Exploring Samurai Design Tradition in Kanazawa


In Kanazawa, a craft course in the softer skills of the warrior will have you embracing the art of monotasking.

First appeared as “Make Like a Samurai” in the December 2016 issue of Air Canada enRoute.

“It all begins with tea,” declares Toshio Ohi, sliding open the screen doors to his tea room. Just as the 11th–generation clay artist invites me to sit at a low table, a woman emerges from a nook in his 200–year–old samurai house. She sets down a tray with walnut sweets and matcha tea, the liquid a green glaze in the hollow of the black bowls. “Kanazawa was built around crafts perfected by the samurai,” Ohi says about the capital of the Ishikawa Prefecture, a low–slung city of 450,000 separating lush mountains from a wide swath of sandy beach on the Sea of Japan. “And samurai culture is inextricable from the tea ceremony because tea is telling us to feel with all senses.” I pick up one of the bowls created by the master and spin it a customary quarter–turn before bringing it to my lips. Holding it is like reading Braille, the textured surface a haiku honouring the misty hills around us. I try to concentrate on the tea’s scent of reeds and its tiny bubbles strung like lace across the surface. But I’m dying to let my eye trace the wooden ceiling beams to an adjoining tea room and its hearth at the centre of a tatami–clad floor, and sweep the courtyard garden where a 500–year–old red pine hovers like a ninja. Then I remember to focus and slurp my third and final swig. Ohi nods. “It’s about doing things deeply, with meaning.”

Related: A Visual Tour of Japan with Photographer Frédéric Tougas

July 19, 2021
Testing watercolours for hand-painting silk
Just swatch me: testing colours before hand–painting silk for a kimono.
Toshio Ohi standing in his studio in Japan
Clay artist Toshio Ohi takes a moment to ponder the meaning of ceramic art, not to mention the next step in the making of his tea bowls and objets d’art.

And that’s why I’ve come to Kanazawa, to slow down, simplify things and practise the lost art of monotasking. Drawing on its past, the city has a way of being in the moment, of celebrating tactile experiences in an age when tactility means swiping and tapping textureless glass screens. The Maeda Clan – rulers of the Kaga Domain, where Kanazawa is located, during the Edo period from 1603 to 1867 – channelled its wealth into arts and crafts. To make it look like they had no interest in militarily challenging the shogunate, the samurais here were encouraged to appreciate the finer things in life, like the tea ceremony. “But to do a proper tea ceremony, you needed cups, bowls and plates,” says Ohi, leading me to his shop. Dressed in blue from his scarf down to his wingtip shoes, he shows me around the minimalist Kengo Kuma–designed space, where he sells ceramic vessels, eyeglasses and neckties, all of his own creation, alongside works by his father. Some samurais developed ceramic skills, while others became masters at lacquerware, gold–leaf application, confectionery, silk painting and papermaking. As a result, Kanazawa developed some 200 different crafts, 36 of which are still practised today.

Toshio Ohi forming clay bowls in his Japanese studio
Red geta sandals sitting on a rock
Ohi, here in his studio, is a master mud slinger, with works exhibited in the U.S. and all over Japan.
These geta sandals were made for traipsing.

To get a glimpse of what life might have looked like for the samurais, I dedicate a morning to exploring the Nagamachi neighbourhood. My guide, Chizuko Yahara, takes me across one of the 50 canals built by the Maedas’ soldiers to bring goods from the sea. Most of the canals have been filled in; what remains are the stone–paved laneways and mud walls that surrounded the gardens. I brush my hand across the sand–coloured walls, trying to sense the time when wealth was measured in koku, the amount of rice a domain produced. “One koku of rice, about 150 kilos, would feed a samurai for one year; the Maedas could put food on the table for 1 million soldiers,” Yahara says. No wonder they wanted it to look like they dabbled more in the arts than in martial arts. A faint smell of the sea and of snow blows in on a breeze that rustles the old trees. Yahara nods toward two men busy tying up branches with rope so they won’t break under the heavy snow that falls well into March. When we arrive at the Nomura house, an upper–class samurai abode (even the soldiers were ranked according to wealth), we walk through to a narrow porch overlooking an enclosed garden. A koi pond surrounded by mossy rocks forms the main stage of this living spectacle, where silence plays the leading role and every tree, shrub and fern has been choreographed to dance with the rhythm of the seasons.

