazawa, Japan

The impressive torii at Kanazawa JR Station
Little here is original. I'm afraid that when I visited Kanazawa in March 2015, the internet lacked much in the way of help for the non-Japanese tourist wanting to visit the area. I think that was partly because travel connections to Kanazawa from the east coast weren't that user friendly until the opening of the high speed line just a few weeks before my trip. The train from Tokyo now takes as little as 2.5 hours, although I would suggest breaking the journey in Nagano to visit the terrific temple precinct and to drop in on the Snow Monkeys (oh and also check out the brilliant oyaki purveyors in the train station). Without many blog posts to rely on, I planned my eating in Kanazawa with the help of an article I found penned by Adam Liaw, the Aussie Masterchef winner with personal links to the area. Kanazawa was a refreshing break from the bigger and more well trodden cities like Tokyo and Kyoto. We enjoyed world class sushi, an intimate kaiseki meal, plenty of noodles, more wagashi breaks than you could hope for and it was topped off with gold leaf covered soft serve ice cream. With top quality food, as well as a number of interesting districts to visit, Kanazawa warrants a good three days to appreciate.

Where to Stay
I lodged at the MyStays in Kanazawa, but suggest you look elsewhere. While the room was great because the hotel was still very new, the location was a little out of the way. It was a shortish 10 minute walk from the train station, but in a direction away from most of the places you are likely to be interested in. Also, booking restaurants really needs the help of a good concierge in most parts of Japan, and the services here were frustratingly lacking. I would choose somewhere on the east side of the JR station, rather than the west.

Where to Eat
Kanazawa is uniquely placed in Japan for the quality of the food it has access to. It might have something to do with the intensely changeable weather. In mid March we had rain, snow, hail, wind and even a bit of sunshine, so pack appropriately. I think this weather contributes to the quality of the fertile and mountainous land around Kanazawa which lends itself to the famous kaga vegetables, while the proximity to Toyoma and the Sea of Japan brings unique seafood into Kanazawa before it reaches elsewhere in Japan. 
Sweet potato soft serve in a donut cone from the Omicho Market, Kanazawa
Sushi
Otomezushi (no website that I could find) has such a welcoming and relaxed atmosphere. I think it might be down to the combination of the affable master Kazuhiko Tsurumi, who effortlessly took care of the sushi, and a female "sous chef" who looked like a total bad ass while carving up chunks of fish with her massive knives or while tending the binchotan grill. Maybe it was this yin/yang, or perhaps it was the more regional location that made Otomezushi such a fun meal.
Otomezushi, Kanazawa
There are about 8 seats at the sushi bar and a small private room. Very little English is spoken by Tsurumi-san, so expect a fair amount of sign language or fall back on your knowledge of Japanese fish names which you can pick up pretty quickly. We happened to strike up a conversation with a diner from Tokyo who said Otomezushi was her favourite sushi-ya in Japan. We asked for the omakase selection when we booked via our hotel, but our new friend ordered some other interesting items that we added to our meal, like sea cucumber ovaries. A good amount of sake means I'll try anything.
Otomezushi, Kanazawa
My photos from Otomezushi didn't turn out that great, but from the collage above you get the picture, so to speak. The meal encompassed sashimi such as hirame (a flat fish), buri (amberjack), some local sweet shrimp, squid with its guts, delicate sayuri (needle fish), sea snails and some murasaki uni. Of course there were firefly squid, since the season had just started and Toyoma Bay is so close by. They were so delicious even though they were simply marinated in soy sauce.
Otomezushi, Kanazawa
One thing I did notice as the sushi part of the meal progressed is that the wasabi started to become more noticeable. We had a chu-toro maki which was so sweet, but quite heavy on the wasabi kick. I'm not sure if that was intentional. There were some grilled items like nodoguro (a type of perch) which we encountered in many places on this trip. It was deliciously rich with a soft, gelatinous flesh. We finished with an unagi hand roll and a miso soup with a chunky crab dumpling.
Otomezushi, Kanazawa
I mentioned the sea cucumber ovaries (hoshiko), which are pictured above, top right. The ovaries are harvested then pressed together and dried. Apparently one batch takes around 200 sea cucumbers to make, so it is a laborious process. A sliver was cut for us from a larger portion, and then lightly grilled over charcoal. The texture was chewy and the flavour was rich and intensely fishy. It was kind of like ovary jerky, but great with sake. Otomezushi is the only place I've seen them served so it was fun to try something completely new.

It's not an inexpensive meal though. The cost for two with a lot of food and a reasonable amount of sake was just shy of Y30,000. This is cheaper than a similar meal in Tokyo though. We exited into a hail storm, breaking the enchantment of the evening with a cold thud. I told you Kanazawa was unpredictable.

