In Love with the Japanese Arts


How to tie a kimono, arrange an ikebana flower arrangement, write kangi calligraphy…these are skills we never dreamt we’d learn, but with three days in the historic city of Kanazawa and the help of The Art of Travel, we took the ultimate crash course in Japanese culture. More a cultural curator than a tour operator, The Art of Travel opened their black book to the city’s top craftsman, entertainers, chefs, and historians to give us an experience we will never forget.

As the home base for our Kanazawa immersion, Art of Travel suggested we stay with Machiya Kanazawa, a former 19th-century geisha tea-house turned traditional townhouse. With rice paper walls, tatami-mat floors, fluffy futons, and a zen courtyard, this place seemed out of a Japanese storybook.  See Mike’s blog for the full house tour.

We dropped our bags and were whisked into our machiya’s tea ceremony room. Tea ceremony is performed as a way to welcome guests and to reconnect family and friends. It goes back to Zen Buddhism and is about appreciating the moment —the taste of the green tea, the beauty of the pottery, and the connection between close company. Our ceremony was led and taught by Sensei Haruko Yoshida, a woman who literally went to school to master this complex process. In tea ceremony, there is a specific way to do everything—how to sit, hold your cup, take a sip, and bow gracefully…with about 20 steps in between. It was a fascinating experience that will forever change the way we look at a cup of tea.

Next up in Japanese style school: calligraphy class. Our Sensei Kiho Kida laid out her horse-hair paintbrushes, black ink block, water well and rice paper on the table and we got to it. Japanese is one of the most cryptic languages with three separate alphabets and thousands of characters, but with a few perfectly laid brushstrokes one word can become art (at least when our sensei was at the helm). We learned a few basics such as proper brush angle, how much ink and pressure to apply, and how not to make a mess of it all. For those who aren’t fluent in Japanese, above is Mike’s attempt to scribe “Honey Trek.”

The next morning as we were finishing breakfast, a delivery of persimmon branches and bundles of flowers came to our door. They were sent over for our next Art of Travel course: “Ikebana Flower Arranging.” My mother had a flower business and ironically Mike’s grandparents were also florists so we thought I had this one in the bag, but the minimalism of this 600-year old is like nothing we’d ever known. Three main elements are all you need: one lead flower,  two complementary branches, and plenty of negative space. Arrangements are typically made to fill the large tokonoma alcoves in homes, so even though they can seem spartan up-close, the grand scale, interaction with the art on the wall, and varied dimension grabs when you walk in the door. With a few tries, we were actually quite proud of our arrangements.

To learn more about Kanazawa, Art of Travel didn’t just get us any old tour guide…we got a PhD historian in Japanese culture, Jeremy Phillipps. During our exceptionally informative walk through town, we learned that Kanazawa was an independent state until the Maeda clan was sent in to unify them with Edo culture and the rest of Japan. The Maedas arrival sparked a renaissance of sorts with samurai mansions, geisha tea houses, and artist guilds popping up — all of which can still be seen around town.

The Kanazawa Castle garden, Kenrokuen, is said to be one of the finest gardens in all of Japan, having all the aspects of the ideal Japanese garden–spaciousness, seclusion, artifice, antiquity, watercourses, and panoramas. We caught the garden on the cusp of winter, which would sound like an inopportune time, but this is when the intricate snow rope installations go up on the Karasakinomatsu Pines. Each branch is meticulously tied making an artful and supportive frame around each tree.

There are only a few cities left in Japan with geishas practicing the 8th-century art of entertaining with dance, music, and conversation, and Kanazawa is one of them. However, to witness a performance, you can’t just show up at a teahouse and you definitely can’t call one up for a house call…but The Art of Travel can! The AOT set up a private dinner where two geisha performed for us in our machiya’s living room. The night was off-the-charts amazing with breathtaking song, dance, costumes, conversation and cuisine, but the coolest part was just hanging out with these near-mythical geishas. We did shots of sake, strummed the shamisen, learned how to properly tie our Kimono, and truly soaked in every moment of this once-in-a-lifetime evening. For a glimpse of one of their many performances, watch this video.

After a night like that, you would think we’d slept in but we didn’t want to miss our next day’s cultural events! We carried on into countryside of Kanazawa to the Ushikubi Tsumugi silk workshop. The 100-year old brand specializes in the silk from twin cocoons. What was once tossed out as defects, they honed to make a new kind of beautifully raw-hewn silk. We watched the ladies unravel the silk filaments in boiling water and spin it into thread (it takes 120 filaments to make one strand of silk), then dye and weave it into fabric. Mike tried his hand at the loom and he was a natural!  

For lunch we were surprised with a stop at Wataya Ryokan, home to one of the most highly acclaimed restaurants in Japan! This historic inn specializes in Kaga cuisine, a regional country-style with river fish, mountain vegetables, and delicacies we’d never dreamt of. After numerous courses, presented in exquisite fashion, out came a chef with a pair of live fish. His assistant prepared stacks of coals over ash in a Irori-style pit and then roasted them to perfection. This still remains one of the most incredible meals of the last 500+ days of our honeymoon.

Driving deeper into the mountains, we arrived at the Eiheiji Zen Buddhist temple. This wasn’t on the original itinerary but our chauffeur was so passionate about the beauty and tranquility of this 11th-century monastery that he insisted we see it. It is said that if someone wants to be a Soto Zen priest in Japan, he should train here for at least one year. It was fascinating to watch all the young monks going about their daily chores in such an incredible setting of dense forest, babbling brooks, and ancient zen architecture.

As a toast to Kanazawa, our final stop was to the Nakamura sake distillery. Kitted out in lab coats and slippers, we took a tour with one of the head rice-wine makers. He took us to see the magical koji (germinated rice), massive steamed rice cookers, and fermentation tanks. And like all good distillery tours, it ended with a delicious tasting. Sake Shopping Tip: On the bottle, look for the percentage that the rice is polished. Polished rice is sweeter and unpolished is stronger.

We’ve never been a big fan of organized tours but The Art of Travel was like nothing we’d ever experienced. They are true curators and conduits to a cultural experience that would be inaccessible to the average visitor. We learned more about Nihon culture in these four days than the rest of the month throughout Japan! When you visit Japan, you simply have to spend a few days with The Art of Travel, it will make your trip…we know it made ours.

Much love from Kanazawa,
Anne & Mike

Note: Art of Travel invited us to be their guest; however, all opinions are our own.

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