Kanazawa's weather is temperate though rainy. Average temperatures are similar to those of Tokyo though slightly cooler. Mean temperatures are approximately 4°C in January, 15°C in April, 25°C in July and August, 15°C in October, and 5°C in December. The minimum temperature on record was -2.3°C (2002), with a maximum of 37.5°C (2002). The city is relatively wet, with an average humidity of 73% and 178 rainy days in an average year. Precipitation is highest in the autumn and winter; it averages more than 250 mm / month November through January.
As of November 2006, the city has an estimated population of 455,351 and a density of 973.45 persons per km².
The centre of the castle town was the castle. While many castle towns in Japan had the castle placed to one side of the city, Kanazawa spread out concentrically from the castle site. Kanazawa Castle itself largely burned down in 1888, but there are a few buildings remaining, notably the Ishikawa Gate and the Sanjikken Longhouse, and one large section has been painstakingly rebuilt to authentic standards of construction. The castle site dates back to the fifteenth century, when it was the centre of power for the Ikkō-ikki, which was a Buddhist sect that had overthrown the old regional governors, the Togashi clan, and established what is called “The Peasant’s Kingdom” in the district of Kaga, the southern part of present-day Ishikawa Prefecture.
During the fifteenth century, the powers of the central Shoguns in Kyoto was waning, and their regional governors were assuming even greater powers, carving out their own little fiefs. In Kaga, the priest Rennyo, of the Jodo Shinshu sect, arrived in the Kaga region to proselytise. Rennyo’s brand of Buddhism quickly spread among the samurai and peasants. The followers of Rennyo were directly under the control of the central Honganji in Kyoto, and were known as the Ikko sect, the “Single-Minded” sect. At the time, due to the diminishing power of the hereditary regional governors, the Togashi, central control over the region was weak, which allowed groups of Rennyo converts to increase their political ambitions, leading to the suicide of the last Togashi governor in 1488.
After his father died in 1569, Toshiie found himself the head of the Maeda Clan, and the lord of Arako Castle with its fairly minor 2450 kan income. He was known as a formidable warrior: in 1551, the fifteen-year-old Toshiie won his first victory at the Battle of Kayazu. He took his first head in that battle, and in another battle in 1556 he defeated a man known for his ferocity, earning the praise of Nobunaga. Toshiie's income was tripled, and due to his courage he was given a position directly serving Nobunaga. In 1573, Toshiie was given 100,000 koku in Nibu, in the south of Echizen Province, and thus, at the age of 39, became a daimyo, or domain lord. He was set there to keep an eye on Shibata Katsuie, who controlled eight counties in the region.
In 1581, the 45-year-old Toshiie was granted the 230,000 koku fief of Noto, and became the lord of an entire province. Leaving Fuchu Castle in Echizen, Toshiie and his family moved to Noto and the next year he built Komaruyama Castle in Tokoroguchi (present-day Nanao). In the Battle of Shizugatake (1583) between Hideyoshi and the powerful lord Shibata Katsuie, Toshiie took a neutral position. At first he had set out with the Shibata forces, but withdrew part-way, retreating to Fuchu Castle and going over to Hideyoshi. Toshiie's position was delicate. Katsuie had his third daughter, Ma'a, as hostage, but two more of his daughters had been adopted into Hideyoshi's family. However, for the preservation of his clan, Toshiie had to make the most politically wise choice, so he sided with Hideyoshi. Hideyoshi’s forces were victorious, and although Toshiie pleaded with Hideyoshi to spare Katsuie's life, it was to no avail: Shibata Katsuie committed suicide in the flames of his castle.
By 1590 Toyotomi Hideyoshi had unified Japan, and was the undisputed master of the realm. However he was not eligible for the coveted title of ‘Shogun’ as he was not of Minamoto descent – by this time it had become customary that the Shogun was a member of the house of Minamoto, the first Shogunate house, but Hideyoshi, being of low peasant stock, couldn’t even pretend to be connected. So he had to be contented with the lesser title of Taiko, Grand Regent.