Kaiseki
Zeniya was our blow out kappa kaiseki meal in Kanazawa. Chef Shinichiro Takagi is highly regarded in Japan, although it wasn't him overseeing our meal but his brother. Their mother was one of the staff, as was the chef's wife, so it's clear that the passion for food runs in the family. The room is very simple with around seven seats facing the open kitchen where the preparation and grilling takes place. The tiles reminded me a little of 70s Australian kitchens so it's not the most modern of settings.
Zeniya, Kanazawa
I think the setting is deliberate, as it makes you focus on the food that is artfully constructed and presented, sometimes in bowls or boxes that date from the Ming Dynasty. We started with some green spring vegetables called nano hana before moving to an ethereal soup preparation. The rare Ainame (fat greenling) was steamed with sakura leaf and topped with some numbing kinome. The heady fragrance of the sakura made this dish so memorable. Plus, look at the gorgeous sakura blossom bowl it's served in! A small dish of sashimi followed including sea trout, a slightly crunchy sea snail, and a sweet and creamy prawn. The quality was superb.
Zeniya, Kanazawa
An interactive dish of stone-grilled torigai (Japanese cockle) followed. The chef took a slice of torigai and added it to the searingly-hot stone and turned it after about 10 seconds. I had eaten torigai as sashimi at Sushi-ya in Tokyo a few days earlier and thought the texture was a little challenging. However, here, the heat really brought out the sweetness in the flesh.
Torigai at Zeniya, Kanazawa
A box of treats followed with four interesting dishes including barbecued cockles, unagi and tai (red snapper) shirako. Sea cucumber intestines were served with potato, while there were also firefly squid with dried mullet roe and a sea bream nigiri. Salted abalone liver was served in the smallest dish and used as a condiment.

One of the best grilled fish dishes I've ever had followed. While we had nodoguro at Otomezushi, the preparation at Zeniya was astounding. It was topped with corn starch and kinome and had been grilled and basted for what seemed like a long time. The fish remained tender and had incredible depth of flavour. I don't really think the soft-boiled egg added that much to the dish, but what's not to like about it.
Shabu shabu at Zeniya, Kanazawa
The meal had another interactive moment with shabu shabu of local beef and wild vegetables. Look at the marbling in the beef! The meat was merely draped through the stock for a few moments and then dunked in the egg and radish sauce. This was a simple dish to showcase local produce to great effect.  The rice course rounded out the evening before desserts (custard apple from, oddly, California followed by matcha and wagashi of fresh peas). The anago rice was another beautifully textured dish. The rice was fragrant with herbs and full of gelatinous eel skin and flesh. Of course I had seconds. 

Very good English was spoken by the staff, making Zeniya an easy option for foreign tourists, but there's no getting around the fact that it is expensive. We chose the top Y23,000 menu, which hit almost Y60,000 for two with sake, tax and service. The food was high quality and the service was charming, but I feel like I had better value meals at this price point elsewhere in Japan. With that said, I would still recommend Zeniya.

Noodles
Ippudo is a great quality standby wherever you are in Japan. On a freezing evening a bowl of ramen really hits the spot. I had the premium Akamuru set and I rate their fried gyoza as some of the tastiest I've eaten too. The location is central making it an easy pit stop for a cheap and cheerful lunch or dinner. 
Ippudo, Kanazawa
I love udon, and Fukuwauchi, which is not too far from the Higashi Chaya district (see below), dishes up slurp-worthy bowls at reasonable prices. We found this spot in a guide book, but despite that you won't find any English spoken and you'll need to rely on the google translate app for an approximation of the menu.
Chicken and mushroom udon at Fukuwauchi, Kanazawa
Actually, there are three or four different restaurants in this complex so finding the one you want might be hit and miss, but persevere and you'll be shown to the cosy tatami room upstairs. I ordered a fantastic mushroom udon hot pot which really warmed me up on the cold day. Mr B went with a classic udon set with rice, pickles and salad. It's all good value with the prices well under £10.
Udon set at Fukuwauchi, Kanazawa
What to See
The Kanazawa tourist information website is very useful so it's a good place to start your planning. I run through my favourite spots below. There are other high profile attractions to visit, but I didn't really love the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art. I think this was because they were rehanging part of the space so there was little of interest apart from the cool swimming pool and the, umm, somewhat vaginal Anish Kapoor installation. Also, I didn't think the Nishi Chaya geisha district was worth the trek. We did find some tofu ice cream nearby, but apart from that there really wasn't much to see.
Leandro Erlich's The Swimming Pool at the 21 Century Museum of Contemporary Modern
Kenroku-en Garden
The Kenroku-en garden is considered one of the three most beautiful in Japan. Unfortunately when I visited, it was about a week or two before the cherry blossoms would bloom, so much of the park was still pretty barren in the frigid wind. The plum blossoms were out though and the lovely grove with multiple varieties was a great place to wander. It was also fascinating to inspect the interesting method for protecting the branches of the ancient trees that you can see in the photos below. Kanazawa receives a lot of snow in the winter meaning the tree branches could collapse under the accumulated weight, but the intricate rope work prevents this.
Scenes from Kenrokuen garden in Kanazawa
There is a small tea house (Miyoshian) by one of the lakes near the garden entrance (the one closest to the Modern Art Museum) where you can grab some matcha and a wagashi at a fairly reasonable price. It was pretty quiet when we visited, so it was a pleasant place to rest our feet and gaze on the water for a while.
Wagashi in the Kenrokuen Gardens, Kanazawa
Naga-machi Buke Yashiki District (Samurai district)
Although it sounds twee, the well restored samurai district was actually one of my favourite spots in Kanazawa. I enjoyed wandering over the small bridges and around the streets with their earthen walls and weathered wood.
Mud walls in the Samurai district, Kanazawa
Mostly though, I really enjoyed the Nomura Samurai Family Residence, which is a must-visit attraction in this district. The beautiful gardens are worth the small admission price with the different rooms opening onto unique vistas. The serene music, water features and compact composition made this one of my favourite gardens of my trip.
Garden view at the Nomura Samurai Family Residence
Here's another angle of the small, but beautifully formed garden...
The garden of the Nomura Samurai Family Residence, Kanazawa
...and this shows some of the interior screen paintings.
Screens at the Nomura Samurai Residence, Kanazawa
There is also a small teahouse serving, you guessed it, wagashi and matcha. From the two rooms, with just tatami matting to rest on, there is another pleasant view of the garden.
Wagashi and matcha at the Nomura Samurai Residence, Kanazawa

