Higashi-chayagai - one of the old entertainment districts in Kanazawa


Kanazawa is the place where my family came from. As my grandfather Taikichi was born in 1890 as the sixth son of his father Tahei in Kanazawa, he went to Tokyo to look for his fortune. Therefore, his descendants including me now live in and near Tokyo. However, before Taikichi all family members, so far as I could trace, used to live in Kanazawa. My great-grandfather Tahei was the third generation with that first name and the father of the first Tahei was called Jiemon who was born well back in the 18th century and the oldest ancestor of the family so far as I know. It seems that Jiemon already was rich enough to acquire a permission of the lord Maeda to use the family name “Okada” beside corporate name “Kashiya”, a privilege which was usually given to non-samurai citizens in return to sizable amount of donation to the lord.

Kutani porcelain at a bargain

Geisha house museum in Higashi Chayagai

The family lived in Miyakoshi, the suburban port town of Kanazawa, and operated a fleet of “kitamae-bune”, largest cargo ships at the time of pre-industrialization Japan, to transport rice and other goods along the coast of Japan till as far as Osaka and Hokkaido. Among the shipowners of kitamae-bune Zeniya Gohei was by far the most famous personality. After the downfall of Zeniya Gohei due to the corruption scandal in 1852, Kashiya Tahei became the caretaker of shipowners in Miyakoshi.


People tend to have temptation to discover their “roots” when they get old. In my case our family has lost its tie with the head family only recently i.e. only after the death of my grandfather during WWII and I presume that the family members still live somewhere in Kanazawa. Therefore, I did not find it very difficult to trace the family history and tried to use a part of my visit to Kanazawa to find a clue to my family origin. However, research was much more difficult than I had expected and I cannot report on the fruits of my research yet. But, I was so impressed by the allure of Kanazawa through my virtually first visit to the town and want to write about Kanazawa though I have only superficial knowledge about this enchanting town.

Kanazawa was virtually created by lords Maeda who possessed the largest territory, which yields over one million koku (about 150 thousand tons) of rice, next to Tokugawa Shoguns. It is not surprising that Kanazawa was the fourth largest city in Japan during the Edo Period after Edo (Tokyo), Osaka and Kyoto. Lords Maeda tried to introduce the sophisticated court culture from Kyoto and invited many artists and artisans from Kyoto and succeeded to develop rich cultural tradition in Kanazawa. In addition Kanazawa was lucky enough to have escaped bombardment during WWII and we can still experience the elegant culture of feudal lords and rich merchants in its original settings.

Soy sauce shop

Kutani porcelain
rabbit girl in Kimono

It is indeed wonderful to stroll in quiet side alleys of Kanazawa where we can still see lots of traditional style wooden houses, the environment we have lost in most other towns including Tokyo except for very limited areas such as Yanaka. I should say that many things were destroyed during WWII, however we also destroyed a huge amount of precious old things during the course of economic development in the 1950s and 1960s. Only after 1970 the trial started to preserve our tradition. However, destruction continued and continues even now. Even in Kanazawa, like Kyoto, the townscape is not the same as in the feudal time. However, it still keeps a lot of old heritage.

Kenrokuen - Kotoji Lantern

Higashi Chayagai was originally built as an entertainment district at the beginning of the 19th century. There is a small museum which preserves the original setting of a geisha house and its facilities and equipment. While looking at the interior of the museum, I felt sure that my ancestors, including my grandfather, were frequent visitors of the house. Most of the old geisha houses now turned to be souvenir shops selling lacquerware, porcelain, articles using gold leaf and so on, though there are still a few houses where you can enjoy geisha and their music and dance, if you are prepared to pay a lot.

There are three Chayagai in Kanazawa and I visited in addition to Higashi Chayagai also Kazuemachi Chayagai, which is located along Asano River and very quiet during the daytime as there are not many shops there. Cats were relaxing under the warm sunshine.

A stone registering the start of reconstruction in 1763

Of course the center of Kanazawa is its castle. Like many castles in Japan, Kanazawa Castle was built in its original magnificence around 1600 at the end of the civil war period. However, it experienced many severe fires and the feudal lords did not want to restore the original gorgeous buildings as they were too expensive. So, Kanazawa Castle lost its main fortress already in 1631. Thereafter the outer citadel became the main building of the castle throughout the feudal period with successive destructions by fire and reconstructions. The last fire occurred in 1881 and the castle was never built again.

Reconstructed Gojukken Nagaya and towers of the outer citadel

In the Meiji Period the castle area came to be used by the military and after WWII by University of Kanazawa. However, in 2006 the University moved to a suburban area using 300 billion yen subsidy from the central government and the area was turned into a historical park. Thereafter, a part of the old castle was reconstructed as a symbol of Kanazawa and a tourist attraction using original plan and construction technique as far as possible. I cannot easily judge where this was a good decision to recover the historical environment of Kanazawa or simply a waste of tax money.

Kakinokibatake Alley - I took my lunch at the restaurant "Amatsubo" on the right side

In the east of the castle there is famous Kenrokuen Park. It is famous as representing the noble sense of feudal lords. In particular its Kotoji Lantern is appreciated as a good design. Of course ponds, trees are stone constructions in the garden are all highly artistically designed and we cannot find many similarly well-constructed Daimyo (feudal lords) gardens in Japan.

The center of the present city life is Korinbo. The ultra-modern 21th Century Museum of Contemporary Art is located in the neighborhood. I strolled in an attractive side alley - and entered a Japanese restaurant called Amatsubo. I was surprised by its good cost-performance. Kanazawa's cultural tradition can be found not only in handicraft such as textile, porcelain, gold leaf ware and lacquerware but also in its food culture including sweets and fresh seafood. I will take up a Japanese style inn with excellent dinner in another article. Here, I would show a few examples of old foodstuff shop.

Kaisen Donburi (seafood rice bowl) at Amatsubo

I think I have to come back to Kanazawa in the future so that I can find clues to my family tradition as well as discover heritages of Kanazawa tradition.