Perhaps unknown to Lord Maeda Toshiie and his entourage at the time, his arrival to Kanazawa castle in 1583 would lay the ground work for what is now known as the bustling, modern day city of Kanazawa. Four hundred and twenty eight years later the historical moment continues to be marked by a highly-celebrated annual event drawing a pilgrimage of tourists to the "Hyakumangoku Matsuri," held the first weekend of every June.
Said to mean "Marsh of Gold," Kanazawa is the capital city of Ishikawa prefecture and is home to over 450,000 residents, flanked by the Sea of Japan to the left and the rolling green Japan Alps to the right, located in central western Honshu. Drawing over 7 million visitors a year, Kanazawa has long been a regular destination with domestic tourists but remains a relatively unknown gem to foreign visitors as it currently remains off Japan's highly efficient, world class Shinkansen (bullet train) network. That, however, could be set to change with plans for the Shinkansen to reach Kanazawa by 2014.
The weekend events begin with the release of 1,500 beautifully hand-painted lit paper lanterns of all sizes at dusk to slowly float down the Asano River to the thundering sound of Japanese Taiko drums. Thousands of onlookers line both sides of the Asano River's banks and its overhead bridges absorbed by the mesmerizing lights gently flowing and turning at the river's pace. At the same time 10,000 local school children march the streets carrying red lanterns and also pounding Taiko drums in celebration. The evening atmosphere is electric and sets the perfect mood for a weekend of festivities.
Starting at Kanazawa Station's impressively designed, contemporary "Drum Gate," the festival's main event, the Hyakumangoku Parade begins in the afternoon winding its way through several city blocks, re-enacting the Lord's arrival all those years ago. With Hyakuman meaning a million and goku being a measurement of rice production, one million goku translates into a quality harvest of roughly 150,000 tonnes of rice. The parade showcases thousands of local performers in 16 th century costumes including Samurai warriors, infantry men, princesses, marching bands, Shinto priests and Shishi-mai lion dancers. Even Lord Maeda himself makes an appearance, annually portrayed by a different famous Japanese actor drawing applause from the crowd as the parade draws to a close.
Following the re-enactment, the Hyakumangoku dance parade kicks off with Japanese companies sending kimono-clad employees as dance teams to take part in what has become a 10,000-person event. The colourful kimonos create a vibrant sea of dancers gracefully choreographed in traditional Japanese style to the sound of classical music. Spectators are free to join in as the dancing continues into the evening.
Throughout the day, the streets lining the Oyama Shrine buzz in a carnival-like atmosphere with food stalls serving up a plethora of traditional Japanese fare including fried yakisoba noodles, takoyaki octopus balls, grilled meats, savoury pancakes and flavoured snow cones. Other booths offer up trinkets and toys for the newest generations of festival-goers. The Oyama shrine was dedicated to Lord Maeda Toshiie by his successor and constructed in 1599 on Mount Utatsu then later relocated to its present day site. Uncommon to Japan, it features European elements including a large stained-glass window and a unique gate as it was designed by Dutch architect Holtman.
Although the Hyakumangoku Festival alone makes Kanazawa worth visiting, the city features an abundance of other quality sites comparable to better known destinations in Japan. Left untouched during the Second World War, Kanazawa has many well preserved highlights including the quaint cobblestone streets of the traditional Higashi Chaya area, the historical Nagamachi Samauri House, the vast Kenrokuen Gardens and Kanazawa castle. Other popular modern sites include the expansive Kanazawa Station and Kanazawa's 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art featuring the permanent and must-see exhibit entitled "The Swimming Pool" by Leandro Erlich.
Kanazawa is well serviced by bus, overnight train and express trains from Tokyo. Alternatively cheap domestic flights are often available servicing nearby Komatsu, which is a 40-minute bus ride from downtown Kanazawa. Visit www.kanazawa-tourism.com for a list of sites and photos.