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Ishikawa, Japan: A different side of modern Japan

TIME : 2016/2/27 9:55:45

My name is Jamie of the ignoble House Lafferty, the first of my name. History does not remember my forebears – other than the small miracles of getting through the days, my family has achieved little of note. No trades have been handed down, no particular skill sets nurtured, no businesses inherited.

As such, I've always been free to choose to do exactly what I wanted to do and when, whether that was working in McDonald's, or in a psychiatric hospital, or as a writer. I like this freedom and, McDonald's aside, I know I'm not disappointing any of my relatives by doing what I do.

In Ishikawa​, Japan, for a great many people things are very different. Japan is a great country for tradition anyway, but Ishikawa​ is home to a disproportionately high number of people who have great stacks of ancestors peering over their shoulders. Sake makers, kimono dyers, ryokan​ owners, potters, confectioners … Hundreds of years of expertise and expectation bear down on them – they carry a name and a trade that must live on through them, just as it has done since the Edo period.

That so many traditions live on in a small area is down to a couple of small flukes – the first being that the ruling Maeda​ clan decided to invest in art and culture in the 17th century, when many of their rivals were seeking to make war. The fruit from that remarkable commitment continues to be gathered today. Just as importantly, during the Second World War, Kanazawa​ escaped the fire-bombing campaign which razed so much of the rest of the country to the ground.

With history on their side, the current generation of Ishikawa artisans have more weight to bear than most. How many of them considered breaking away, as we might at home? But then again, why run away from success? 


Japan's is the healthiest diet in the world, they say. Many of the world's longest-lived people – including 117-year-old Misao Okawa who died on April 1 – hail from here, but once  the country opened up to the West, especially after the Second World War, diets and attitudes began to change. Like pretty much everywhere else in the world, the Japanese now consume sugar in a way they never did before, but that's not to say sugar only arrived with peacetime. For a glimpse into the country's sweet-toothed past, Kanazawa's​ Morihachi​ is as much as museum as it is a shop.

The Morihachi​ family here can trace their roots back through 18 generations of confectioners to 1625, when the founder started making rakugan, a hard dry sweet made of soy flower and sugar. The traditional tea making ceremony is held in high regard in Kanazawa​, having been imported here from Kyoto when the Maeda​ clan emigrated to Ishikawa​ (Kaga​, as it was then known) in 1583. With the arrival of the tea came the need for sweets and the Morihachi​ family seized the opportunity.

Almost 400 years later, they have outlets across Japan, including 10 in Tokyo, but their home remains in Kanazawa​. Upstairs from their shop, a forest of wooden sweet moulds fill large glass cabinets, some cracked through age and wear. They take the form of seashells, scripture, birds, fish and plants; the Maeda​ clan symbol, a satisfyingly plump plum blossom, features heavily too.

For visitors to this shop, there's also a chance to make your own sweets, strange dry little things that they are. The technique hasn't changed in four centuries but, as is the case with so much in Japan, even those things which look simple can be amazingly complex.


Just across the road from Morihachi, no one seems more relaxed about the weight of expectation on his shoulders than Toshio Ohi, the 11th generation heir to the Ohiyaki​ dynasty. The fact that there's a 500-year-old tree in his back garden? No big deal. That his dad is a living national treasure? "It's what I grew up with," he says.

The Ohi family fortune also rose with the Maeda​ Clan and the tea ceremony, when the forefather arrived with the Urasenke​ grand tea master in 1666. Each time the head of the Maeda​ clan invited an official guest, they would hold a tea ceremony – and commission the Ohis to make the necessary vessels. Japan and the entire world would change in the intervening years, but the family kept doing the same thing, crafting incredibly delicate ceramics – especially tea ceremony paraphernalia – for use and sale. Toshio, for his part, seems gently amused by the whole thing, particularly when I sit down for a cup of tea with him and he informs me that the one from which I'm drinking pre-dates the United States' Declaration of Independence.

Like a great many people in his position, for a time he toyed with the idea of leaving the family business. He and his father would fight like tigers when Toshio was a teenager, and the youngster believed he would go on to do something else entirely – hang the 10 generations behind him. But, perhaps inevitably, he came back and now carries his family name with pride. "No one said anything when I was a child," he says. "But I always felt like someone ways telling me I had a heavy responsibility." His son undoubtedly knows what's expected of him too, but has enrolled into a ceramics course at university without too much rancour.

The Ohi HQ today is brand new, as are many of the pieces on sale in the shop, while out the back, centuries of Japanese pottery have been collected for display in a neat museum. Ohi ware is today held in such regard that examples have been acquired by ceramic museums around the world, but the family holds onto its most important pieces. 


For 364 days a year, the town of Yamashiro​, 50 kilometres to the south west of Kanazawa​, feels far quieter than the prefectural capital. But then along comes the early summer festival of Shobu-yu Matsuri​ and Yamashiro​ loses its collective mind. Hundreds of years of history and tradition violently collide with several weeks' worth of booze over the course of one hot, crazy day in June. Two hundred young men, drunker than they'll be at any other time of the year, gather to drag a gargantuan float through town – a vast, portable shrine stuffed with irises, large enough to crush a man. Grandfathers, fathers and sons come together to share in the madness as the shrine hurtles around town, carrying all before it.

Amid this chaos stands Araya Totoan​, one of the most splendid ryokans​ anywhere in Japan. Originally built in 1639, it also has links all the way back to the Maeda​ clan and was constructed to make the most of a natural hot spring in the town. The incumbent Nagai family have been managing the property since the start and have kept their wonderful property contemporary, achieving the tricky balance between comfort and tradition. For many foreigners, staying at ryokans​ can be a daunting experience, but at Araya, if you don't want to sleep on a futon, you can have a bed; if you don't want to flaunt your nakedness in public, you can take a room with a private onsen​ bath (it uses the same hot spring waters, without you having to bare all to strangers.) The kaiseki​ dinners here are spectacular too, all served with local Kutani​ ceramics, local Yamanaka​ lacquerware​, and plenty of Ishikawan​ sake. 


Perhaps I was wrong to say that history won't remember anyone in my family. My grandfather's Second World War service record can be looked up by anyone – his medals are among my family's few prized possessions. I thought of him when I met Hiroshi Matsuda, a nonagenarian wagasa​ (a traditional paper umbrella) maker in Kanazawa​. Had Matsuda-san and my grandfather gone to school together, they'd have been in the same year; instead, they fought against each other during the war. Not directly, of course, but for a few years, theirs were different sides of the same bloody coin.

Matsuda-san was making wagasa​ before the conflict started, and almost as soon as it ended, he went back to doing the same thing. For the next seven decades he sat in his workshop hand-making the little umbrellas to be used at weddings and festivals, and it's there you'll find him now. Today he's deaf as a post, but keener to have visitors than ever. Curiously, he doesn't have an apprentice – something the prefectural government is looking to change before his knowledge is lost. For his part, Matsuda-san is pretty relaxed about the whole thing – almost nothing has changed for him over the last 70 years and he doesn't see a reason for it to now. "But it's good to meet young people," he told me through a translator. "Every time I shake their hand, it keeps me alive for a little longer." 




The new Hokuriku Shinkansen​ (bullet train) line gives access from Tokyo to the prefecture. See


One of the very best ryokans​ anywhere in Japan, Araya Totoan in Yamashiro Onsen​ offers a mix of tradition and comfort that's hard to beat. Rooms for two, including a spectacular kaiseki​ meal, start from $360. See


For bespoke itineraries around Ishikawa, or anywhere in Japan, talk to the experts at the Real Japan. Their head office is in Kanazawa, giving them deep insight into the region. See