Hideyoshi was anxious about his young son Hideyori's future, and in 1595 asked Toshiie to be his guardian. In his Will, Hideyoshi wrote "I have known Toshiie for many years, and his uprightness is well known. I wish to install him as Hideyori's guardian." However Hideyoshi was argued out of leaving Toshiie as sole regent, largely by Toshiie himself, and so a council of regents was set up to govern until Hideyori would be of age. In 1595, Toshiie, along with Tokugawa Ieyasu, Mori Terumoto, Uesugi Kagekatsu and Ukita Hideie, was chosen by Hideyoshi to act as regent. Ieyasu was the most powerful of the daimyo under Hideyoshi, but Toshiie was probably the second-most: Toshiie may not have as high a rank or as many provinces as Ieyasu, but he was much more the distinguished soldier, trusted by Hideyoshi and was far more popular. The Chief Regent was however, in terms of money, power, and title, Ieyasu. Nevertheless, Toshiie had been asked by Hideyoshi to take full responsibility for Hideyori, which showed that he was actually the one Hideyoshi trusted most. Hideyoshi realised that after his death the one who would be the greatest threat to his government would be Ieyasu. Loyal Toyotomi generals like Ishida Mitsunari did not get along with Ieyasu, and this lead to confrontation, with Toshiie as the only one who could prevent a war as Hideyoshi had foreseen. Hideyoshi died in 1598, after his final aborted attempt at conquering China through Korea had failed, and thus the political succession became highly unstable.
After Toshiie's death in April 1599, his son Toshinaga had enshrined him at Utatsu-Hachimangu Shrine in Kanazawa, and made it a duty of the samurai to pay their respects. When feudalism was abolished and the fiefs disbanded after the Meiji Revolution, former samurai built Oyama Shrine on the site of the Kanaya Palace, once part of the castle. The shrine gate, built in 1875, is a mixture of European and Japanese design, with rare stained-glass windows in the top level, and is now registered as an Important Cultural Property.
His son Toshitsune is generally credited with ensuring the Maeda’s dominance, by his alliances by marriage with the Tokugawa and the care he took to avoid any pretence of military ambition. Instead the vast wealth of the Maedas was channelled into arts and crafts, many of which are still nationally renowned. The "Million-koku Culture" bloomed as a result of the vast wealth of the region. As both a large domain and an "Outer Lord" (Tozama: daimyo who submitted to Ieyasu only after he won the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600) the eyes of the Shogunate were constantly on Kaga, and to keep it at bay, the Maedas poured their efforts into cultural rather than military pursuits. The third Lord Maeda, Toshitsune, formed the Kaga Workmanship Office and promoted lacquer and gold-and-lacquer-work; and the fifth lord, Tsunanori, collected works of art and artisans from all over the country. The roots of this cultural flowering go back to the days of Toshiie and Toshinaga, when Kaga gold-leaf, inlaid work, and calligraphy were well-known even then.
When the third lord split his domain up between his three sons, Kaga still provided an income in excess of a million ‘koku’. This massive income ensured Kanazawa's status as one of the largest cities in Japan throughout the Edo period, and gave rise to a legacy of art and culture that in many ways rivals even that of Kyoto. Even today the phrase ‘Kaga Hyakumangoku’ is a common one when talking about the history and position of the city: a ‘koku’ was the unit of income for samurai in the feudal period, and is about 150 kg of rice. At current Japanese retail rice prices, a million-koku income is roughly the equivalent of about sixty billion yen, or an income of some US$600,000,000 per year.
In the Meiji Period, castles were now the property of the central government, who considered them symbols of the outmoded feudal system and tore most of them down. In Kanazawa’s case the castle became the base for the Ninth Division of the Imperial Army. Those buildings which were in the way were torn down, and most of the rest perished in a fire in 1888. The Army occupied the castle until after WW2, when it was disbanded, and in 1949 the site became the new home of Kanazawa University, which stayed there until about ten years ago when it moved to its new campus in the hills surrounding the city. Now the site is a park, and for the first time in its 400-year history is open to all who visit.
The series of moats was laid out in the early seventeenth century – initially they were dry, but later connected up to the rivers. The Inner Moat was dug in only 27 days, and averaged about four to five feet wide. The Outer Moat took a bit longer, and averages some six to nine feet in width. Though much of the Inner Moat has been filled in, large sections of the Outer Moat still remain. The earth removed from the moat was piled into ridges along the inner side, as an added defence measure. By the end of the Edo period, ordinances from the city were issued demanding people stop building houses on top of the ridges, and demanding they clear silted-up sections. Similarly, houses began to fill in the firebreaks throughout the city, and even began to appear on temple property in the Teramachi (temple-town) district to the south of the city.
The Hokuriku Highway passed through Kanazawa, dog-legging around the castle. The front entrance of the castle was to the north, as it was this road that the Maeda lords took when they went to Edo – as they had to do every two years through the Alternate Attendance system (sankin kotai). The entrance to the city was originally marked by a small cluster of pine trees, later replaced with a gate called the Pine Gate, and a bridge. From here the road passed along between merchant houses, and straightened out as it neared the Asano river. As is typical of town planning in Japan, there was a large open space where people tended to congregate at the foot of the bridge. There were guard huts and a gate there, and it was also one of the places where public notices were displayed. Kanazawa was flanked by two rivers, and for defensive reasons there were only two permanent bridges across the Asano river, with just one across the rougher Sai river. However there were also pontoon bridges and ferries. The present bridge across the Asano river dates back from the Taisho period – the original wooden ones tended to get swept away in flood every so often – especially the Sai river ones.
