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dinner with a geisha
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 an art insider 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 a gaijin will never forget.

 


As the home base for our Kanazawa immersion, Art of Travel set us up in a former 19th-century geisha teahouse turned traditional machiya home. With rice paper walls, tatami-mat floors, fluffy futons, and a zen courtyard, this place seemed out of a Japanese storybook.

 

art of travel tea cermony class
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 bitter 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 the cup, take a sip, and bow…with about 20 steps in between. It was a fascinating experience that will forever change the way we look at a cup of tea.

 

Art of Travel Kanazawa Tours
To learn more about Kanazawa, we didn’t just get any ole tour guide, we got a PhD historian. 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 teahouses, and artist guilds popping up—all which can still be seen around town, if you know the right alleys to turn down.

 

kanazawa castle garden
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 these amazing snow rope installations go up on the Karakinomatsu Pines. Each branch is meticulously tied making an artful frame around the tree.

 

Kanazawa sushi bar
That night we explored our neighborhood and found this fun local restaurant. The bar full of Kanazawans asked us where we were from and when we said New York, they all started cheering. Apparently, the Yankees outfielder Matsui is from this area and a local hero in both NYC and Kanazawa.

 

Art of travel ikebana flower arranging
The next morning as we were finishing breakfast, a delivery of persimmon branches and bundles of flowers and leaves came to our door. They were brought in for our next Art of Travel course: Ikebana flower arranging. My mother had a flower business so I thought I had this one in the bag, but the minimalism of the 600-year old craft is a whole new way of thinking. Three main elements are all you need: one lead flower, two complementary leaves, 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 and varied dimension grabs you when you walk in the door. With a few reworks, we were quite proud of our arrangements (see the slideshow).

 

Caligraphy Lessons Kanazawa
Next up in 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 alphabets and thousands of characters but in thick brushstrokes, one word can become art. We learned a few basics like how to hold the brush, 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, this work above says “HoneyTrek.”

 

dinner with a Kanazawa geisha
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 anyone can roll into 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 living room. The night was off-the-charts amazing with breathtaking song, dance, costumes, and cuisine, but the coolest part was just hanging out with these near-mythical geishas. We did shots of sake, strummed the shamisen, played kimono dress up, and giggled about it all. For a glimpse at the performance, watch this video.

 

Visiting Uskekubi
It’s not often you can say, “A geisha gave me a hangover,” but even with such an unparalleled excuse, we didn’t want to miss the next day’s cultural events. We carried on and into countryside of Kanazawa to the Ushekubi 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 rough-hewn silk. We watched the ladies unravel the silk filaments in boiling water and spin them into thread (it takes 120 filaments make one strand), then dye and weave it into fabric. Mike tried his hand at the loom and he was a natural!

 

Wataya Ryokan lunch
For lunch we were surprised with a stop at Wataya Ryoken, home to one of the most highly acclaimed restaurants in Japan! They specialize 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. He prepared stacks of coals over ash in a Irori-style pit and roasted it to perfection. This still remains one of our most incredible meals of the HoneyTrek.

 

Nakemura sake distillery tours
As a toast to the tour, our final stop was to the Nakemura sake distillery. Kitted out in lab coats, hair nets, and slippers, we got a tour by 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 in 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.

 

Art of Travel team
We’ve never been a big fan of organized tours but The Art of Travel was like nothing we’ve ever experienced. They are true curators and conduits to a cultural experience that would be inaccessible to the average visitors. We learned more about Nihon culture in these three days than our whole month in the country! 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.

kanazawa travel

Art of Travel Photo Gallery

SEE MORE PHOTOS IN OUR “CRASH COURSE IN THE JAPANESE ARTS” SLIDESHOW>>

  • aklauren

    Hey Mike & Anne–thanks for the amazing kudos! It was great to read about your Kanazawa experiences. Somehow, seeing it all written down really brings what we do into focus. You have some spectacular images as well–Mike behind the loom, the Wataya chef tending his coals…if you haven’t already decided to do a book of photo essays about your travels, you should!
    All the best,
    Lauren

    • http://HoneyTrek.com/ HoneyTrek Anne

      We love The Art of Travel! (If you couldn’t already tell : ) You guys really do have something special. In all our travel we’ve never heard of such a unique offering and access to local culture. I’m so glad our photos come close to doing AOT justice….and who knows, we may just do a photo essay book : )

  • Genghis Ron

    This looks amazing! The food is so painterly! What exactly is the pink stuff on the plate with the green dipping sauce? I would definitely look up the Art of Travel when I get my next show in Japan. Usually tours are not my thing, but this looks very inspiring!

