KANAZAWA - Tourists have been flocking to Kanazawa since the Hokuriku Shinkansen began operations last month. Once four hours away from Tokyo by train, the bullet train takes visitors to the central city of the Hokuriku region in about 2.5 hours.
Some tourists may feel like they are not so welcome in Kanazawa as few salesclerks call out to customers from the shops here, which is common at other tourist spots. However, warm hearts can be found among local people once the visitor steps closer. Fortunately, such opportunities are increasing here.
"This geisha district is preserved for a long time and designated as a historical street," said local volunteer guide Junjiro Matsuoka to a group of nine Australian students aged between 11 and 13 at the Higashi Chaya District in Kanazawa last month.
Matsuoka, 74, is a member of the Kanazawa Goodwill Guide Network (KGGN), a local volunteer group that offers English guides in Kanazawa free of charge. The group comprises about 100 members, who are sent to help tourists when requested.
KGGN was established in 1992 to offer foreign tourists the opportunity to enjoy Kanazawa and the traditional culture intrinsic to the city by welcoming them in English. During fiscal 1992, it conducted tour services for 51 foreign tourists, which increased to 906 in fiscal 2014, according to the group.
The Australian student group was introduced to KGGN through its travel agency, said Daniel Blomeley, 56, a teacher who headed the group. Matsuoka accompanied them from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., taking them to famous sightseeing locations, including Kenrokuen, one of the nation's most beautiful gardens. Although his English was not perfect, students listened, rapt, to his explanations.
"His English was simple, and easy to follow," said Riley Monahan, 11. "It was interesting because we don't have old buildings in Australia."
Matsuoka, who began volunteering after retiring from his job at a local department store, said: "I'm happy that people want to know about my hometown. There's a saying 'Kaga Hyakumangoku' (100 million fiefs), right? I'm proud of Kanazawa."
Kaga is the name of the domain that covered Kanazawa and its vicinity during the Edo period (1603-1867). The more fiefs a feudal lord had, the greater his power, which explains why Kanazawa locals have such pride in their town.
One way to get to know Kanazawa locals is to stay at one of the city's guesthouses, which have seen a great increase in the numbers of patrons since the first guesthouse was built in 2009. According to the Kanazawa Ryokan & Hotel Cooperative Association, there are 12 such facilities in Kanazawa, and eight of them are remodeled based on old traditional houses.
At Pongyi, the oldest guesthouse in Kanazawa, about 15 people, including hotel guests and locals, participated in a seasonal event of cooking botamochi, a traditional sweet made of steamed mochi rice and red bean paste on March 21, the day of the vernal equinox.
"We eat botamochi on the first day of spring," a staff member at the guesthouse said, "so, everybody, let's cook!"
Helped by a staff member of the guesthouse, everyone mashed steamed mochi rice and covered the rice ball with red bean paste. Although the foreign guests appeared confused at first, the small Japanese room was filled with smiles by the time the botamochi was ready to eat.
"I didn't expect this kind of event would be held at a guesthouse," said Annick Cousineau, 28, from Canada. "The atmosphere here is like a family. I stayed at a guesthouse in Australia shortly before I came here, but they just handed me a bed sheet, and that's it."
Pongyi holds such events once or twice a month to let guests and locals communicate with each other and have visitors learn Japanese culture. The guesthouse was remodeled from a kimono shop built around 100 years ago. Although it accommodates only 11 people, Pongyi was ranked 12th in the 2013 ranking of accommodation popular among foreign travelers in the nation, according to TripAdvisor, the world's largest travel site.
The staffers of the guesthouse keep their guests updated with travel information, including local events, so they can explore Kanazawa, Pongyi owner Masaki Yokokawa said.
"Kanazawa locals were not so friendly at the beginning, but they like welcoming visitors because they love Kanazawa, and have pride in living here," said Yokokawa, 53, who moved from Tokyo.
At the beginning, he said people around the guesthouse seemed wary of him. However, he began to feel their kindness as they gradually warmed to him and helped him in many ways, such as offering free vegetables and teaching tea ceremony at Pongyi's seasonal events.
"I want tourists to feel the warm hearts of Kanazawa locals by talking to them and staying in places like this," Yokokawa said.
Fascinating world of geisha
Hanako Baba is an okami female master of a popular teahouse - a place where geisha entertain guests - in Kanazawa. In her teahouse, new events began since November last year, in which visitors can enjoy seeing geisha dance and sing introductions by Baba in English.
The following is an excerpt of an interview with Baba.
The teahouse is a mysterious place for many people, so I decided to open the door of the secret house in an effort to illuminate the beauty of geisha and their fantastic performances in such a beautiful space.
I had worked as a ground staff member at a major airline company for seven years before I became an okami, after marrying the owner of the teahouse. However, I was just following the company's manual when I dealt with foreign customers in English back then.
Several years ago I started brushing up my English as customers from overseas began increasing here. They always ask me many questions such as "How do you wear a kimono?" "How many kimono do you have?" It's impressive that foreign people are interested in Japanese culture much more than we think.
It's actually hard for me to host the 1.5-hour show in English. I sometimes skip parts of the script that I prepared, have my English tutor rewrite it and then practice that. Still, I think it's important to explain this wonderful culture in my own words.
The opening of the Hokuriku Shinkansen line will definitely bring more visitors to Kanazawa. While I am preserving the tradition, I want more people to learn about the attractions of this city.
The event "Spring Geisha Evening in Kanazawa," organised by the Kanazawa Night Tourism Research Association, will be held every Wednesday and Friday night until May 8. For further details, please visit: