Out of the past - Issue 84 - Magazine | Monocle

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On the south side of Kanazawa, Seiichi Kozu wants to show a visitor what he means by progress. As he walks along the street where his architecture and property firm is located he points out one renovated building after another: an art bookshop; fruit-and-vegetable vendor; a leather artisan’s atelier and shop; and a ceramics and lacquerware store.

Some predate his move here four years ago. Others were lured by low rents and the camaraderie of small business owners who value local producers over mass-market global brands. “There wasn’t this kind of area with independent design-minded shopkeepers coming together until very recently,” says Kozu, founder of Studio Koz and Real Kanazawa Estate.

It’s an odd way of defining progress. But Kozu, who grew up in Kanazawa and spent two decades away before returning, sees the future of this city of 460,000 resting with such small-scale developments, not large-scale malls. The key is preserving the traditional wooden machiya townhouses that date back a century or more. “There are investments coming in, buildings going up, machiya being torn down for parking lots,” he says. “Kanazawa is losing around 100 machiya every year. The only way to save these buildings is one by one. This is a guerrilla war.”

This former castle town is defined by its ancient districts – the samurai homes of Nakamachi, the geisha district of Kazuemachi – that make it a magnet for tourism. They are in no danger of being razed yet there are many other old buildings that are at risk. Across the city the pace of rebuilding has picked up. Around Kanazawa Station, shiny office towers, mid-range hotels and glass-wrapped multistorey retail properties have sprouted up in recent years to cater for the dark-suited businessmen who have come to explore an untapped market. Property values on the west side of the station shot up 17 per cent in the past year, the sharpest gain anywhere in the country.

Driving this wave of development is the new Hokuriku Shinkansen line that opened in March. Half a century in the making, the line was conceived as a back-door channel between Tokyo and Osaka that would keep commerce humming if an earthquake or tsunami were to disrupt links along the Pacific coastline.

Even in a country with 2,600km of high-speed rail track, the new line is hardly just another incremental extension. Before the Shinkansen’s arrival, Kanazawa was cut off. To get here from the capital you spent close to four hours on trains or you flew to Komatsu airport, an hour’s bus ride away; now it’s a straight shot. Two hours and 28 minutes after pulling away from Tokyo you’re stepping onto the platform at Kanazawa Station. It is long overdue, bridging the gap between this far-flung region and the country’s biggest commercial centres and bringing with it the prospect of more tourists, new business and bigger investments. Last year, eight million people visited the city.

It’s also forcing Kanazawa to market itself more assertively. For years, City Hall had debated whether anything could be done about Kanazawa residents taking the Shinkansen to do their shopping elsewhere. “It will happen,” says the town’s mayor Yukiyoshi Yamano. “To offset that we have to broaden the appeal of this city, which means we tell architecture fans where they can find buildings by Kengo Kuma and Toyo Ito and not just the usual sights.”

Yamano, a slender man in a well-fitting navy suit, has taken a rather proactive approach to city improvements. Details have been obsessed over; his administration has even experimented with replacing bright street lamps near historic buildings with indirect lighting that casts a warm glow. It’s one of the ways that he is trying to set Kanazawa apart.

From an armchair, Yamano picks up a glossy magazine whose cover features images of geisha and manicured gardens in Kyoto alongside similar photographs of Kanazawa. Comparisons between the two cities are common, with Kanazawa often called “Little Kyoto”. But this doesn’t sit well with many in Kanazawa. “Culturally the two cities are completely different,” says the mayor. “This was a town for the warrior class. Kyoto was the ancient seat of government. We have to remind people of that.”

Through the large windows flanking his desk, Yamano has an unobstructed view of the round glass building that has become synonymous with the city: the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art. Designed by architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa and opened in 2004, the museum has done more to transform the city than any marketing slogan. Last year it brought in revenue of ¥860m (€6.5m) and had 1.76 million visitors. “The museum was a divisive issue when it opened but over the past decade people have come to appreciate its value,” says Yamano.

The fact that art could be given such a prominent place in a small, insular city such as Kanazawa was inspiring for a new generation of entrepreneurs who had left. Ayumi Iwamoto’s return from Tokyo coincided roughly with the museum’s opening. Back then most tourists were still on a circuit. “They would see Kenrokuen Garden and the samurai houses and then eat crab,” says 39-year-old Iwamoto. “But I started to notice that the museum was attracting a different kind of traveller.”

That group included her own friends from out of town, whose interest was in the museum’s exhibitions. Iwamoto showed her friends around artisans’ workshops instead of the usual wooden tea houses and winding canals spared damage by war and disaster. It was a familiar topic for her: in a shed-like building behind the home where she grew up, generations of her family have been making hibachi braziers from paulownia trees since 1903. Within a couple of years she had documented her citywide discoveries in her book Otome no Kanazawa (Girls’ Kanazawa). She now publishes a map of the city’s machiya and encourages owners of old homes to rent to small businesses.

For a city of its compact size, Kanazawa has a brand appeal that others would kill for. Yet it has no big-name global businesses to speak of. Unlike other cities where industry has struggled to stay relevant amid cheap imports, Kanazawa’s companies have been saved by offering specialist products: hotel luggage carts (Kanazawa Corp), conveyor belts for sushi restaurants (Ishino Seisakusho), and soy sauce (Yamato Soysauce and Miso).

There is a sense of local pride about starting something new here. Kentaro Nakagawa launched Nakagawa three years ago, selling 30 types of sugar-coated heirloom vegetables and local fruits from an old townhouse in the Higashi Chaya area. His idea was to encourage people to eat locally grown Kaga vegetables – lotus roots, bamboo shoots and cucumber – and he stumbled on traditional recipes to preserve produce. “I thought we could get people to give Kaga vegetables as gifts if we made a product that could be stored at room temperature for quite a while,” he says. “We’re still trying to expand our line-up but we won’t compromise on flavour.”

Government-led initiatives continue to protect and promote the centuries-old craft sector. Artisans are still finding their way to this city, some of them among the more than 17,500 people who came here to put down roots last year.

Akihiko Sugita belongs to this group of new migrants. Raised in Tokyo, Sugita spent six years studying under a master lacquerware craftsman in Wajima, a couple of hours’ drive to the north, before moving here a year ago. What surprised him was how easy the transition was. “It’s still hard for me to believe that the landlord was happy for me use this beautiful house as my workshop,” he says. You can see why: built more than 70 years ago, the machiya is all exposed beams and antique wooden shelves stained with persimmon tannin. Upstairs where Sugita works, rows of half-completed bowls and cups dry on planks, and moulds sit next to wooden prototypes for new products.

Every lacquerware piece involves Sugita co-ordinating with several craftsmen: one to cut the wood block, one to shape it, one to produce lacquer from the sap of the Rhus vernicifera tree and one to coat the bowl. They are spread out between Wajima to the north and Kaga, south of Kanazawa. “This is the most convenient place for me to be,” he says.

Already Sugita’s bowls and rectangular plates have found their way into the restaurant at the Andaz Tokyo, a luxury hotel, while his other work has gone to galleries and shops in Kanazawa, Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka. “I work alone so there’s only so much I can do. But the advantage of being here is there are businesses dating back generations that make a point of working with artisans. And residents here have an appreciation for well-made handcrafted products.”

It is impossible to predict how the Shinkansen will change Kanazawa. But this city’s strong identity offers hope it can preserve its heritage while becoming less inward-looking and more receptive to a global audience.

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