    • http://HoneyTrek.com/ HoneyTrek Anne

      As an artist, Roni, you would adore Art of Travel! You should def look them up and let them know when you get an art show there! For the appetizer photo, I believe that’s white fish with shredded daikon…yummy. I also loved those placemats–one thick circular brush stoke on rice paper. What beautiful idea!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=555230535 Kimberly Burnham Keefe on Facebook

    I’m so happy to see you enjoyed yourselves! You two were fantastic guests, game for everything. Thank you for including Japan on your journey.

  • Jay Knight

    Wow…those Art of Travel tours look like a lot of fun! And Mike, now that you’ve done both….how does strumming the shamisen compare to strumming a ukulele?

  • carol laager

    Two words awesome and fascinating. Once again you capture the moments and the cuisine,music and everything. Just beautifui. Takes my breath away!!

    • http://HoneyTrek.com/ HoneyTrek Anne

      Thanks Carol! Our Kanazawa experience was jam-packed with amazing experiences…I hope we captured it all! Let us know if you have any questions, if we had time we would have made this five posts! In the meantime, so glad you enjoyed it.

  • Kota Fujimura

    金沢には一度だけ行った事がありますが、芸者遊びも、三味線弾くのもやった事ないな!うらやましい!
    あと、2人とも浴衣結構似合ってるよ。

    • http://HoneyTrek.com/ HoneyTrek Anne

      Okay I have to admit, I had to Google Translate this one. But Kota, I’m so glad you got to go to Kanazawa! It’s amazing, right? Yea, we we’re lucky ducks to have such a night with a geisha. Thanks…I’m glad you think we look pretty good in a yukata/kimono : )

  • Chelsea Iversen

    Wow- what an amazing experience! Awesome that you got hooked up with Art of Travel and you were able to see some of Japan from a really unique perspective. Seems like an incredible tour. I can’t believe you got to hang out with geishas! And of course, beautifully written and amazing photos. You really capture the serenity and artfulness of the place…especially the post-geisha night selfie :)

    • http://HoneyTrek.com/ HoneyTrek Anne

      Thanks, Chels! Ummm hanging out with geishas may have been one of the coolest things ever. And even crazier, the younger of the two is a super big deal in the geisha scene…they say she’s the geisha of the 21st century. You can even check her out on Twitter: @Nakanoyamomo

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003373882416 Robin Collins on Facebook

    Your journey through Japan makes me nostalgic. I always thought that if you looked up you would see the 21st century. If you take the time to look closely in all of the nooks and crannies you could discover the secrets and charm of a much earlier time and culture.

  • Rashaad Jorden

    How did you hook up with the Art of Travel? Actually, I met someone who works with the Art of Travel earlier this year at the New York Times Travel Show. We were volunteering at the Japan desk there, and that day was a lot of fun.
    What instrument in Mike playing in the photo?
    Also, Hideki Matsui was an outfielder.
    Once again, lovely photos!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=137775936298821 Mike & Anne’s – HoneyTrek.com on Facebook

    We just added a short video clip from the geisha performance with The Art of Travel . Check it out https://vimeo.com/69513914

  • Dan White

    Awesome post as usual! I especially liked the part about the tea ceremony. The story of Tea has such a rich history, having been so highly valued at times in history that pound for pound, it was higher than gold and in some places, used as currency.

  • Maria

    wow you covered all the bases and had a blast doing it. Kudos!

  • B-Hott

    Amazing!! In two years living in Japan, I didn’t get to do half of these things. Very jealous, indeed. I’ll be checking Art of Travel out for Jess’s first trip to Japan- whenever that turns out to be!

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