About 2.5 hours from Tokyo on the Hokuriku Shinkansen would be the charming cities of Kanazawa and Matsumoto. Rich in culture and history, the 2 cities are at the forefront of celebrating ancient Japanese artisan crafts and arts into a modern era.
Both cities are part of the famed “Mitsuboshi Kaidou: (Three-star Road) part of the Nostalgic Route of Shoryudo, one of the biggest sightseeing routes in Japan.
KANAZAWA And also the MAEDA CLAN
Once area of the ancient Kaga Province, Kanazawa became the epicentre of artisans and merchants throughout the Sengoku and Edo periods with the foresight of the eminent Maeda clan. Channelling their immense wealth into the pursuit of arts and crafts (for example Kaga Yuzen kimono and gold leaf) instead of military endeavours, the Maeda clan allayed the fears of the ruling Shogunate of a rebellion.
The need for nature, art and crafts is visible throughout the city especially in the renown Kenrokuen Gardens, among the three great Japanese landscaped gardens. Every generation of the Maeda clan has expanded the Kenrokuen grounds to what it's today.
THE MODERN ART SCENE
Looking towards the future and embracing the ever-evolving modern art scene, the city can also be the place to find the 21st Century Museum which showcases acclaimed contemporary artists from Japan and all around the globe. Certainly one of its most popular permanent exhibits is Leandro Erlich's Swimming Pool.
The new private contemporary art museum KAMU offers an active alternative experience with sculpture, installation, technology and 3D art. KAMU exhibitions are locked in several small buildings over the city, with five currently active and much more planned to spread out later on. One of them even turns into a speakeasy bar during the night.
Ancient artisan skills and crafts from Kanazawa are still highly desired, none much more than kimonos crafted within the Kaga Yuzen technique with a single artisan. Characterized by the “Kaga Gosai”, the five base colours and the realistic floral patterns, including “insect biting”; Kaga Yuzen refrains from using additional decorations like gold leaf, and embroidering that's signature of Kyo-Yuzen kimonos (Yuzen produced in Kyoto).
Where once there were 150 Kaga Yuzen workshops, now only 10 remain with 130 practicing artisans. One of these simple workshops belongs to the Maida family, who at the helm is the current sandaime (third generation family head) Maida Hitoshi. A recipient of numerous awards including the prestigious Japan Kogei Association 2022 award, Maida-san has been instrumental in preserving the traditional Kaga Yuzen techniques whilst showcasing them on the modern stage with works in hotels and stores.
One may even go to the MAIDA studio and make your very own Furoshiki (traditional Japanese wrapping cloth) using Kaga Yuzen techniques.
FEEL Aware of A MACHIYA STAY
Recently in Japan, there has been a movement to reclaim and provide new life to machiya (old merchant houses) in Kanazawa and Kyoto as luxury accommodations. Beautifully renovated to modern needs yet maintaining the standard design, these properties are stunning standalone entities. They're perfect to possess like a home base in the actual heart of Kanazawa's Nagamachi (samurai) district, along with a short walk from the Higashi Chaya (Geisha teahouses) district. Each property is individually decorated with facets of Kanazawa's traditional crafts for example Kutani Porcelain.
ONWARDS TO MATSUMOTO
On the way in which back down to Tokyo, make sure to include Matsumoto around the itinerary. Known as the gateway towards the Northern Japan Alps, it's among the best bases for exploring the surrounding mountain regions whether it be hiking in summer, spring, autumn or snowshoeing in winter. For individuals who love art, the city is known as the hometown of internationally acclaimed artist Yayoi Kusama and where a lot of her pieces are showcased.
Plan your trip from Kanazawa to Matsumoto to include the mountains of Takayama via the Shinhotaka Ropeway where you can view the Hida Mountain Range and indulge in an open-air onsen.
One from the five castles designated like a “National Treasure of Japan,” Matsumoto Castle is the oldest five-tiered, six story castle tower remaining. Built in the 16th century, the castle is locally known as the “crow castle” because of its black rooftops that remind one of the spread from the bird's wings.
The outer moat reflects the castle beautifully on clear days, where you will discover people slowly meandering along the path and in springtime, appreciating the hundreds of cherry blossom trees which line the path. Traditional rickshaw experiences can also be found from Matsumoto Castle and around the town, where the driver often regales you with local stories, legends and data of Matsumoto town.
TRADITIONAL CANDY MAKING
For those with an appreciation of sweets, Matsumoto is famed for its traditional candy made from rice syrup starch resembling “Matsumoto Temari” from Yamaya Candy shop. Currently run by the 13th master (jusandaime) Ota Yoshihi, Yamaya continues to be making candy since 1672.
Their passion for rice candy came into being when during Oshogatsu (Japanese New Year), sake was often drunk in celebration. However only the adults could partake, therefore the family wanted to create something with similar essential ingredients of sake (rice and water) that ages could enjoy.
Yamaya has “Matsumoto Temari” candy making workshops available for any age to savor.
THE BOOK HOTEL – MATSUMOTO JUJO
Travel to Asama Onsen town for a relaxing stay at the lavish and modern Matsumoto Jujo, where all rooms have their own private onsen open-air bath. Formerly a vintage Ryokan, Matsumoto Jujo Honbako (it hotel) opened in July 2022. The hotel embraces its beautiful history to utilise that which was when the public onsen baths and turning them in to the bookshop and reading area. Guests can enjoy a wide array of books and reading nooks during their stay.
For those who love a more traditional ryokan feel, Matsumoto Jujo also paid homage to its 300year old past by opening Matsumoto Jujo Koyanagi (the original ryokan's name) nearby in September 2022. Resplendent with soft, warm tones of tatami and wood, Koyanagi was designed in direct contrast to the modernity of Honbako with equal luxuriousness.