A worthy contender for Kyoto’s crown as Japan’s historical heart, Kanazawa is a jewel of a city.
Although Kanazawa is best known for Kenroku-en, one of Japan’s top three gardens, this city in the Ishikawa prefecture offers so much more. Home to Edo-period Chaya Districts, ancient samurai houses, several attractive temples and a clutch of museums, you can easily spend one or two days in Kanazawa.
But how do you decide what are the best things to do in Kanazawa? To help you make the most of your time in this cultural gem, follow this 2-day Kanazawa itinerary.
If you have extra time in this seductive city, I have added some options for day trips from Kanazawa. This article also includes how to get to Kanazawa, how to get around, hotel recommendations and suggested reading.
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A Short History of Kanazawa
During the Edo period, Kanazawa flourished under the patronage of the powerful Maeda family and their samurai warriors who governed Kaga (today’s Ishikawa prefecture) for 300 years. Their cultural, gastronomic and artistic achievements, notably Kanazawa gold leaf and the tea ceremony, persist to this day.
During the modernization of Japan in the Meiji Restoration (1868 – 1912), Kanazawa’s importance diminished in favour of the industrial development of Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya. However, Kanazawa escaped the devastation wrought during World War II and, as a result, the city’s historical Edo era streets coexist with the city’s modern architecture.
How many days should I spend in Kanazawa?
Two days in Kanazawa will allow you to enjoy the city at a relaxed pace. However, with careful planning, you can see Kanazawa’s highlights in one day on a day trip.
How to Get to Kanazawa
Kanazawa is easy to reach by train. It also served by highway buses and has an airport close by.
How to get to Kanazawa by train
It is considerably cheaper to buy your JR Pass before leaving home.
Tokyo to Kanazawa by train
The Kagayaki shinkansen (bullet train) travels between Tokyo Station and Kanazawa in 2 hours and 30 minutes.
Although a second shinkansen, the Hakutaka, also runs along this line, it makes more stops, stretching the journey time to over three hours. Therefore, if you are taking a day trip to Kanazawa from Tokyo, I recommend taking the Kagayaki bullet train.
Note that seat reservations are compulsory for all Kagayaki trains.
Nagano to Kanazawa to Kanazawa by train
The Kagayaki shinkansen travels between Nagano Station and Kanazawa in just over one hour. Again, seat reservations are required.
The slower Hakutaka shinkansen makes the journey in just under 90 minutes.
Kyoto or Osaka to Kanazawa by train
The frequent JR Thunderbird limited express travels between Osaka and Kyoto and Kanazawa in just over two hours. Seat reservations are not required.
Toyama to Kanazawa by train
The Tsurugi and Hakutaka shinkansen make the journey between Kanazawa Station and Toyama in just over 20 minutes.
Takayama to Kanazawa by train
To get to Kanazawa from Takayama, take the JR Hida limited express line to Toyama Station. From there, change for the Hokuriku shinkansen or local train to Kanazawa.
Depending on your connections, this journey takes from two hours.
How to get to Kanazawa by highway bus
Getting to Kanazawa by highway bus is a useful option if you are travelling from Shirakawa-go or Takayama.
The Takayama-Shirakawa-go/Kanazawa line, operated by Nohi Bus, runs four services a day. The journey from Takayama to Kanazawa takes 2 hours 15 minutes and reservations are required.
Getting to Kanazawa by plane
Komatsu Airport (KMQ) is the closest airport to Kanazawa and serves a handful of domestic destinations (Haneda, Sapporo, Sendai, Fukuoka and Naha) in addition to a few in other Asian countries (Seoul, Shanghai and Taipei).
A bus travels the 12-minute journey between the terminal building and the airport railway station, from where it is 30 minutes to Kanazawa station.
How to Get Around Kanazawa
Although Kanazawa does not have a subway system, its excellent bus services make navigating the city a breeze. The main bus operator in Kanazawa is Hokuriku Rail Road.
There are two bus services that are of most use to visitors: the Kanazawa Loop Bus and the JR Kenrokuen Shuttle. As these special buses have displays and announcements in English and Japanese, you need not worry about missing your stop.
The Kanazawa Loop Bus
The Kanazawa Loop Bus connects Kanazawa Station in a circular route with most sights of interest, including Kenroku-en Garden, Higashi Chaya District, the museum district at Hirosaka and Omicho Market.
There are two routes; Right Loop Route and Left Loop Route. These routes are identical, merely running in opposite directions.
Buses operate every 15 minutes in both directions from 8:30 to 18:00. There is a flat fare of 200 yen per ride (2021 price).
