Not Yet Trending is an investigative story from inside Airbnb. Inspired by guest travel data, we find up-and-coming destinations before anyone else can. To get the story numbers can’t tell us, we go straight to the source: our hosts.
Our latest revelation is Kanazawa, Japan. Just a few hours from Tokyo or Kyoto, this beautiful city is finally starting to get its due reputation. Its good looks are no accident—the city’s commitment to art and design go back almost 500 years. But Kanazawa’s artists and craftspeople and chefs hardly have time for nostalgia—they’re too busy constantly remaking the city.
The gentle rain persisted until early morning, darkening the wooden walls of the tiny alleyway outside and creating a striking contrast against the vibrant green of the garden beyond.
I’m in one of the many classic wooden houses that grace the city. Unlike most Japanese cities, Kanazawa has been spared from war and major disaster since the late 1500s, leaving unspoiled remnants of past centuries all around town.
This creative city isn’t about looking back, though. Take my host, Shungo, a Judo-loving Kanazawa native and former teacher. After some time in Tokyo, he returned to share his hometown with visitors. Now Shungo is one of many locals who keep finding new ways to move the city’s traditions forward. He recently collaborated with a local artist to create a screen door for his listing using techniques normally used for Kaga Yuzen, the famously vibrant kimono style that originated here. They worked on this unprecedented challenge for several months, opening up new possibilities for the traditional artform. It’s just the latest sign that beneath all its elegance and refinement, Kanazawa is as restlessly inventive as ever.
But the city does have a spectacular legacy to explore, too. Shungo has told me that the best time to see the 16th-century Kanazawa Castle and Kenrokuen, its famously lush grounds, is bright and early. So I’ve dragged myself out of my comfy futon and into the crisp, fresh air. I stroll across the river toward the heart of the old city and soon find myself approaching the castle. I already have plenty of company—the recently reconstructed castle and its vast park are a popular morning walk for locals.
If you reach the castle as early as I did, you might come across a group of elderly ladies near the moat, stretching and jumping to a lively piano accompaniment on the radio. Join them and stretch out your limbs, and you’ll be welcomed by big, sparkling smiles.
From here, you can easily walk or bike almost anywhere in town. Just across from the majestic stone walls of the castle stand several modern, clean-lined buildings, including the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art. The contrast is striking, but both the traditional and the newer buildings share a certain elegance that sets the city apart. Signs of this refined taste are everywhere, from thoughtfully designed benches to perfectly balanced hedges. Pine trees all around town turn a simple walk into a serene visual feast.
Locals are justifiably proud, even if they’re sometimes too immersed in the aesthetic to fully appreciate it. “I realised how beautiful Kanazawa was when I lived abroad,” says Chisato, another local host. “I like the landscape here and the five colours of Kanazawa.” She’s referring to the palette that defines both Kaga Yuzen and Kutaniyaki (porcelain), two of the city’s hallmarks. As the original Miss Kaga Yuzen, Chisato has promoted the glamorous kimonos all over the country.
Ask any local about the origins of all this culture, and they’ll point you to the Maeda family, who ruled the area from the late 1500s until the end of the Edo period in 1868. In part to prove their loyalty to the central government, they invested in the arts instead of military assets, inviting the country’s top artisans and cultural figures to teach local craftsmen and residents.
Fruits of the Maeda’s efforts are being constantly rediscovered, in forms ranging from artisanal dishware to architecture. “After my mother moved out, no one lived in the house for a few years.” says Yu, another local host, “But then my son asked me if he could have his wedding here. After we cleaned it up, I realised how beautiful it truly was.”
Each year, before winter arrives, the riverside property’s pine trees get clothed with cones of ropes called yukizuri, much like the ones at Kenrokuen, to protect it from heavy snow. Yu shows us photos of the kimono-clad newlyweds standing proudly in the garden. After the wedding, she decided to open the cherished family home to guests.
When you stay at Yu’s, you have to try mizuhiki, a traditional artform made with silky strings. She’ll show you how to curve a bundle of the strings, gradually interweaving them into a beautiful geometric shape. Traditionally, mizuhiki were large ornaments exchanged as wedding gifts between bride and groom (carrying on this custom, Yu created mizuhiki decorations for her son’s wedding). Now she makes them into beautiful earrings or key chains. There’s something magical about the process of simple strings transforming into an infinite variety of shapes.
Kanazawa’s cultivated air might lead you to assume that the city might feel unwelcoming or inaccessible. Those fears dissolve quickly once you get to know a local or two. Kanazawa used to be relatively exclusive toward outsiders, but that attitude has shifted. The predominantly elderly residents of Shungo’s neighbourhood, for example, now welcome visitors from all around the world.
Many locals will also encourage you to take part in—rather than just witness—its customs. Guests in Chisato’s home often start their day by reading sutras at the temple next door. “Kanazawa is special not only because there is a lot of traditional culture here,” she says, “but also because you can easily take part in it.”
While the city can be a wonderful destination for a short trip, Shungo believes that “in order to truly enjoy Kanazawa, you have to live here like a local for a week. Kanazawa is a small city, and the community is very closely knit. Everyone knows what everyone else is up to.”
His nightly dinner parties are one of the warmest and most delicious ways to become part of that community. The menu last night was sushi rolls and sake tasting. Tonight it’s hot pot, the kitchen steaming with the mouthwatering smell of fresh broth. Catch Shungo there and he may feed you a little piece of shellfish or baby yellowtail sashimi—deliciously sweet and so fresh that its texture is almost crunchy.
Like many locals, Shungo gets his fish and vegetables from Omicho Market. The labyrinthine complex under an arcade is full of the day’s bounty from the sea as well as the mountains, both of which are within a half-hour’s drive. If your place here has a kitchen, you won’t have to limit yourself to admiring the trays of sparkling seafood and stacks of produce—you can make use of them like a local.
If you’d rather eat out, areas like Katamachi, Korinbo, and Higashiyama Chayagai are full of great restaurants, many of them hidden behind humble facades. In recent years, pricey restaurants catering to tourists have emerged, too, so be sure to ask your host for recommendations. If your host knows a local chef—and in this close-knit town, there’s a decent chance—a name-drop might open the door to truly special service, or at least to an extra-warm welcome.
Shungo steered us to a place along the Sai River owned by a chef who moved here after falling in love with the local produce. Today’s special came on a beautiful Kutaniyaki plate of crimson, indigo, ocher, dark green and royal purple—those five colours Chisato mentioned. My sake came in a delicate yet earthy cup that a professor at Kanazawa College of Art had made as an experiment.
But in the words of Fumi, a metal artist at the nearby Utatsuyama Kogei Kobo training facility, “dishware is complete only when there is something on it.” During the Kogei Festival in October and November, local craftspeople – including chefs, tea masters, and even academics and philosophers – team up to create experiences that blend sensory, aesthetic, and intellectual pleasures. It’s a suitably collaborative event for Kanazawa, where everything is connected—where a chef recommended by a friend leads you to a gorgeous plate, which leads you to a local artisan, who leads you to a craft studio, which leads back, inevitably, to the Maeda family.
The richest part of the city’s past may be its insistent devotion to the future. Both the Kanazawa College of Art and the Utatsuyama Kogei Kobo cultivate young artists and craftspeople. Support systems like these draw aspiring artists from all around Japan and beyond, many of whom stick around after graduating. The result is a city that feels firmly rooted in history yet abuzz with the creative energy of tomorrow. Walking around the city, you’ll often come across beautifully renovated old houses filled with imaginative young people putting a fresh spin on the city’s traditions.
Thanks in part to hosts who can’t wait to share the hometown they love, it’s easier than ever to add your own spin, too.
Miho Ota is a freelance writer who writes on travel for Asahi Shinbun Digital and other media outlets.