The main street of Kanazawa in the Edo period was Owari-cho. A relatively wide road, lined with large merchant houses, it stretched down to the old Omicho Market at the far end – which is still there, still selling groceries, as it has done for the last four centuries. About a third of the way down the street, on the left, another wide road led straight to the main gate of the castle. Commoners, and in the cities this meant merchants and artisans, lived in designated areas. Merchant areas were laid out along the main roads, notably the Hokkoku Highway that runs through the city. Merchants here were the richest and most influential, and a few of them survive until this day. Other outlying areas were ranked lower, and the houses were of a correspondingly lesser scale.
Though very few from the Edo period remain, the basic style remained unchanged until the war. One notable feature of the design is the ‘sode-utatsu’ wings extending forward on the sides of the upper floor – their exact purpose is not certain, but one theory is that they were wind blockers, which is logical given Kanazawa’s weather. Snow was also a significant factor in house design – the roofs sloped into a central garden that was designed to allow snow to collect as much as to provide light to the rear. While the sea of black-glazed tiles sparkling in the sun is a common tourist image of Kanazawa today, the traditional architectural style used wooden boards held down by stones; due to the extremely heavy snowfalls of the Japan Sea coast, traditional tiles were considered to be too heavy. The use of tiles on the frontage and boards under the eaves is also to prevent snow damage.
In most cases, even with large fiefs like Sendai and Satsuma, samurai tended to live on their own land, but in Kaga all samurai, regardless of income, lived in Kanazawa. When Kanazawa was finished in more or less its final form in the late 17th century, over three-quarters of it was samurai housing. Nearest the castle were the huge estates of the Eight Houses (chief vassals) and their own retainers. For every 100 koku of income, a samurai was given about 550 square metres of land, and average of the "middle-class" samurai was 800, which is huge compared to modern Japanese housing. The richest vassal family, the Hondas, had a whopping 50,000 koku income. The minimum for daimyo level was 10,000 koku, and apart from the Eight Houses, some twelve families had incomes in excess of this. Kanazawa was filled with huge mansions.
Traditional Architecture of Samurai Houses Size and location of samurai housing was determined by income and standing. The richest and most powerful samurai in Kanazawa had their own men, often hundreds of them, who were housed in large areas that usually adjoined the main house. Samurai houses shared a similar basic pattern: a single-floored residence, usually fairly square or rectangular in plan, surrounded by a garden – both the vegetable and the decorative kinds. The roof was gabled, and faced the road. The boundary wall was usually made of beaten earth, topped with tiles. There are still a number of them around in the city, most notably in the Nagamachi area. The size and height of the wall and the entry gate were also dictated by rank. Samurai over 400 koku in income had a stable gate, used to house guards and horses.
Though the Nagamachi area is promoted in the tourist brochures as the ‘samurai area’, in fact the overwhelming majority of the houses there today are not samurai houses, but modern post-war housing. There are some genuine samurai houses still left in Kanazawa, but very very few indeed. This is because after the Meiji Restoration the samurai found themselves bereft of their traditional income, and many of them ended up selling off their estates, which were turned into fields before being redeveloped as modern housing before World War Two.
Thus Kanazawa attained the form that it kept for the rest of the Edo period, and even now the majority of roads in the old city are little changed in form from two centuries ago. The only major change was the creation of ‘geisha districts’ at the foot of Utatsuyama and over the Sai River in 1820, to control and regulate pleasure houses and prostitutes (bath-girls: 湯女). However conservative factions regained control of the Kaga government, and the geisha districts were abolished a decade later. However they were made legal again just before the Meiji Revolution, and stayed that way until prostitution was officially outlawed in 1954. The geisha areas were out of bounds to samurai, and so were patronised by rich merchants and artisans, who would compete with each other to spend the most obscene amounts of money on parties.
Architecture of the Geisha House The geisha house, or ‘tea house’ as it is commonly called, is superficially similar to the merchant houses, in the same way the samurai houses are superficially similar to farmhouses. However unlike the merchant houses, where the second floor at the front was for storage only, and thus very low, the second storey of teahouses are much higher, because the upper floor was used as the main entertaining area. The upper floors are faced with sliding wooden shutters which would be open in the day or when there was a party going on, and the bottom floor is faced with the unique, extremely fine latticework that is known as ‘Kaga lattice’. The standard of décor was also far higher than most merchant houses, at least to the extent allowed by the various Sumptuary Laws that the Shogunate passed. Due in part to the long gloomy winters, Kaga décor is far brighter than the drab earth browns and greens and ochres of Kyoto style: bold bright scarlets (benigara: 紅柄) and ultramarines were popular. The upper floor of the Seisonkaku Villa in Kenrokuen is particularly boldly-decorated, with purple and black walls as well.
