Location: Kanazawa City, Ishikawa Prefecture
Duration: One day. May 3, 2012
Impressions of the Journey:
We had a short and action-packed evening and day in Kanazawa, the capital of Ishikawa prefecture. Arriving late in the evening with our friends from HappyMoss, we took a walk through Kanazawa’s old town of Higashichaya to take in the ambience of the old Japanese-style houses, or kominka. We took a look at a shop full of beautiful laquerware and toured an ancient geisha house, which had one tatami room covered in gold-leaf. Kanazawa is famous for its fine quality gold-leaf, an extremely thin layer of hand-hammered, pure gold. Similarly impressive, the entire front staircase of the house was made of red lacquer. Yet, Higashichaya topped this display of extravagance with an entire tea house made of gold-leaf on display in the courtyard of a kominka! In Higashichaya we spotted several shops housed in ancient Japaneses buildings, selling souvenirs such as gold-flecked sweets, cosmetics, liquor, laquer, glass goods, jewelry, and golf balls (we bought a gold-leaf golf ball for a friend, after being warned that the possibility of losing it during a game and being dissapointed was very high).
Our stay was short and limited to the city center, so we unfortunately did not have a chance to experience Kanazawa’s agricultural activities in the pure sense of the term. However, we visited Kenrokuen, one of the “three most beautiful gardens in Japan,” which has been under cultivation for hundreds of years. We saw gardeners, in traditional-style clothing, weeding the edges of a pond, and took a good look at several of the man-made streams and lakes scattered throughout the deep moss and carefully formed trees of the natural looking, but entirely managed, ecosystem of the garden. This triggered thoughts of “satoyama” and “satoumi,” Japanese words to describe the complex interconnectedness of the human and the natural environment, which is so clearly evident in many places in Japan.
In recent agriculture lore, we heard the story of Hakui City, a small town in Ishikawa prefecture’s mountainous, rice-producing region. Like many other rural areas of Japan where rice farming is the primary industry, the town was suffering from an aging, declining population, and those farming the local Mikohara rice (literally “Rice from a highland where the son of God dwells”) were struggling to make ends meet. Then, a Hakui City Hall employee had a brilliant idea. He wrote a letter to Japan’s Embassy in Vatican City with a bold proposal. His letter caught the interest of a Japanese diplomat, who agreed to receive and pass along the Mikohara rice as a holy gift to the Pope. Needless to say, the media, and eventually, the public, heard about the “holy rice” from Hakui City and it has been wildly popular ever since. Word also has it that due to Hakui City’s success, younger folks who left the area are starting to return in the face of brightening job prospects. Sadly, we didn’t have time to visit Hakui City in person to shake hands with the resourceful City Hall employee who had this great idea, but it is a great example of how small, creative steps toward agricultural branding and product differentiation can truly transform rural Japan.
Just before leaving Kanazawa, we stumbled across a magical little bit of Japanese history. Right across the bridge from Higashichaya, facing the main road, is a dusty old storefront with odd bits of clutter in the cloudy picture windows. We thought that perhaps we had stumbled upon an antiques shop, but inside, in a glass case mounted along a wall, two large metal cones were spinning on their axis, producing a humming that filled the air. Richly colored green powder dusted the surfaces on the inside of the cones’ cabinet. What could it be?
We had stumbled across Yonezawa Chaten, a nearly 150 year old tea shop. This shop may have sold tea to the geishas at the geisha house we visited! Shuichi Yonezawa, President of Yonezawa Chaten CO., LTD, kindly explained to us how his company transforms fine quality tea leaves from around Japan into the highest quality of Matcha Powder, used for daily drinking as well as for Sado, the tea ceremony. Take a look at the video here to see how the old-fashioned tea grinding machines look.
Even in Kanazawa’s old city center, where the height of sophisticated ancient Japanese culture is preserved and celebrated, agriculture plays a key role. There could be no Higashichaya – or Western Tea House – without tea, a carefully cultivated and crafted agricultural product. We hope to follow up on this post soon with a more in-depth look at an example of a Japanese tea plantation.
As with many of our trips, our time in Ishikawa was way too short to scratch all but the barest surface of this complex, diverse prefecture. Kanazawa was a great city, with a strikingly cosmopolitan feel, despite bearing a heavy footprint of traditional arts ranging from gold leaf to Japanese gardens. Behind the glamor of the capital city, Ishikawa is home to a variety of traditional farming methods, including some approaches to salt farming that have caught the attention of agriculture and environmental researchers around the world. Then there are places like Hakui City, which have been pulled into the limelight from near obscurity on the merits of an excellent product that was excellent before it was famous. Sadly, we only saw enough of Ishikawa to have caught a glimpse of its potential, and so this trip’s kanji phrase is 氷山の一角、or “The tip of the iceberg”.