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Kanazawa, Japan

Tradition with an Innovative Twist


Tradition with an Innovative Twist


Founded 400 years ago as a cultural center, Kanazawa boasts a rich artistic heritage, which it lavishes with love, labor and generous investments. How is this city breathing new life into its creative and cultural industries?



Tradition with an Innovative Twist

By Ming-ling Hsieh
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 504 )

The main entrance of Kanazawa Station overflows with a sense of history. The pillars of its massive wooden gate are shaped like the traditional hand-drums used in Noh theater. Behind the gate, the atrium leading to the platforms is covered by a modernist umbrella-shaped glass dome that reaches a height of 30 meters. It is made from 3,019 panes of glass that were produced locally.

Selected last year by U.S.-based Travel & Leisure magazine as one of the world's most beautiful train stations, Kanazawa Station epitomizes the city's character: taking pride in history, but harboring a fresh spirit within its traditions.

The dense web of water pipes on top of Drum Gate is a rainwater-harvesting system. The collected rainwater is used to water greenery, flush the station toilets, and wash the glass roof. "Robots controlled by a navigation system automatically wash the roof. In the event of wind or rain they stop automatically. They are even able to stretch their legs to stride over a snow drift," explains Tetsuo Sekimoto, who is in charge of the redevelopment of the station area at the Kanazawa City government's Urban Redevelopment Bureau.

Old City with a New Soul

Kanazawa Station resembles the Anywhere Door in the Japanese manga series Doraemon, which allows people to travel back and forth in time to any place they wish to go. When leaving the station through the west exit, which faces the sea, one is greeted by broad roads and modern, non-descript office buildings. The taxi boarding areas and bus stations have solar roofs, generating as much power per year as thirty households consume during the same period.

On the station's east side, which looks out on the mountains, one feels like traveling back in time to Japan's feudal era.

"When you look down on the city from Kenroku Garden (one of the three great gardens of Japan), you can imagine the cityscape of 400 years ago, because the street layout has not changed at all," observes Pai Jen-te, secretary general of the Taiwan Institute of Urban Planning and associate professor at National Chengchi University's Department of Land Economics. For the past three years in a row, Pai has taken students to Kanazawa for research.

In contrast to many other Japanese cities, Kanazawa was not bombed in World War II. Restoring the city's old quarters from the Edo period is therefore much easier. "This here is a map of 1667, which is still being used today," remarks Atsushi Kawashima, assistant director of the city government's Historic Landmarks Preservation Section. "The water pipes, teahouse alleys, and temple streets are basically the same as today."

Although Kanazawa is the capital of Ishikawa Prefecture and home to half of the prefecture's population, its surface area is very small. It takes just half an hour to drive around downtown Kanazawa.

The late American-Canadian urban thinker Jane Jacobs once said you are only able to see the soul of a city if you walk into its streets and alleys.

The alleys of Kanazawa are sprinkled with traditional shops that have been run by the owner family for seven or eight generations. At every turn of the winding alleys, you'll find history.

Traditional Japanese houses with tiled roofs line the two banks of the Asano River. Located on the right bank is the geisha district of Higashi Chaya-gai, which looks just as in feudal times with its three-storied wooden latticed houses and geisha smoothly playing the shamisen, reciting Haiku poems or singing traditional Japanese songs.

Traditional Crafts Impress Globally

Kanazawa, which means "marsh of gold," lives up to its name with its world-class gold leaf manufacturing industry.

Thanks to Kanazawa's time-honored tradition of eschewing war in favor of culture and education, the area has not seen battle in more than four centuries. The city even escaped the onslaught of World War II unscathed.

Enjoying continued peace, Kanazawa prospered and became affluent. As a result, the cultured residents preserved 22 traditional arts and crafts that are unique to the city, such as Noh theater, the Kaga Yuzen dyeing technique, gold leaf manufacturing, lacquerware, Kutani ceramic ware, and Kaga inlay. In 2009 Kanazawa was appointed UNESCO City of Crafts and Folk Art, a title that has been given to just five cities worldwide so far.

Actually Kanazawa's climate and location are not that good. It rains half of the year and heavy snow affects the city for three to four months. And then hostile North Korea is not too far away.

"Along the coast there are signs telling people to stay away from the beaches, because North Korean submarines could abduct them. When North Korea launches missiles, they are all very tense," recalls sculptor Lai Yung-hsing, who earned a doctorate at Kanazawa College of Art.

Located on the Sea of Japan, Kanazawa originally prospered as a trading hub.

However, in the 19th century ports on the Pacific side of Japan rapidly developed in the direction of Western-style industrialized mass production. Shipping goods from Kanazawa to Tokyo or Osaka proved relatively inconvenient and costly. On top of that, Kanazawa, bordered by the Sea of Japan in the west and nestled against hills and mountains in the east and southeast, lacked the land resources needed for massive industrial development. Gradually, Kanazawa deteriorated into a backwater in Japan's mountainous hinterland.

Flaunting Heritage Is the Only Option

Kanazawa has chosen to market its history-steeped traditions by developing culture, arts and crafts. Actually, the city has barely any other options.

But the city also has even better resources for developing the arts and crafts than high-brow, elegant Kyoto, because there has been broad consensus among its citizens on the city's cultural orientation for four centuries.

Compared with the aristocratic splendor of the ancient capitals of Kyoto and Nara, Kanazawa's historic flair is more down-to-earth and palpable.

"Kyoto belongs to the imperial family. It's commercialized. But Kanazawa completely belongs to the people. It's real life." This is the sentiment nearly every Kanazawa citizen, from the mayor to the man in the street, voices when asked what makes the city so special.

While Kanazawa might have less splendor than Kyoto, the refinement of its arts and crafts is unrivaled. The foundations for such exquisite craftsmanship were laid 400 years ago by feudal lord Toshie Maeda.

Maeda received land that included Kanazawa as a fief in reward for helping Toyotomi Hideyoshi unite Japan.

Subsequently, the Maeda Clan committed all its fiscal resources to the development of arts and crafts to avoid antagonizing the Tokugawa shogunate in Edo (today's Tokyo). Following an initial focus on Noh drama, it branched out into lacquerware, ceramics, and tea ceremony.

But in contrast to the imperial family in Kyoto, the Maeda Clan did not confine the arts within the palace walls for its own enjoyment. While in other parts of Japan common people were forbidden to study Noh, the successive feudal lords from the Maeda Clan went out of their way to let all residents participate.

Broad Civic Involvement in Cultural Heritage

Every third day a Noh play was performed, with participation open to the entire public. The Maeda Clan even set up a talent training center and hired experts from Kyoto and other parts of Japan to staff it. As a result, every citizen had the opportunity to learn this traditional performing art. Noh drama skills were so widely popularized that "even commoners who swept dry leaves were able to chant (Noh songs)," notes Sekimoto.

During the Edo period it was almost impossible to move up the social ladder. Only in Kanazawa was a commoner able to become a samurai and a samurai could move up in rank. The only yardstick for upward mobility was the mastery of refined accomplishments like Noh and other traditional crafts. It should not come as a surprise that people were highly motivated to engage in such studies.

"A samurai who didn't study Noh and the tea ceremony would have had problems rising in rank," explains Hidetaka Fujishima, director of the Kanazawa Noh Museum.

The talent cultivation and broad public participation initiated by the Maeda Clan four centuries ago are still alive today. (See A Small City's Grand Vision)

World-Class Investment in Cultural and Creative Industries

But preserving a rich cultural heritage comes at a steep price.

The Kanazawa City government spends 2 percent of its annual budget – about 3.3 billion yen – on maintaining historical buildings and preserving cultural and traditional crafts. The teahouses in the geisha district, for instance, can only be restored by restoration technicians who graduated from the Kanazawa Institute of Traditional Crafts. Facades need to be renovated based on historic photographs, with the city government footing 80 percent of the bill.

We turn another corner and find ourselves in front of a building that dates back to 1897. The city government spent 6 million yen on its renovation and now rents the property at a low rate to a silversmith. About 20 historic buildings are restored and adapted for new uses that way every year.

Kanazawa residents develop a sense of citizenship from childhood on. "When I was little, my father dragged me from meeting to meeting. I was a bit annoyed, but now I feel it was very important," recalls Kanazawa mayor Yukiyoshi Yamano. Thanks to its active neighborhood associations, Kanazawa boasts the highest public participation in civic affairs in all of Japan.

