We travelled to Kanazawa on a whim. I wanted to experience some of the iconic culture Japan is known for, but outside of Kyoto, the ‘culture capital’ per se and as such very expensive, I didn’t know where to get it. Hearing of it’s preserved teahouse and samurai districts, Kanazawa was worth a shot. Located on the central coastline, Kanazawa is renowned for its sushi but also for one of the best landscape gardens in the country.
Our visit started well as when looking for our hostel, I cockily abandoned Google Maps and took us on a 45 minute walk in the wrong direction. Not only this, but Elise’s backpack broke within 5 days of buying it and so I was burdened with carrying both, one on the back and one on the chest. Resembling the encumbered figure of Atlas, the world upon my shoulders, I eventually called it quits within a housing estate. There was a barbershop nearby and inside an elderly man working his craft on a lone customer. I poked my head in and asked in my best Japanese, where the hell we were. In the spirit of omotenashi, the barber abandoned the haircut, having just soaked his customer’s head and leaving him maimed beneath the hair robe, pulled out a gigantic map and asked me where the hell I wanted to be.
A linguistic stand-off occurred for I couldn’t recollect where exactly we were going and so I left the befuddled men for the nearest 7-Eleven.
Quick tip! Staying Connected in Japan
Most Japanese convenience stores like 7-Eleven have wifi hotspots so if you’re ever lost seek one out. They’re ubiquitous in Japan. Another good option is to hover around the central train station.
Put it down to jet lag (still!?) but the day continued in this momentum. Dinner was nicely interrupted by a jolt of adrenaline when I realised I’d left my camera in my rental bike’s basket. True to Japanese form, I was delighted to see that no one had taken it despite it being very easy to do so in the dark alley I’d left it in. I’ve read countless tales of Japanese honesty and integrity and the low crime rate is testament to that. However, the best was yet to come.
When we were done, I prepared my bike only to find that the lock refused to open. This meant that I had to pick the vehicle up, and walk the 1.6 miles home. Strenuous as it was, it was the suspicious nature of the act that worried me. And so, of course, I had to walk past the only police officer I’d seen in a week who was shocked to have caught someone red handed. A game of charades followed whereby I had to prove that the lock was the issue, and I was eventually let on my way. And yes of course, when I complained to the hostel, the lock opened first time.
The teahouse districts deserve their reputation. Outside of the cultural parts, Kanazawa is a bland city, but as you cross the Higashi Chaya district bridge, the asphalt roads and grey multi-stories give way to cobblestones and screened wooden buildings. We had a tip-off that the Kaikoro Teahouse put on Geisha shows available to the public for half the price of Kyoto and thus we came.
Singer, Dancer, Geisha, Spy, A Quick Guide to Geisha
Geisha are the white-faced, kimono-clad courtesans of Japan. Their existence dates back centuries whereby they would entertain powerful lords and influential merchants via song, dance and ‘conversation’. Their training never ends, is very expensive, and the enigmatic nature of their craft means they easily capture the imagination. “What secrets must they know? Were they ever prostitutes? Could they have been assassins!?” Presently, the oldest geisha is in her 80s.
The performance was genuinely captivating.
Sat upon a tatami mat in an ornate teahouse, the landlady softly introduced our geisha for the evening and I was entranced. One sat on her knees and played haunting melodies on a shamisen. The other stood without using her hands, and confidently transitioned from one pose to the next, eyes fluttering and fan in hand. Such grace couldn’t come naturally and it didn’t take long to see the multitude of their talents with the evening turning to drumming sessions and even sake drinking games. We were then given a tour around the teahouse which included marvelling at a tatami mat made out of gold. From memory, its estimated value is around $100,000. The evening was well worth the price and came to around 6000 yen for the ticket. I’ve included a video of the performance below:
As we left the teahouse, we were going through the usual pleasantries until the kimono-clad landlady asked where Elise and I were from. “England” was our reply and she specifically asked if we’d ever heard of Bournemouth as that’s where she’d spent two years of her life studying English.
We had just watched a traditional geisha performance in a lesser-known city in Japan, only to find that our host lived a few roads away Elise. Only through travel does the world become small.