Kanazawa Spotlight: Glimpses of Geisha on a Charming "Teahouse Street"
In the ancient city of Kanazawa, surrounded by mountains and seas, there are three very famous tea house streets - Higashi Chaya-gai (Eastern Tea House Street), Nishi Chaya-gai (Western Tea House Street), and Kazue-machi Chaya (named after a Kaga region samurai clan). Separated from Higashi Chaya by the Asano River and just north of Kanazawa castle, Kazue-machi chaya is a relatively smaller and less trafficked area, providing one with a stronger sense of serenity (and mystery!) not found in its busier counterparts.
Nestled between the Sea of Japan and the edge of the Japan Alps, Kanazawa has no shortage of natural beauty—or charming, historic neighborhoods to explore throughout the city. Nearing the top of the list of Kanazawa's attractive areas rich in cultural, historical, and architectural tradition are its three famous chaya districts—or "tea house streets"—found near the downtown area and along the Asano river. These chaya districts are divided into three areas: the largest and most popular, Higashi Chaya-gai
, meaning "Eastern Tea House Street", Nishi Chaya-gai
, or the "Western Tea House Street", and Kazue-machi Chaya, named after a Kaga region samurai clan. Just across the river from the larger Higashi Chaya district, Kazue-machi Chaya, in particular, is an equally charming, yet quieter geisha district built along the Asano River between Asanogawa Ohashi Bridge and Naka-no Hashi Bridge.
Kazue-Machi Chaya: The Teahouse Street along the Water
Separated from Higashi Chaya by the Asano River and just north of Kanazawa castle, Kazue-machi chaya is a relatively smaller and less trafficked area, providing one with a stronger sense of serenity (and mystery!) not found in its busier counterparts. In addition to the cherry blossom lined main street along the waterfront, there are a number of winding alleys and side streets which have served as inspiration for a range of traditional artists and writers—the most famous of which are "Akari-saka" (translating to "Light Slope"), and "Kuragari-saka" (translating to "Dark Slope"). Adding to the more secretive ambiance found throughout the area, you'll likely find the majority of storefronts closed to the public. When venturing in some of the few shops and cafes welcoming patrons off the street, venture to the second floor where stunning views of the river and surrounding greenery overlooking both Asano and Nakano bridges await—and where aficionados might recognize familiar settings from the Japanese drama Doctor-X: Surgeon Michiko Daimon.
The scenery here has provided inspiration for many artists and writers spanning generations, and is particularly famous for providing the settings for the stories of several famous homegrown literati, collectively known as the "Three Great Writers of Kanazawa."
The Dark Slope: Walking the Hidden Geisha Path of "Kuragari-Saka"
Adjacent to Kazue-machi Chaya is a small neighborhood by the name of Shimoshinco, containing an old Shinto shrine called Kuboichiinari, dedicated to the fox god Inari Ōkami, one of the principal kami (gods) of the Shinto religion, and a purveyor of good fortune and success. After locating this shrine and passing through, you will find a narrow stone road known called "Kurugari-saka," or otherwise known as the legendary "Dark Slope." The name stems from the fact that parts of this small road does not receive sunshine during the day, and has a reputation in the past for being used by patrons who wished to make their way undetected to the geisha houses. For those who make time to seek out this ancient nook, you can immediately sense the atmosphere of the serene, yet secretive mystique for which it gets its name.
The Light Slope: A Lost Alleyway Is Reborn as Akari-Saka
With the presence of a "Dark Slope," universal balancing requires there be an alternate "Light Slope," and though more obscure and lesser known than it's darker counterpart, "Akari-saka," or the "Light Slope" is exactly what you'll find just around the corner. This small slope concealed on a side street was unnamed and unknown before the turn of the 21st century, and it wasn't until later that a local landlord commissioned a writer to name it, dubbing it the "Light Slope." Though perhaps not as impactful as its darker counterpart, here you can still immerse yourself in the mystery of the old, backstreets of the area—and imagine a geisha, or local patron hurrying along undetected, preparing for a night of music and revelry in an age since past.
Compared to the larger (and busier) Higashi Chaya, the lovely Kazue-machi Chaya district provides a beautiful, yet calm and serene side of Kanazawa well worth your attention should you seek a more slightly off the beaten path location during your visit. If you prefer to move at a more relaxed pace and experience a bit of historic nostalgia, then be sure to make your way to the western bank of the Asano river, find a quiet cafe, and take in the views and atmosphere that have inspired so many artists and visitors that have come before.
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