In Japan’s Ishikawa Prefecture, the capital city of Kanazawa once rivaled Kyoto and Tokyo in terms of art, culture, and economic resources. While it may not sit upon the same lofty seat of power that it once did, the city has managed to retain every bit of its cultural and artistic charms. From expertly preserved historical buildings to traditional crafts carried into the modern generation, Kanazawa exemplifies what it means to move forward into the future without forgetting your past.
Kanazawa’s Golden History
From the moment you arrive at Kanazawa Station, it’s hard not to feel impressed by this city. Look up and you’ll find a massive glass and steel awning known as the umbrella; symbolic of the city sheltering its visitors from their famously rainy climate. Nearby, a towering red arch representative of the taiko drums the city is famous for expresses a desire to share their art and passion with the world.
Since the early 16th century, this coastal city has been Japan’s leading producer of gold leaf; gold alloy that has been pounded flat to seemingly impossibly thin measurements and applied to decorative crafts to add a touch of elegance. Kanazawa’s passion for gold leaf began when the first lord of the Kaga clan, Maeda Toshiie, ordered the production of gold leaf to decorate the spear tips of his soldiers who would be welcoming delegates of the Ming Dynasty. Today, like a modern day El Dorado, people travel from all over the world to visit this legendary golden city.
The Kanazawa of Today
Thanks to the talent and perseverance of their craftsmen, Kanazawa has permanently cemented their position as Japan’s golden city. In fact, 99% of Japan’s total domestic gold leaf is now produced in Kanazawa alone. While gold leaf products can be purchased throughout the city, in order to truly appreciate the artistry that goes into working with this precious metal, it needs to be experienced up-close. At Hakukokan, visitors can see, feel, and even taste the local treasure that is gold leaf.
Hakukokan Gold Leaf Museum
As one of the leading manufacturers of gold leaf in Kanazawa, the Hakuichi company is a shining example of the area’s craftsmanship. Located just minutes away from Kanazawa Station, their main store, Hakukokan, has served as not only one of the largest collections of gold leaf art and products in Kanazawa city for the past twenty years, but as a free museum and activity center for interested visitors as well.
As you descend the stairs to the museum through Hakukokan’s main lobby, you will enter into a glittering gold space, with walls plastered from floor to ceiling in over 10,000 sheets of gold leaf. Each piece has been hammered and creased by hand to create an intricate balance between light and shadow. In the corner of the room on a large raised platform, a life-sized recreation of Maeda Toshiie’s golden armor waits to greet you. With a push of a button, this shining golden room comes to life as a ceiling-mounted projector overlays scenes depicting Maeda Toshiie’s life onto the armor and walls.
Across from the stage, a viewing window offers visitors a glimpse into the modern gold leaf production process. On the other side of the glass, a worker skillfully operates a large hydraulic hammer which, through many repeated blows, flattens and elongates the already thin gold sheets.
In the next room over, visitors can watch as a craftsman transfers finished gold leaf sheets onto a stack separated by thin pieces of paper. Using bamboo tweezers to move the sheets, the worker must operate with small, precise movements, as the tiniest breeze will cause the thin golden foil to flutter wildly.
Nearby, Hakukokan has brought a modern twist to the centuries old tale of Maeda Toshiie. Standing before a large screen, special motion capture cameras will use your face and movements to create an avatar of you in your very own set of golden armor.
Dance, wave, perform jumping jacks; no matter what you do, the on-screen golden version of you will copy your every move. The exhibit can render up to two people on screen at once, so you can be joined by a friend as well!
If you’re still having a hard time grasping just how thin gold leaf really is, Hakukokan has prepared a striking visual example. On the wall, you will find a large sheet of gold foil, roughly six feet in height. Beneath it, a 10 yen coin with one small slice painted gold sits on an information plaque.
This tiny bit of gold is the amount it takes to make a gold leaf sheet the same size as the one hanging on the wall.
Armed with a newfound appreciation and understanding of how gold leaf is prepared, it’s time for you to try your hand at working with it yourself.
Exercise Your Midas Touch
Though there is no shortage of gold leaf products one can buy in Kanazawa city, what better souvenir than one you personalize and make by yourself? At Hakukokan, visitors can work under the guidance of a skilled craftsman to transform everything from tote bags, to hand mirrors, to chopsticks into customized golden treasures.
There are three gold leaf courses to choose from. From the simple and straightforward Apprentice Course to the more advanced Wizard Course, there is something for visitors of all ages and skill levels. Based on which item you choose to decorate, prices range from 500 to 2,000 yen.
After deciding on an item, you can choose from a variety of stickers that will serve as stencils when applying the gold leaf foil. Depending on the time of year, Hakukokan also offers special seasonal stickers.
After you’ve picked your stickers, it’s up to you to decide on their placement. Choose carefully, as once they’re applied, there is no going back!
With your stickers in place, it’s time to paint on the special adhesive that will bind the gold to the item’s surface. Be sure to cover the entire space within the sticker, otherwise your gold leaf may not adhere.
As you approach the final steps of the activity, your instructor will provide you with one small sheet of gold leaf on a paper backing for each of your stickers. Being careful not to touch the foil, turn the paper over and apply it to the painted area golden side down. With the hardest part over, you can relax as you use your finger to smooth out any air bubbles and ensure that the gold leaf has been pressed firmly against the surface.
As you peel away the paper backing, you’ll see your new design slowly come to life.
Now that the gold leaf has been applied in the desired shape, it’s time to make sure it stays that way. Using a clear varnish, you will paint over the top of the gold leaf.
Once it is dry, your golden design will be permanently set. All that’s left now is to peel back the sticker and reveal your one of a kind, beautiful creation.
Browse the Museum Shop
After creating your own personalized treasure, why not browse the shop for some unforgettable gifts for family and friends back home? For the writer in your life, a beautifully decorated gold leaf pen would surely be a hit.
From local sake mixed with bits of edible gold to handcrafted paper fans decorated with gold leaf, you are bound to find something that everyone will love.
Before leaving, be sure to reward yourself for your hard work with Hakukokan’s signature treat; vanilla soft serve ice cream topped with gold flakes and gold leaf.
It may seem intimidating at first glance, but not to worry, it’s completely safe to eat and the taste blends seamlessly with the vanilla ice cream. More importantly, the pictures you take will make you the envy of social media.
Click the link below to see experience fees:
Hakuichi Main Store - Hakukokan
Address: 2-1-1 Morito, Kanazawa, Ishikawa 921-8061
Hours: Open daily from 9:00 AM to 6:00 PM
Directions: From Kanazawa station, either take a 15 minute taxi ride, or take the number 54 bus approximately 30 minutes to the Konocho bus stop. From here, Hakukokan is roughly 10 minutes away on foot.
Get in Touch With Kanazawa’s Traditional Culture
Of course gold leaf isn’t the only part of Kanazawa’s artistic culture being kept alive. Less than one hour from Hakukokan is Higashi Chayagai; the largest of Kanazawa’s historical tea house districts. Here, visitors can walk the streets among the restored wooden buildings, looking every bit the same as they did in Japan’s Edo Period. Being able to set foot in these beautiful structures with their sliding wooden panels, ornate lacquered beams, and doorways illuminated by old fashioned lanterns, truly connects you to the past in ways you never imagined possible.
A Taste of History
While many of Higashi Chayagai’s historical buildings have since been repurposed as shops and cafes, one of them; Shima Tea House, has decided to preserve their history by serving as a museum.
Built in 1820, Shima Tea House was once considered a modern marvel for having two floors; an unheard of feat in the days of traditional wooden buildings. Here, talented Geishas would entertain wealthy dinner guests with stories, dancing, and musical performances.
Visitors to Shima Tea House can walk in the footsteps of history through its 200 year old tatami mat rooms and experience the sights once reserved for the wealthy few.
You can also try your hand at playing the shamisen; a traditional three-stringed instrument resembling a guitar that Geishas would play during their performances.
In Shima’s central courtyard, a small open air zen garden perfectly complements the building’s dark wooden interior. As you pass through to the tea room, take a moment to appreciate this beautiful green space with its stone lanterns and calming water features.
Upon entering the tea room and taking a seat at its large sunken table, you will be served a traditional Japanese sweet which varies by season. This decorative treat is meant to be eaten before your tea, as the sweetness serves to balance out the strong, bitter notes of the matcha.
While there are several different types of matcha to choose from, their differences tend to be lost on most foreign visitors. Thankfully, the highly-trained tea masters on staff are more than happy to recommend a selection based on personality and characteristics portrayed by each visitor. As you sit sipping freshly prepared matcha and enjoying the views of the courtyard garden, it’s easy to relax and imagine yourself back in Kanazawa’s Edo Period.
Shima Tea House
Address:1-13-21 Higashiyama, Kanazawa, Ishikawa, 920-0831
Hours: Open daily from 9:00 AM to 6:00 PM
Admission Price: Entrance fee is 500 yen for adults and 300 yen for children. The price for matcha served with a freshly made seasonal sweet is 700 yen, or for 500 yen, it will be served with a traditional dried confectionery.
- From Hakukokan: Walk to the nearby Morito bus stop. From here, board the number 50 bus bound for Yanagibashi. Ride for approximately 30 minutes and get off at Kobashicho bus stop. From here, Shima Tea House is roughly 10 minutes away on foot.
- From Kanazawa Station: From the Kanazawa Station bus stop, board the number 12 bus bound for Yuwaku Onsen. Ride for five stops until the Hashibacho bus stop. From here, Shima Tea House is roughly six minutes away on foot.
Enjoy Your Time in Kanazawa City
A visit to Kanazawa city is the perfect addition to any Japan travel itinerary. From its cherished past to its golden future, this hospitable city welcomes all travelers to enjoy the wonderful experiences it has to offer.