I recommend buying a one-day bus pass for 600 yen which gives you unlimited use of these tourist buses as well as regular city buses in central Kanazawa. Additionally, this day pass provides discounted admission to several local tourist attractions.
You can buy the day pass from the Hokutetsu Bus Ticket Centre, opposite stop 1 of East Gate Bus Terminal at Kanazawa station.
As the bus approaches the stop at which you want to get off, push the buzzer button to let the driver know that you wish to alight. As you leave the bus, drop the exact fare into the box by the driver, or show him your one-day pass. If you don’t have the exact fare, there is a change machine next to the payment slot that accepts coins and 1000 yen notes.
Unlike those in many other Japanese cities, with the exception JR Machi-Bus (the Kanazawa Shopping Liner) buses in Kanazawa do not accept IC cards (e.g. Suica, Pasmo).
The JR Kenrokuen Shuttle
The JR Kenrokuen Shuttle Bus is a faster way to travel between Kanazawa Station and Kenrokuen Garden.
This bus departs from bus stop #6 at Kanazawa Station’s East Gate bus terminal bound for Kenrokuen via Omi-cho Market, the Kohrinbo shopping district and the Hirosaka museum district.
Buses operate every 20 minutes from 9.30 to 17.50. There is a flat fare of 200 yen per ride, reduced to 100 yen on weekends and national holidays (2021 prices). The JR Kenrokuen Shuttle Bus is FREE if you are a JR Pass holder.
Kanazawa bike hire
Although I didn’t try it, you can get around Kanazawa by bike.
Machi-nori (Town-ride) Cycles is Kanazawa’s self-service bike-sharing scheme. For just 200 yen, unlock a bike from one of the city’s 20+ docking stations with your credit card and touch the screen to get started.
Kanazawa by taxi
Although taxis are easy to hail, they are expensive. Kanazawa is a small city and, in my view, you should not need to use a taxi.
Although it is a sprawling city, the best things to see in Kanazawa are clustered around Kanazawa Castle Park, with the city’s two rivers cutting through its core on either side of the park.
Kanazawa Station is located around two kilometres northwest of the city centre. However, the city’s excellent bus network will have you exploring its main attractions within a 10-15-minute journey.
The Best Things to Do in Kanazawa in 2 Days
2-Day Kanazawa Itinerary
Make sure that you don’t miss the best things to do in Kanazawa in two days with this tried and tested itinerary.
Day One concentrates on the immediate area around Kanazawa Castle Park, including the sublime Kenroku-en Garden and the Nagamachi Samurai District. On your second day in Kanazawa you will mixing it up a bit with visits to a few museums, the famous Omi-cho Market and the city’s largest geisha district.
You will be able to walk between most of these sights, and for each day I’ll provide advice on how to get around, whether this is on foot or using the city’s tourist buses.
Finally, this 2-day Kanazawa itinerary is intended as a framework to allow you to make the most of your time in the city. As many of the main sights are clustered around the castle’s park, don’t be afraid to shift things around a bit.
Kanazawa Itinerary: Map
Here’s a map to help you seek out the best things to do in Kanazawa:
This map is colour coded to correspond with the days in this Kanazawa itinerary:
- Day 1 – red star
- Day 2 – yellow star
Kanazawa Itinerary Day 1: Gardens and Samurai
Strolling around serene gardens is one of the best reasons to visit Japan, and day one of your Kanazawa itinerary includes a visit to one of the country’s most lauded gardens. It then continues with a visit to a shrine with perhaps Japan’s most unique gate, before ending with a stroll through the city’s samurai district.
To get on your way, take the JR Kenrokuen Shuttle (recommended) or the Kanazawa Loop Bus from Kanazawa Station – a must-see sight in itself – to Kenroku-en. From here it’s an easy walk between the remaining stops on this itinerary.
The starting point of your 2-day Kanazawa itinerary is the city’s railway station. Worthy of its architectural plaudits, Kanazawa Station mixes futuristic design with deeply traditional elements.
Looking like it has been lifted straight from a sci-fi novel, the elevated station building is covered by an aluminium and glass roof, designed to collect rainfall which is then used to irrigate the plants in the station’s plaza and to feed its fountains.
Exiting the station, you are greeted by the striking Tsuzumi Gate. This immense handcrafted wooden structure is built in the form of a torii gate, which is usually found at the entrance to a Japanese shrine.
Before leaving Kanazawa station stop by the Tourist Information Centre, which is one of the friendliest and most helpful that I have encountered during my 30+ years of independent travel.
From the train station, take JR Kenrokuen Shuttle Bus to the second stop on this Kanazawa itinerary, Kenrokuen Garden.
Originally the outer garden of Kanazawa castle, Kenroku-en is considered one of Japan’s most beautiful gardens.
This Edo-period strolling-style landscape garden takes its name from the six attributes associated with a famous Sung-dynasty garden in China: seclusion, spaciousness, antiquity, human ingenuity, abundant water and scenic views.
Kenroku-en has these qualities in abundance.
From the southern edge of the garden, there are panoramic views over Kanazawa. Crystal-clear streams, crisscrossed with graceful stone bridges, lace through the garden. Majestic ancient pine trees (Karasakinomatsu Pines) reach for the sky. A Japanese plum grove planted with 200 trees of 20 varieties provides a dazzling colour display.
At Hisagoike Pond, a graceful, sweet-smelling cherry blossom tree casts a perfect reflection in the pond’s still moss-green water. The 18th Century Yugao-tei tea house sits at the pond’s edge and the centre of the pond is home to a small island planted with fir trees.
A sound landscape is provided by the adjacent Midori-taki Waterfall and birdsong.
As Kenroku-en is one of Japan’s largest gardens, I recommend setting aside at least one hour for your visit.
Stop for a glittering gold ice cream
The next stop on your Kanazawa itinerary is Kanazawa Castle, but before making your way there, treat yourself to an ice cream decorated with gold flakes from one of the sellers outside the garden. The city prides itself in offering gold-related souvenirs and foods – you can even find a beef curry embellished with gold flakes – and the most well-known of these is the gold leaf ice cream.
But don’t do as I did. When setting up for a selfie shot, ice cream cone raised in the air, a watchful seagull swooped down to gobble the lot!
When you’re done, cross the road and enter Kanazawa Castle Park through the medieval Ishikawa Gate.
Kanazawa Castle Park
Originally built in 1580, Kanazawa Castle was home to the Maeda clan for 14 generations until several fires succeeding in razing it to the ground in the late 19th Century. The imposing structure that we see today is a reconstruction.
In my view, your time is best spent walking around Kanazawa Castle Park.
Make your way past the castle’s moat to the small but perfectly formed Gyokusen’inmaru Garden. Established in 1634, this garden was continually landscaped by successive lords of the Kaga Domain and is thought to have served as a courtyard for the domain lord. Gyokusen’inmaru Garden is centred around a pond with three islets, connected by low wooden and stone bridges.
Exiting Kanazawa Castle Park next to the Gyokusen’inmaru Garden you will reach the Oyama Shrine in five minutes.
Oyama Jinja Shrine
Dedicated to Maeda Toshiie, the first lord of the Kaga Clan, the unassuming Oyama Jinja Shrine was built in 1599 on Mount Utatsu and later moved to its current location.
It is known for its unusual main gate, dating from 1875 and designed by a Dutch architect. This fuses European and Asian religious themes and is most famous for the Dutch style stained glass windows on the uppermost level, which is said to once have served as a lighthouse.
Oyama Jinja Shrine also has a peaceful and attractive stroll garden and pond.
From the Oyama Jinja Shrine, it’s a leisurely 10-minute walk to the last stop of your first day in Kanazawa, the Nagamachi Samurai District.
Nagamachi Samurai District
If you have a fascination with samurai and have watched The Last Samurai or Rashomon one too many times, strolling through the Nagamachi district will one of the best things to do in Kanazawa. Once home to the samurai that supported the Maeda family, today this district preserves a historic atmosphere with its former samurai residences, cobbled streets, narrow lanes and water canals.
To immerse yourself in the life of a samurai, visit the Nomura Clan Samurai Home (Nomura-ke). This restored samurai residence displaying artefacts from this era, including suits of armour and traditional furniture. Nomura-ke also has a peaceful small inner garden with a tea house.
Kanazawa Itinerary Day 2: Food, Philosophy and Geisha
Your second day in Kanazawa itinerary begins with a visit to one of Japan’s best food markets, visits two cutting-edge art museums and end with exploring the city’s evocative geisha district. With a few shrines thrown into the mix, this promises to be a busy and varied day.
Start your day by walking to Omi-cho Market or travel the short distance from Kanazawa Station on the JR Kenrokuen Shuttle or the Kanazawa Loop Bus.
Get a taste of everyday like in Kanazawa at Omi-cho Market. This busy traditional local market has been around for 300 years and is a warren of about 170 stalls selling fresh produce, including as seafood, vegetables and fruit, and restaurants.