The modern city of Kanazawa was created on April 1, 1889.
During the 1930s and 40s, Kanazawa was also home to R. H. Blyth, one of the premier Western interpreters of Zen philosophy, and prolific translator of haiku. During World War II, his house in Kobe, including his extensive library, was destroyed by Allied bombing.
Kanazawa-Haku is gold which is beaten into a paper-like sheet. Gold leaf plays a prominent part in the city's cultural crafts, to the extent that there is a gold leaf museum (Kanazawa Yasue Gold Leaf Museum). It is found throughout Kanazawa and Ishikawa, and Kanazawa produces 99% of Japan's high-quality gold leaf: the gold leaf that covers the famous Golden Pavilion in Kyoto was produced in Kanazawa. Gold leaf is even put into food! The city is famous for tea with gold flakes, which is considered by the Japanese people to be good for health and vitality. Kanazawa lacquerware (Kanazawa shikki), a high-quality lacquerware traditionally decorated with gold dust, is also well-known.
Kenrokuen Garden is by far the most famous part of Kanazawa. Originally built as the outer garden of Kanazawa castle, it was opened to the public in 1875. It is considered one of the "three most beautiful gardens in Japan" and is filled with a variety of trees, ponds, waterfalls and flowers stretching over 25 acres (100,000 m²). In winter, the park is notable for its yukitsuri — ropes attached in a conical array to trees to support the branches under the weight of the heavy wet snow, thereby protecting the trees from damage.
Outside Kenrokuen is Ishikawa-mon, the back gate (karamate-mon) to Kanazawa Castle. The original castle was largely destroyed by fire in 1888 but part of it has been partially restored as of 2001, with more to come. There are currently plans to re-create much of the original castle grounds, including some surrounding areas.
The Seisonkaku Villa was built in 1863 by a Maeda lord、Maeda Nariyasu (13th Lord) for his mother, Takako. Originally called the Tatsumi Goten (Tatsumi Palace), it Much of the villa has been dismantled, but what remains is still one of the most elegant remaining feudal lord villas in Japan. The villa stands in a corner of Kenrokuen, but separate admission fees (¥700) apply. Notable features are the vividly-coloured walls of the upper floor, with purple or red walls and dark-blue ceilings (red walls, 'benigara', are a Kanazawa tradition), and the custom-made English carpet in the audience chamber.
Kanazawa also boasts numerous Edo period (1603-1867) former geisha houses in the Higashi Geisha District, across the Asano river (with its old stone bridge) out from central Kanazawa. Nearby is the Yougetsu Minshuku which sits at one end of one of the most photographed streets in Japan. This area retains, almost completely, the look and feel of pre-modern Japan, its two-story wooden facades plain and austere. The effect is accentuated by the early morning mist. Late at night, the street is lit by recreated Taisho-period streetlamps.
The Oyama-jinja shrine , which is considered an Important Cultural Asset, is also in Kanazawa. It is noted for its imposing three-story "Shinmon" gate influenced by Dutch design, built in 1875, with its brightly-coloured stained-glass windows.
Kanazawa's Myoryuji Temple or ninja dera (ninja temple) is a fascinating amalgamation of traditional temple architecture, hidden doors, passageways, and hidden escape routes. Although the temple is often referred to as ninja dera, it is in fact not connected with ninjas at all (this does not stop local tour operators and shops from selling ninja trinkets). Local legend has it that the temple, with its hidden doors and passageways, was intended as a secret refuge for the local rulers in the case of an external threat.
Kanazawa is well-known throughout Japan for its traditional cooking, which is called Kaga Cuisine. The seafood is a specialty, the jumbo shrimp in particular. Sushi and sashimi are also excellent. The Japanese sake produced in this region is of high quality, smooth and sweet. The quality of the local sake derives from the excellence of the rice grown in Ishikawa Prefecture as well as the considerable precipitation of the Hokuriku region, allowing for an ample supply of clean, fresh water. Omicho market is an open-air market in the middle of the city which dates back to the Edo period. Most of the shops there sell seafood. The market is a favorite place to purchase the best that Kanazawa has to offer.
On March 25, 2007, a large earthquake measuring 6.9 on the Richter scale struck off the coast of the Noto Peninsula in Ishikawa prefecture, resulting in at least 1 death and over 160 people injured. Earthquakes in Ishikawa are very rare however: the last major one in the Hokuriku region struck northern Fukui in 1948.