"The people there are all ready to do their best to help their own city," remarks Hong Kong-born Taiwanese ceramic artist Hsiao Li-hung (also known as Margaret Shiu Tan). "Every civic group meets on a regular basis. They don't discuss whether business is good, but what events this creative city should host next year. They plan schedules, ask famous exhibition planners from around the globe to give lectures, and share their experiences in event organization, such as how to block off roads and make local residents cooperate," notes Hsiao in conveying her first-hand impressions.

Culture at the Heart of Development

"From the Edo period to the present, Kanazawa's development has always revolved around culture. After such a long period of nurturing, every person in Kanazawa has a high degree of cultivation and a strong awareness of culture preservation," observes Kumiko Iwata, head of the Kanazawa Citizen's Art Center. "This is the biggest difference between Kanazawa and other places."

When it comes to investing in the cultural sophistication of its residents, Kanazawa City often demonstrates a stunning vision and ambition. The 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, located in the center of the city just across from the castle and Kenroku Garden, is a case in point. In 2004 the design of the museum – a circular building with glass walls inside and out and numerous courtyards – was awarded the Venice Architecture Biennale's Golden Lion.

Admission to the world-class museum, which was designed by Japanese architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, is free. Outside the museum, 12 metal horn bells rise from the lawn in pairs. When visitors speak into one, their voices travel through an underground pipe and can be heard through the other. The installation, called Klangfeld No. 3, is a work by German artist Florian Claar.

A simulated swimming pool, an installation by Argentine artist Leandro Erlich, makes people underneath the pool appear to be in the water, while they themselves see a realistic water effect when looking up.

"For a place as rural as Kanazawa, this museum truly means a massive expense," comments Hsiao.

"Kanazawa's idea is that local artists should be trained to become internationally acclaimed artists, so they need to get close to the works of top masters," notes Taiwanese sculptor Lai Yung-hsing. "It's because if you step out from the mountainous hinterland and reach only Tokyo with your first step, it will be too late. So it's better to go directly to Paris or London with your first step."

Turning Tradition into Gold

Kanazawa's special blend of tradition and modernity has proven lucrative. Kanazawa sees some 8 million tourists per year, roughly 20 times the local population. Tourism brings in almost 60 billion yen per year, contributing about 10 percent of the local GDP, which is almost twice as much as the nationwide average.

In a nutshell, Kanazawa knows how to preserve the old, while creating something new. The city's famous gold leaf accounts for 99 percent of Japan's total gold leaf output. In the past gold leaf – hammered into extremely thin sheets just 1/10,000 of a millimeter thick – was only used for temples and altars, for artwork and traditional crafts. But new contemporary uses include cosmetics, food, and interior furnishings. As a result, revenue has jumped ten-fold.

However, not all traditional crafts are as lucky as the gold leaf industry. Traditional craft items, which tend to be expensive and impractical, don't have much of a place in our fast-paced modern lifestyle.

Compared with 20 years ago, the number of traditional artisans in Kanazawa has declined by one third, while their output has shrunk by three fourths.

The turnover of Nosaku Lacquerware, a family business founded in 1780, has declined to three quarters of its heyday, because modern urbanites no longer use these expensive, exquisite items.

"Our most pressing problem is figuring out how to develop new products that are used in modern life," laments Yoshihisa Oka, who heads the company in its seventh generation.

How do you play a familiar old tune in a new fresh arrangement so that it becomes a hit with modern people? That's exactly the challenge that the entire city of Kanazawa faces.

Making the World Press the 'Like' Button

"If you ask me, I think Kanazawa is a very good product. Since the city possesses so many cultural elements, it is my top responsibility to see to it that the whole world knows they exist," offers Mayor Yamano. In the exclusive interview with CommonWealth Magazine, he spent considerable time talking about his administration's efforts to integrate private-sector resources, in order to give Kanazawa 100-percent wireless Internet coverage, so that visitors can go online anytime, upload photos of the city anywhere, and press the "Like" button whenever they like.

In two years the Hokuriku Shinkansen high-speed train will finally begin to service Kanazawa. Without doubt, transportation will become much more convenient then. But the question is whether shorter travel times will bring even more tourists to the ancient castle town or whether tourists who used to stay for a night or two will rush back on the same day. One thing, however, is sure: Kanazawa's future bears a lot of unknowns.

Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz