Travel: Three Days in Ishikawa Prefecture, Japan – Part I – Noto Peninsula

March 11th, 2021


Full of friendly faces, Ishikawa is one of the most hospitable places I’ve been in Japan. Photo: Matt Wiseman

Mountainwatch  | Matt Wiseman

If Japanese cities were ski resorts, Ishikawa prefecture would be the best backcountry zone you’d ever laid your eyes on. It’s capital city Kanazawa essentially a pillow zone with enough things to do, and all in such close proximity to one another, that you can and will return again and again. Far removed from the crowded lift lines and haemorrhaging rental stores that might be Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka in this extended ski metaphor, the rural foothills, seaside fishing villages and remote mountain temples that surround what has become ‘Japan’s fourth city’ in Kanazawa is a Japan waiting to be explored.

Where the approach to most of the best backcountry terrain can be long and arduous, Ishikawa is a proximate gift. The skin track comes in the form of the Hokuriku shinkansen, a 260km per hour bullet train introduced in 2015 which reduced the travel time from Tokyo to a mere 2 hours 30 minutes as it slices through the mountains and sprawling towns like a knife through the regions famous Noto beef.

I caught the very same shinkansen in February this year and spent three days touring around Ishikawa.


The shape of Kanazawa station is modelled after an umbrella, an homage to one of the rainiest cities in Japan. A stroke of engineering genius is its ability to collect said rainwater. Photo:: JNTO supplied


Considered one of the most beautiful stations in all of Japan, the Tsuzumi-mon gate at the entrance resembles both a torii gate and two traditional Japanese drums and is built from local cypress. Photo:: Matt Wiseman

 I met my ‘backcountry’ guide and translator Ms Yuki Nozaki at Kanazawa Station – an instant breath of fresh air thanks to its navigability compared to Tokyo station where I’d been disoriented just a few hours prior.

Only staying long enough to slurp down ramen – as Ms Nozaki informed me it is polite to do – we soon boarded another train, the Hanayome Noren, bound for Nanao and Wakura on the Noto peninsula. While traversing the countryside of Western Honshu up Noto, the craggy appendage that stabs 30km out into the Sea of Japan, it was necessary to swap the blistering pace of the shinkansen for a slower experience more emblematic of the region we were now in. What better vehicle than the so-called ‘ryokan on wheels’, the Hanayome Noren, essentially a time capsule of traditional Japanese crafts and cuisines.


The gilded Hanayome Noren and its attendants at the station. Photo: Matt Wiseman


Two lovely ladies in the seats opposite to us, who I promised I’d include in this feature! Photo: Matt Wiseman

It is said the original settlers of Japan, the Jomon, first arrived in Noto and it certainly feels like a bastion of a bygone Japan. In the enjoyably deserted Ipponsugi-dori shopping street I met Mr Masayuki Kitajima, of the Kitajimaya Chaten (Kitajima Tea Shop). There I ground my own matcha tea and he spoke of the many nuances surrounding a traditional tea ceremony. Where those customarily last four hours and are undertaken in silence, but for the sound of the matcha grinding mortar and pestle type device, here, Kitajima-san broke the silence of Noto with anecdotes like how at one of the annual tea master ceremonies someone suggested drinking tea and was laughed at…


Kitajima-san is all for informal tea drinking at meetings. Photo: Matt Wiseman


‘Shofu no Ne’ translates to ‘the sound of the wind in the pine trees’ and according to Kitajima-san it’s what he thinks of as he grinds his matcha leaves. Photo: Matt Wiseman


The traditional stone grinder, historically used to refine gun powder as well as tea leaves Photo: Matt Wiseman

Before checking into our ryokan for the night, and inspired by the ryokan on wheels that brought us here and was decorated after the style, we visited the Hanayome Noren Museum (Bridal Curtain Museum). Opened in 2016, the museum offers a guided tour of real bridal curtains up to 200 years old. Like most activities in Wakura, the museum was empty so it feels like a private tour.


The attention to detail in these bridal curtains is emblematic of the artistic and culinary endeavours throughout Japan. Photo:: Matt Wiseman

The town of Wakura, while being a window into tradition, is undoubtedly most famous for, of all things, its water. In 1880, Wakura’s water won third prize at a global mineral springs expo in Germany. While I wouldn’t drink the famous kind, you can do anything from dip your hands, feet or boil an egg in the designated public baths scattered liberally throughout town.

Naturally, it follows that most accommodation options in Wakura come with an extensive Onsen offering, perhaps no more than Wakura Onsen, which was founded over 1,200 years ago. I stayed nearby in Hotel Kaibo and there enjoyed the same acclaimed water with views out across Nanao Bay.


A sunset soak is hard to beat here. Photo:: Hotel Kaibo


The hotel’s outdoor bath, or ‘rotenburo’. Photo:: Hotel Kaibo

The following morning, the tour continued with a stop at nearby Seirin-ji Temple. Tucked away in the foothills overlooking Wakura, we took the resident priest/caretaker Hamada-san by surpise. He was knee-deep in gumboots scrubbing radishes in his driveway.


Hamada-san giving us a tour of the garden he planted behind Seirin-ji Temple, in what else but crocs. Photo:: Matt Wiseman

Once Hamada-san swapped the gum boots for more traditional garb (crocs), he led us through the Gobenden building of Seirin-ji Temple. Adjacent to the temple itself, the Gobenden building is perhaps even more of a landmark and locals make bookings to attend and mediate here. It was constructed in 1909 to welcome the Imperial Family to Wakura for the first time, where they stayed for a measly two hours – their loss if you were to ask Hamada-san. But as a result, the finished product is as bespoke as such temporary digs come, and the coved and coffered hinoki cyprus ceiling is a work of art. Fortunately, unlike most makeshift royal accommodations, the building was not demolished after the visit and nowadays doubles as Hamada-san and his wife’s living quarters.


Once overlooking the ocean, the Gobenden building was relocated to the hillside in 1976. Photo:: Matt Wiseman


The view from the veranda changes markedly with each season, from snow to blossoming azaleas. Hamada-san has planted hundreds so he told me. Photo:: Matt Wiseman

“Please ring the bell if you want to see inside” reads a sign at the entranceway where Hamada scrubbed radishes. So, I asked him if this was to stop people surprising him in the act of radish scrubbing, but instead he mentioned it’s to prevent a repeat of the Canadian who traipsed dirt through the building by wearing shoes inside. Don’t be that guy when you go.


Hamada-san climbing the steps of the Seirin-ji. Photo:: Matt Wiseman

Bidding farewell to Hamada-san who had local’s to meet for their 10am meditation, we started charting a course back to the UNESCO city of Kanazawa, this time in a slightly less aesthetic but speedier train, having sampled just a few of the cultural delights on offer in this outcrop surrounded by the sea on three sides.

As the saying goes, “gentle is Noto and so are its hot springs.”

Stand by for Part II covering Kanazawa’s many must-do activities and sights.