- Rent a kimono to walk around the Higashi-Chaya district
- Take part in a gold leaf workshop
- Meet and interact with real geishas
- Learn how to make Japanese sweets
- A step further
Rent a kimono to walk around the Higashi-Chaya district
To start the day, we headed to a kimono rental shop in Higashi-Chaya. The plan was to dress me in a kimono (my travel buddy Chigaya prefered to help me choose my outfit and play the photographer for the day). I hadn`t worn a kimono for about 2 years , and I was pretty excited. You may think this is a tourist trap for foreign visitors, but far from it: their main customers are young Japanese locals (mostly girls or couples), who like to be dressed in a traditional outfit matching the charming old-fashioned background of the town to take nice pictures of their trip.
As a result, Kanazawa has many kimono rental shops to choose from, but we opted for Kirara, because it was recommended by a friend and had the advantage of having several shops in the city: you can rent the kimono and get dressed at one point, and then return it back at another. On top of that, their prices are really affordable, so I asked for a little extra to fulfill a long-time wish: trying a hakama for the first time. Usually, these are worn by young Japanese women the day of their graduation. It used to be a typical outfit of Japanese female students during the Meiji period, because it allowed them to be able to ride bicycles easily.
I’m not really what you could call a ‘girly’ person, but I really had a lot of fun choosing my favorites among the many outfits and accessories provided: kimono, hakama, bags, shawls, shoes, and even umbrellas (it was raining a little that day). I was relieved to see that there was plenty of choice even though I am taller than most Japanese women.
Once the outfit chosen, I was led to the dressing room where a professional helps you dress in the several layers of the kimono really fast. Thinking that Japanese women used to put on all these layers everyday baffles me everytime; it requires a great deal of technique to wear such a garment properly and it’s a relief to have someone helping you do it (actually she does most of the work). By the way, the staff speaks enough English to guide you through the whole process, so no worries if you can’t speak Japanese.
After a quick shot for the shop’s official Instagram account, we headed to the Higashi-Chaya district to take a few pictures and head to our next experience. The district used to be a geisha district, and the tiny houses along the street are registered as an important cultural property of Japan, similarly to the famous district of Gion in Kyoto. However, the photography restrictions of Kyoto do not apply here, so you have a ton of nice photo opportunities in a traditional atmosphere.
Finally, I’d like to add that I was a bit worried at first because it was rather cold, windy and a bit rainy that day, but I did not feel cold at all. The many layers of the kimono and the warm shawl really helped.
Kimono Rental Kirara Price: From 5000 yen for a day English spoken: Yes Website: Kanazawa Kirara
Take part in a gold leaf workshop
Once in Higashi-Chaya, we headed to the famous gold leaf craft shop Hakuichi. Kanazawa is famous for producing gold leaves since the end of the 16th century, and nowadays produces 99% of gold leaves in Japan. Products bearing gold make great Kanazawa souvenirs, and it’s even better to make your own!
The golden leaf workshop takes place on the second floor of Hakuichi, where several spacious tables are set up specially for it. Several time slots are available throughout the day, but it may be a good idea to make a reservation during the high season.
First, we were asked to choose what kind of item we wanted to decorate with gold leaves. The price of the activity varies depending on what you would like to take home as a souvenir. I was expecting quite a high price since we are talking about gold, but it was not the case at all! Chigaya decided to make a small plate for 1000 yen, and I chose to make a small box for 1500 yen.
Then we were asked to choose the patterns we would like to put on our item. Chigaya chose a cool dragon for her plate, and since my box was bigger I had to chose several elements. I opted for a rat (since 2020 is the year of the rat and it also happens to be my Chinese zodiac sign), auspicious clouds and a mallet of fortune.
Most designs are symbols of good luck in Japanese culture, as well as famous monuments of Kanazawa, or patterns connected to the current season. As a result, your item will have a unique design, as you also get to choose how you want to dispose the elements.
Sessions are conducted in small groups and mine was just Chigaya and me. A nice lady guided us step by step, and papers with a sum up of the steps were also available in English.
First, you’re handed a set of stickers of the patterns you chose. You stick them as you please on your souvenir, and then apply a sort of glue on the pattern you choose.
Next, you apply the gold leaves. The tricky part is to make sure it adheres well in all the small corners and details of your pattern. After a little wait, it’s time to very slowly and carefully remove the sticker to only leave the gold leaf.
Finally, you need to remove gold to add the last details of the design, the ear or the eye of the rat on my box for example. This too must be done very slowly, and I have to admit I held my breath!
The shop even provides a small photography space with a variety of background designs and accessories for you to show off your creation on your favorite social media (see our result below)!
The whole activity took about half an hour, was fun to do and I think it has an incredible value for money considering you’re making your very own personal souvenir.
Hakuichi Price: From 500 yen for a postcard English spoken: Yes Website: Hakuichi
Meet and interact with real geishas
After a lunch break, we headed to the other traditional district of Kanazawa: Nishi-Chaya, the one located in the west. The district is also charming, but much smaller than its eastern counterpart. However, our main objective here was not to walk around, but to meet some real geishas.
Not to be confused with courtesans, geishas are artists who are able to perform all sorts of Japanese traditional arts. The show “Kanazawa Geisha Experience”, organized by the city’s Tourism Association, lasts for an hour and gives a good idea of what geishas can do.
We were only about 10 people in an intimate tatami room, an experience close to what ‘real’ (and very expensive) dinners with geishas can be like. Considering the number of places is very limited, be sure to make a reservation.
The performance is conducted in Japanese, but a free interpreter is provided under request when you make your reservation.
It started quietly with a few traditional dances, then a drum performance. Then, things started to get really exciting when the guests were invited in groups of two to interact with the geishas and be a part of the show! The drum performance turned into a drum lesson with the geishas helping us keep the correct rhythm. If you were lucky or a good enough drummer, you would see your geisha-teacher start to dance at the sound of your own drum.
Once everybody got to try the drums, participants were invited to dance all together a funny (and supposedly simple) dance, following the steps of the geishas. Needless to say, the dance looked easier than it was!
Finally, we were able to try a traditional geisha game based on the same principle than rock-paper-scissors but using the whole body (also another pretext to dance).
After the end of the performance, we were all invited to take a souvenir picture with the artists.
The show lasted one hour, but it was diverse, and the interactive part made it an unforgettable experience for me. The show costs 5000 yen and considering the usual price of dinners in the company of geishas, I think it’s more than worth it. It’s not every day you get to learn music, dance and play with real geishas.
Kanazawa Geisha Experience Price: 5000 yen English spoken: Interpreter available on request Website: Kanazawa Tourism Association
Learn how to make Japanese sweets
Finally, we headed to a district of Kanazawa called Musashi-machi, where is located Koshiyama Kanseido, a famous local wagashi (Japanese sweets) confectionery.
The shop has workshops three days a week, and reservations are compulsory. As a matter of fact, the wide room was packed with visitors eager to try to make their own sweets.
The ingredients for making our Japanese sweets that day were balls of anko (Japanese sweet bean paste) for the fillings, and colored balls of anko-based sweet paste for the outer part of the sweets. The challenge is to roll, press and shape them very much like you would with clay dough. The objective was to make two sweets of two different sorts.
As most of the customers are Japanese, only little information was provided in English on the papers we found on our tables. The activity itself was conducted in Japanese only. However, I think it can be enjoyed even if you cannot speak Japanese because our teacher, Mr. Honda showed us what ingredients to take and how to make each shape through gestures. He also came to us if we needed help, and checked on each student’s creations at regular intervals, making corrections when needed. Another help was the sweets samples on every table, to show us what the final products were supposed to look like.
The process is rather simple and the moves to shape the sweets are not hard in themselves but doing them the right way so that you get an elegant result is a small challenge. I found the overall level of the experience to be just fine. The price was also of great value: only 1000 yen for making 4 sweets!
Koshiyama Kanseido Price: 1200 yen English spoken: Very little Website: Koshiyama Kanseido
A step further
I really enjoyed all the activities I did in Kanazawa and would recommend all of them to friends if they wanted to visit the city. What surprised me the most was the excellent price value compared to the prices one could find in bigger cities like Tokyo or Kyoto. If you are interested in workshops and activities in Japan and are planning to visit Kanazawa, I would recommend staying there an extra day and discover all the activities you’ve always wanted to try!
Check the official website of the Kanazawa tourist association or contact them for ideas of other cool stuff to do. Tea ceremony, Japanese sword experience, sushi making, cycling… there is something for everyone.