Known as ‘Kanazawa’s kitchen’, Omi-cho Market is fascinating to walk through and is also a great place to grab a bite to eat.
Although opening hours vary by shop or restaurant, typically Omi-cho market is open between 9 am and 5.30 pm. Many shops are closed on Sundays or Wednesdays, as well as national holidays, including the New Year holidays.
From Omi-cho Market, get back on the JR Kenrokuen Shuttle or the Kanazawa Loop Bus to your next stop, the city’s 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art.
21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa
I confess that although I do make an occasional visit to Tate Modern in my home city of London, much of the time I don’t really get modern and contemporary art. So the fact that I was bowled over by Kanazawa’s 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art speaks volumes.
Take the design of the museum for example. This is not just an architectural showcase in isolation. The museum was designed as a park where people can gather and meet and its exhibits extend into this outside space.
Inside, the collection’s highlights are too numerous to name but the most famous work is ‘The Swimming Pool’ by Argentinian artist Leandro Erlich. In this unique artwork, people appear to be standing underwater when viewed from above.
Ishiura Jinja Shrine
Across the road from the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art is the tranquil Ishiura Jinja Shrine. Thought to have been built in the Tensho Era as a local shrine for seven villages in the Ishiura district, this shrine was moved from Shimohonda-cho to its current site in the late 19th Century.
Although the Ishiura Jinja Shrine doesn’t look much from the roadside, it features a striking set of vermillion torri strewn with Omikuji.
From this shrine, it’s about pleasant 5 – 10 minutes on foot to the D.T. Suzuki Museum.
D.T. Suzuki Museum
For me, visiting this small museum dedicated to Daietz Suzuki, one of the leading Buddhist philosophers of our time, is one of the best things to do in Kanazawa. Daietz Suzuki or Suzuki Daisetz Teitaro, who died in 1996, was born in Kanazawa and was instrumental in introducing Japanese Zen philosophy to the west.
Designed by architect Taniguchi Yoshio, the museum is an extraordinary space and the epitome of tranquillity. It comprises three buildings, connected by corridors, and three gardens: the Vestibule Garden, the Roji Garden and the Water Mirror Garden.
The D.T. Suzuki Museum is purpose-built for contemplation. As you walk through the wings, you can learn more about the philosophy of Daietz Suzuki through his writings, and then sit and reflect in one of the serene gardens.
A moving experience.
Kazue-machi Chaya District
Kanazawa has three well-preserved traditional entertainment districts, often referred to as geisha districts. Nishi Chaya is the smallest one; Higashi Chaya (East Chaya) the largest and most popular one; and Kazue-machi Chaya the second largest.
Whilst Kazue-Machi Chaya doesn’t cover a large area, it is worthy of a ten-minute stroll and its Edo buildings, with their wooden facades and lattice windows, lining the Asano River make a great photo opportunity. This district is also more tranquil than the popular Higashi Chaya on the other side of the river.
To get to the Higashi Chaya District, the final stop of our two-day Kanazawa itinerary, walk to the Asanogawa Bridge to cross the river.
Higashi Chaya District (Higashiyama)
The best thing to see in Kanazawa is saved until last for a very good reason.
Although a charming area at any time of day, Higashiyama’s seductive beauty is heightened in the warm glow of the afternoon sun, and as the sun starts to set when its narrow streets and Edo-period houses are illuminated by the soft glow of lanterns. If you are lucky, you may even spot one of the members of this district’s geisha community scurrying to her next engagement.
As Higashiyama is rich with craft shops, this is a perfect opportunity to browse and shop for tasteful gifts. And as there is a good selection of restaurants, why not end your day with dinner in a historic setting?
A perfect end to your two days in Kanazawa.
Guided Tours and Experiences in Kanazawa
This 2-day itinerary has been designed to make sure that you experience the best things to go in Kanazawa independently. But if you are short on time, or are looking for a cultural – or fun! – experience, it makes sense to explore the packaged activities available.
GetYourGuide is my go-to platform for booking organised activities. They offer a broad selection of activities with generous cancellation options, allowing you to book in advance with zero risk. They have a good selection of activities in Kanazawa from which to choose, but here are a few related to the attractions included in this itinerary.
Day Trips from Kanazawa
Thanks to its good rail and bus connections, Kanazawa also makes a great base for day trips to neighbouring cities. Here are a few suggestions.
Visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Shirakawa-go, a mountainous region famous for its traditional thatched gassho-zukuri farmhouses, some of which are more than 250 years old.