Omicho Market
Omicho market, Kanazawa
I always make a bee line for food markets when I visit somewhere new and the Omicho market is definitely one to explore. The market is made up of many small alleys, so it is easy to get disoriented, but that's the best way to stumble across something interesting. Crab season was definitely in full swing when I visited. There are many spots to eat in the market, with some serving oysters or sea urchins from their shells, but we just wandered around and picked up some soft serve ice cream and some tea, so I can't recommend anywhere specific to eat in Omicho.

Higashi Chaya district
Higashi Chaya retains the charm of the Edo period and is where you will find traditional tea houses being tended by geisha. It is said to be a more manageable version of Gion, but we didn't spot any geisha when we were there. Maybe it's more atmospheric after dark. Despite this, the area is definitely a must see to check out the weathered architecture and the number of independent artisan stores there. I bought some beautiful handcrafted wood items like chopsticks and a presentation bowl as well as a ceramic vase from Kihachi Kobo which is one of the oldest producers of wood-turned products in the region. There are also quite a few teahouses to stop at.
Higashi Chaya district, Kanazawa
We randomly chose one place which happened to be Morihachi, which is one of the oldest in the city dating back to 1625. There was a small queue but it didn't take long to be shown to a table next to the small internal garden. A pot of hojicha and a wagashi can be restoring for the bones when you're out walking much of the day.
Wagashi and hojicha at Morihachi, Kanazawa
The Utatsuyama temple district is just a short stroll away from Higashi Chaya, and we walked between the many temples (with intermittent snow storms!) which afford some decent views over the city. While it did not seem possible to visit the temples, there were many beautifully tended gardens that were worth exploring, even in the early Spring.
Post snow shower in the Utatsuyama district, Kanazawa
Did you know that Kanazawa also produces around 98% of the gold leaf in Japan? It appears they have a surfeit of it, because as well as picking up a small jar to take home you can also have it sprinkled on soft serve ice cream. We stopped by Ukeian, which is a short stroll from the pedestrianised area. It specialises in products from the Ukokkei chicken, which has weirdly mesmeric silkie feathers. The shop uses the eggs in loads of products, so we bought a castella cake (topped with gold leaf, obviously) to take home but also had a yolk-flavoured soft serve topped with a liberal sprinkling of gold leaf. Even though it was about 10 degrees outside, we were definitely on cloud oishii. I can think of few better ways to top off a day in Kanazawa.
Gold leaf ice cream from Ukokkei in Higashi Chaya, Kanazawa


6 comments:

  1. Great review! We are going there next month and hope to do many of these things!

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    1. Thanks for your comment Chris! I hope this is useful to you. Have a great time!

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  2. Am adding most of these to my Google My Maps ready for our trip. I'm going to ask our hotel to try and reserve us into Otomezushi.

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  3. Great article, lots of interesting and useful hints and tips. I'm visiting Kanazawa in August and I've already booked a place for lunch at Otomezushi. Thanks!

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    1. I'm happy it was helpful Oli. Enjoy your trip!

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