RTW2007: Kanazawa, wherein our curious culinarist eats metal, is unintentionally insulted by his geriatric innkeeper and narrowly avoids committing electoral violence.

I really like Kanazawa. Much of it is modern and funky: you’ve got brand-new buildings, hordes of university students dressed up in the latest Shibuya-kei fashions, fancy shopping malls tucked full of Louis Vuitton and Gucci. But the station sets the tone: it’s a concoction of glass and steel, but the entrance is built as an ancient Japanese wooden temple gate.

Unlike Tokyo or Kyoto, where you have to hunt to discover even a single old building, Kanazawa, spared the devastation of the war, has invested a huge amount of energy into preserving places like the Higashi-chayamachi geisha district, which is probably Japan’s single best-preserved Edo-era area. I had a cup of ceremonial matcha green tea in the Shima geisha house (chaya), gawped at the countless bizarre uses of gold leaf in the restored shops (“say, why don’t we eat it?”), and strolled along the riverbank watching the cherry trees just about to burst into full blossom. I was just one week too early for the cherry blossom festival, but this was a blessing in disguise — the town was not yet inundated with tourists, so finding lodging was not a problem, and both Kenroku-en Garden and the (remains of) Kanazawa Castle were already lit up and open at night, yet not overrun with crowds.

Kenrokuen, being one of Japan’s Top Three Gardens, is to some extent a victim of its own success — what were once meditative footpaths are now wide, roped-off thoroughfares, and souvenir shops dot the park itself. But in the evenings of cherry blossom week there was a nice row of food stalls outside, selling festival fare like great corn on the cob doused with soy abd really bad okonomiyaki. But Hokuriku’s forte is seafood, and indeed, the conveyor belt sushi I had atop the department store next to the station was among the greatest meals I’ve had in a long time: why, oh why, is it that sushi just doesn’t taste the same outside the country?

I spent three nights at the wonderful Shibaya Ryokan, which despite the name is actually a Japanese-style business hotel (4200 yen/night) in a modern house not far from the train station. The owners were a doddering elderly pair who’d actually visited Singapore (as, seemingly, had everybody else I talked with in Kanazawa), but couldn’t rememeber a single thing about it. (After a lengthy scratch of his bald head, hubby opined: “I think we went to some place with flowers?”.) The lady, more talkative of the two, addressed me as otaku, the first time I’d ever run into this — the word literally means “honorable home” and used to be a polite word for “you”, but after serial child killer Tsutomu Miyazaki’s misadventures is now a rather rude term for “obsessive geek” — but evidently meant no harm by it.

At the other side of town from Higashi (“East”) was the inevitable if rather less impressive Nishi (“West”) geisha district and, not too far away, the Nagamachi samurai district, which — unusually for resolutely egalitarian middle-class Japan — preserved and documented the ornate caste system of Japan’s feudal era. The full-fledged samurai at the top of the heap lived in giant palaces full of art, gardens and altars, theirashigaru footsoldiers lived in modest three-room houses, and their chugen petty retainers, tasked with handing over their Lord’s sandals or feeding his horses, lived in drafty one-room shacks.

Cherry blossoms in Kenrokuen

In addition to being cherry blossom season, it was also election season, conducted in uniquely Japanese style: driving around trucks outfitted with loudspeakers, female voices literally shrieking out the same message in repeat: “Tanaka Taro desu! I’m Tanaka Taro! Mina-san no tame ni ganbattemasu! I will try my best for everybody! Douzo yoroshiku onegaishimasu! Thank you!” One particularly obnoxious dipshit called Yachi Something, may he rot in Hell, was so incessant and loud (grannies in the vicinity were covering their ears) that I seriously regretted not having a spare shoe to fling at them, as I’d previously done to a Japanese Communist Party candidate blasting through my ‘hood in Tokyo at 8 AM on a Sunday. (They stopped for about 5 seconds as the shoe went “bonk” onto the van’s roof, then continued unperturbed. Next time I’ll aim better.)

Every time I go to Japan, I’m a little shocked at what has changed, and a lot more shocked to realize that it’s been ten years since I set foot there for the first time (as an adult). Things that caught my attention this time:

  • Non-smoking has caught on in a big way. Taxis, trains, airports, even streets like all of Higashi — unhappy-looking smokers are confined into little smoky boxes. It’s about time!
  • Facilities for the disabled are now ubiquitous. Of course, the real reason is not that the Japanese care any more about the disabled than previously (they’re still locked away out of sight), but that the population is getting old fast and the elderly vote.
  • “Jet towels” for drying your hands. Mitsubishi must be making millions off these things: I don’t think I saw a single paper towel anywhere in Kanazawa.