Detailed art and woodwork inside the Nomura house in Japan
The detailed art and woodwork inside the Nomura house reveals this was the home of a high–ranked samurai.
A koi pond within the garden of the Nomura property in Japan
In the Nomura’s manicured garden, nothing was left to chance – even the koi seem to swim on cue.

I say sayonara to Yahara and head uphill to Kenroku–en. The 11–hectare garden adjoining Kanazawa Castle is a showcase for pine trees made even better than Mother Nature intended by a crew of five master horticulturists and two dozen volunteer gardeners. Sporting blue park vests, they clip away, shaping giant bonsai. A waterspout in a pond tries to connect with the clouds. “It’s the oldest gravity–fed fountain in the country,” says the park guide, adding that designing with sound was as important as creating a visual canvas. “Because people didn’t have Spotify 300 years ago,” she says with a wink as we stroll past babbling streams and a prattling waterfall. I pause at a lake lined with pines spruced up for the winter with pyramidal rope structures, like the one I saw being strung up in Nagamachi. When you take your time, even purely functional interventions to protect tree branches end up looking like they belong in a design magazine.

The inviting charm of the Nomura house porch
Practise your monotasking skills on the porch of the Nomura house – the Japanese garden is a concept created only for viewing.

I didn’t come to Kanazawa to train as a sumo wrestler, but if you saw how much I’m having for dinner, you’d think otherwise. Sometime after the forest mushrooms, steamed crab, yellowtail sashimi, lotus root and sweet, creamy amaebi – all washed down with a floral yet crisp craft–brewed sake – I lose track of the number of courses. Chef Hironori Touboku, whose restaurant bears his family name, smiles when I beg him to make sushi with less rice. It’s not because I don’t like carbs; I’m simply full. But after three hours, at least I can say I haven’t lost my attention span or ability to monotask.

The Man Who Measures the Clouds by Jan Fabre at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art
Swimming Pool, an installation by Leandro Erlich at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art
Gold Standard: The Man Who Measures the Clouds by Jan Fabre at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art.
To interact with art first–hand, head to the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art and immerse yourself in Swimming Pool, an installation by Leandro Erlich.

The following morning, I skip breakfast and meet up with Yahara. We walk to Kazuemachi, another of the city’s historic districts. “Kanazawa was not destroyed during the Second World War, so you still see a lot of old architecture here,” she says as we amble along alleys so narrow, I can almost touch the wooden facades on either side when I stretch out my arms. We slip out from the dusky lanes to the bank of the Asanogawa, one of the two rivers that cut through the city before spilling into the ocean. (The other is the Saigawa.) Joggers and cyclists swish by beneath cherry trees and two–storey homes that look like dollhouses, their glass fronts revealing residents seated on futons. If those residents had been here 250 years ago, they might have seen samurai fish for ayu, which resembles a tiny salmon. “When the shogun’s ninjas came here to spy on Maeda, what they saw were a bunch of men fishing,” says Yahara as we pass by a matcha–grinding shop with floors dusted green. But by casting their rods, wading through the water and balancing on slippery rocks, the soldiers were exercising the same movement as brandishing a sword. The original aquafitness, I suppose.

A large yellow and grey art piece designed by SANAA at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art
Craft takes on mega proportions at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, designed by Japanese firm SANAA.
Yuji Meboso stands in front of his traditional fishing-lure shop
Yuji Meboso, the 19th–generation owner of a traditional fishing–lure shop, will have you hooked on his feathered accessories.

Fishing season only opens in June, so instead of casting a lure, I sign up to make one. At Meboso Hachirobei Shoten, one of the last traditional fishing–lure makers here in the Ishikawa Prefecture, Yuji Meboso, the 19th–generation owner, tells me it takes three years to perfect the making of the gold–leaf–adorned hooks. That’s mainly because they’re tiny – smaller than the nail on my pinky. “But our accessories workshops keep the tradition alive by giving people the idea of the old skill,” he says, showing off a rainbow of earrings and brooches in the front store area. He passes me a tray with a hook and points to a wall with boxes that, like nests, cradle feathers from peacocks, kingfishers, swans and other birds. It’s patience–testing work to glue the ends of my choice of feathers to the hook, and I can’t imagine what it’s like to attach them along with silk to the real thing. But in the end, Meboso flatters me for my handiwork. “You could be a designer here!” he says, looking at my earth–toned brooch that pops with dabs of orange, green and turquoise.

Waterfront view of the old Kazuemachi district in Japan
The old Kazuemachi district is full of history and tea houses.
Four colourful fish-lure-inspired earrings made at a workshop in Japan
A hand holding an ice cream cone covered in gold leaf
Make your own fishing–lure–inspired earrings and brooches in a workshop at Meboso Hachirobei Shoten.
The coolest treat in town is made even richer with a layer of gold leaf.

While my creation is shorthand for the old ways, I take the time to observe that despite the minutiae that goes into crafting things, people here also concentrate on making life easy. Walking the cobbled streets in Higashi Chayagai, the tea–house district where geiko–san (Kanazawa’s respectful term for geisha) still entertain behind lattice–screened windows, you don’t necessarily need to know how to read hiragana, katakana and kanji characters. The green sugidama, or cedar–twig ball, hanging outside a bar tells you that this year’s sake is poured inside; if the ball has turned brown, you can bet on aged sake inside. When a curtain hangs in front of a restaurant door, the spot is open for business. But what intrigues me the most are the cobs of corn swaying outside some stores. “Buy one cob, and you’ve bought yourself 47,000 temple visits,” Yahara reveals. To show me another way of fast–forwarding past the immersive approach, she takes me to the Encho–ji temple. If you manage to spin its circular bookcase a full 360 degrees – I have to lean hard against one of its handles to do so – you can say you’ve read the whole Buddhist scripture in a single go. “We have these ways of simplifying life,” Yahara admits, pointing out fu in a shop. A local specialty food, the three–centimetre cube of dried vegetables, meat or fish in a wafer–like casing dissolves in hot water for instant soup. “For when you don’t feel like cooking.”

A snowy walk through Nagamachi during the winter in Japan
In Nagamachi, Kanazawa’s historic samurai district, gardens were enclosed by stone and mud walls that still stand today. Protective straw mats cover part of the walls in winter.

It’s a curious counterbalance to the meticulousness that goes into most things, and it’s clear that to become a modern–day samurai, I need to get more practise in this kind of efficiency. I had thought of signing up for a lesson in gold–leaf application, the best known of Kanazawa crafts. You’ll find gold encasing the entire (and appropriately named) Golden Temple in Kyoto. Your miso soup comes in bowls decorated with gold leaf, and the shimmery stuff is on chopsticks, iPhone covers, chocolates and countless other items. Stopping in at the Gold Leaf Sakuda shop, I tag along with a guided tour. In one room, a man is running a machine that bangs on a piece of gold no larger than a loonie. “It takes three days to pound it to the size of a tatami mat at one–tenth of a millimetre thick,” the guide explains. I don’t have the time to wait for the transformation and instead follow a ray of light reflected from golden room dividers at the top of a staircase. They look deceptively like solid–gold panels. To get a better sense of how ethereal the leaf covering them really is, I continue to a store around the corner. I’ve seen them all day and yesterday – ice cream cones in everyone’s hands despite the rain. But this is not your average cool treat. I place my order and the server, using tweezers, plucks a gleaming sheet of gold from a box before carefully draping it around the vanilla swirl. It may take three days to create this garnish. But it takes me only three seconds to fully appreciate the craft.