The easiest village to access is Ogimachi, which can be reached by the Nohi highway bus from Kanazawa. Reservations are compulsory and the journey time is around 90 minutes.
As a longer day trip, but worthwhile alternative, consider easy-going Takayama, offering snow in winter, hot springs and historic wooden buildings in a pretty riverside setting.
The same Nohi highway bus travels between Kanazawa and Takayama in 2 hours 15 minutes. Reservations are compulsory.
If it’s more temples that you are craving, take a day trip to Nagano which is home to Zenko-ji, one of Japan’s most popular temples.
To get to Nagano, take the Kayagaki shinkansen from Kanazawa, a journey time of just over one hour (reservations compulsory). Alternatively, the Hokuriku shinkansen ruins on the same line, taking slightly longer to make the journey but does not require reservations.
Both trains are covered by the JR Pass.
Is Kanazawa Safe for Solo Travellers?
Japan is one of the safest solo travel destinations in Asia, if not the world. This is a country that takes pride in its safety, uniformity and order, and has a very low crime rate.
Safety as a solo traveller is a particular concern of women travelling alone.
If you are a woman travelling alone, Japan should be high on your list of first-time solo travel destinations.
Whilst you shouldn’t be complacent, you don’t have to be concerned about pickpocketing or walking alone at night as much as you would in other countries. If you use your common sense, watch your belongings, drink alcohol in moderation and share your itinerary with someone back home, you should have a trouble-free stay in Kanazawa.
Where to stay in Kanazawa
As a large city, Kanazawa is not short of places to stay. For convenience, I recommended staying near Kanazawa Station.
This 4-star hotel, a ten-minute walk from Kanazawa Station was one of my favourite places to stay during this trip to Japan. The room was huge by Japanese standards, with fabulous views and a separate lounge area. The price was reasonable for the standard of hotel.
Here are some alternative choices that are worth considering:
At the same price point, Dormy Inn Kanazawa Natural Hot Spring is closer to the train station and features an open-air and indoor and plus a sauna. There is also a coin-operated laundrette and complimentary coffee is available in the lobby in the afternoon and evening.
I stayed in a Dormy Inn during my visit to Himeji and was very impressed by the hotel.
Stretching the travel budget a little further, this 5-star hotel slap-bang in front of Kanazawa Station has garnered great reviews. Beds are reportedly super comfy and there are panoramic views from the rooms.
Japan: Suggested Reading
Do you want to learn a little bit more about Japan? Here’s my pick of books to read either before travelling to Japan or whilst you are there.
One of my favourite books ever, Hiromi Kawakami’s gentle novel sets three national obsessions – dining out at izakaya, hanami (flower viewing) parties during cherry blossom season and discussing baseball – against the growing relationship between a thirtysomething woman and a much older man. The literary equivalent of being wrapped in a warm blanket.
There had to be at least one Murakami book on this list and this is my current favourite. In this tale of love, friendship, and loss, the main protagonist tries to make sense of being abandoned by his closest friends. Unforgettable and heartbreaking.
Ever since reading The Remains of the Day, Ishiguro has been one of my favourite authors. This excellent novel set in post-war Japan features an artist who uses his skills promote the military government’s imperialist ambitions
Packing a good guidebook to help you to plan your trip to Japan, and explore the country whilst you are there, is a wise move. I can recommend the Rough Guide, which includes a free e-book that you can load onto your phone for information on the go.
- Detailed regional coverage
- Full-colour maps and photos throughout
- Recommendations for where to stay and where to eat
- Includes valuable contextual information
- Includes FREE e-book for ultimate portability
Is Kanazawa worth visiting?
Finally, let’s cut to the chase. Is Kanazawa worth visiting? From this traveller, it’s a resounding “yes.”
For very good reasons, first-time visitors to Japan flock to the honey pots of Tokyo and Kyoto, using these cities as bases from which to explore nearby destinations. Whilst Kanazawa may not have the breadth of attractions of these two cities, overlook it at your peril.
Whilst Kanazawa is also known as “Little Kyoto in Northern Japan”, this is doing it a disservice.
Like its larger comparator, it offers the opportunity to experience Japanese culture, traditional architecture and history, walks around geisha districts and temples a-plenty.
However, Kanazawa is so much more than this. From ancient samurai houses and one of the best gardens in Japan to a cutting-edge art museum, Kanazawa allows you to look at Japan through a variety of lenses.
Perhaps it’s time for Kanazawa to be promoted to the first division of Japan’s tourist destinations?