How far can 10,000 yen take you beyond the borders of Tokyo? The Cheapo City Escape Challenge is a series of posts about solo overnight trips from Tokyo that cost just one banknote.
Kanazawa is a mini-Kyoto with quiet streets, wandering geisha, and delicious local cuisine, so it’s no wonder it’s a popular spot to visit. However, for those based in Tokyo, the temptation of bullet train trips can quickly evaporate when you see the prices (¥14,000 one way!). We know a few tricks, however, to achieving a wonderful weekend away (or at least a mid-week trip) for a single note. Our itinerary includes all the top Kanazawa sights, but we had to cut a few corners, mainly on food. If you are super budget-conscious, then stick with our Tokyo to Kanazawa itinerary, but if you have a few extra yen to spare, you can look at the treat options we’ve included.
Things to remember
- You’ll be doing a lot of walking and cycling on this trip, so wear comfortable shoes and bring a safety-pin for any dresses (a cycling necessity)
- Things are tight: Bring a packed meal for your first early breakfast in Kanazawa and your budget will thank you.
Travel: Getting from Tokyo to Kanazawa via night bus
Never glamorous, never enjoyable, night buses are the cheapest form of transport in Japan and the staple of a budget mini-break. Leaving late at night from central locations in Tokyo and arriving at their destinations at ungodly hours, buses offer a two-in-one of accommodation and transport. While a trip on a luxury bus can end up costing close to a bullet-train ticket, the budget options are pretty cheap.
We suggest Kosoku Bus to find the best prices as the site displays different companies (whereas JR and Willer only list their own). The cheapest buses on this route are ¥2,500 one way and can be found mid-week, but not during peak periods like Golden Week. They were however available during cherry blossom season.
If you’re not feeling the bus option, here are some alternative ways to travel to Kanazawa.
Accommodation: Share Hotels HATCHi
A modern hostel with a cafe, fully equipped kitchen, comfy beds, and some of the fanciest shower rooms we’ve seen, this place is a steal. Located just across the river from the Higashi-Chaya District, the hostel is walkable from the station (around 15–20 minutes) and is near bus stops and city bike-rental stations.
As with all hostels, prices fluctuate depending on the season, but we snagged dorm spaces for ¥1,800 per person and had a solid night’s sleep (much needed after a night bus, we assure you).
The hostel will store your luggage for you and have wifi, power sockets and tempting cakes in their cafe, so you can plan your day from the comfort of the lounge or cafe.
Day 1: Tea districts, castles, and 21st-century art
Luckily, Kanazawa is a very walkable city, with beautiful streets tempting you to take a detour and alleys crying out to be explored. Day one will give you a chance to thoroughly stretch your bus-cramped legs and explore the main tea district, the food market, the castle grounds, and the art museum. Once you climb off the bus, wake up with a walk to the hostel—it’s around 15–20 minutes by foot and will get you grounded with the area. Once there, ask if you can drop your bags, maybe take a break in the cafe, and then prepare to head off to start exploring!
Explore the Higashi and Kazuemachi Chaya Districts
Bag-free and semi-awake, you can begin exploring the main tea district of Kanazawa known as Higashiya Chaya.
Traditional wooden houses line the streets, many transformed into shops and cafes while a couple have been preserved as a teahouse and a museum. You’ll notice pretty fast that there’s a lot of gold around here, from nail polish to sparkling sake, and edible options too. If you continue beyond the tea district, you’ll find countless temples (some with hidden ninjas) and can wander back with plenty of time for window shopping.
Just across the river is the smaller (and quieter) Kazuemachi District. Wander over and listen out for geisha practicing their musical instruments from open windows.
Pop into Omicho Market for lunch
Filled with traders and local shoppers, the market has been in business since the days of Edo and shows no signs of slowing down. Fresh fish is definitely the highlight but there are local vegetables and plenty of street food stalls too. This is where you grab lunch!
Choose from grilled seafood, croquettes, yakitori, or anything that takes your fancy. For those on a tight budget, opt for the bulkier croquette option with a skewer on the side (around 500 yen depending on your choice). If you don’t mind spending a little extra, we suggest heading into one of the on-site restaurants for a kaisendon (rice bowl topped with fresh fish); you can get a decent one from ¥1,000 (and up). There are also sushi joints.
Admire the 21st Century Contemporary Art Museum
Head out into the fresh air and stroll through the castle park and towards the 21st Century Contemporary Art Museum.
A widely respected gallery in Japan, here you’ll find unusual displays in an equally unusual building. Designed by the architectural firm SANAA, the circular building has plenty of free areas to explore and interactive installations outside.
Unfortunately, the swimming pool piece known from Tinder and Instagram alike is in the paid section. This area includes a few permanent exhibits as well as temporary ones, so admission price varies. When we visited it was only ¥360. The paid section is worthwhile if you can manage it, but the other areas are fun if you can’t.
Learn about Kanazawa Castle
Once you’re feeling contemporary again, stroll back to the castle park for a free guided tour. Run by volunteer guides daily at 9:30 am and 3:30 pm (March to December, only on Saturdays in Jan and Feb), the tours are a great way to get aquainted with the castle grounds. Meet at the rest area near the Ishikawa-mon Gate and be shown around the Toshiie and Matsu areas. These are the paid sections of the castle, so if you arrive early you can purchase your Kenrokuen +1 ticket.
The Kenrokuen +1 ticket costs ¥500 and includes entry to the famous garden and one other attraction (Kanazawa Castle or a choice of four museums and an art gallery). If it’s rainy, maybe pick a museum, otherwise we recommend the castle as the displays on renovation techniques inside are interesting and the city views are lovely.
Dinner and an early night (probably…)
Once you’re done exploring the past you will no doubt be pretty exhausted, so it’s time to head on back to the hostel via the market. If you want to make use of the hostel kitchen, pick up some fresh fish and veg at Omicho Market, or find some bargains at the supermarket as discount time kicks in. Whatever you make/buy, ensure you have leftovers for breakfast tomorrow. (If you have extra cash, the hostel does a traditional breakfast, which you need to book the evening before).
Settle in, try the hostel’s lovely rain showers, and catch up on sleep. Or, if you somehow have energy, head out to Kazuemachi for traditional drinking spots, explore the craft beer scene, or head to lively Katamachi for bars and clubs.
Day 2: Stunning gardens and samurai districts
Day 2 will take you a little further afield, but luckily the city bike scheme has got you covered. If you don’t fancy the sound of cycling around, there’s a ¥500 bus pass you can use too, which gives unlimited rides to all the tops spots on the loop bus. We have more details on that in our getting around Kanazawa article.
Breakfast and bike rental
Feast on your leftovers (hopefully no one ate them in the night!) and head out towards the Higashi Chaya District.
Just across the bridge you’ll find a Machi-nori bike rental spot complete with green bikes galore and a small machine. Here you can register for one-day use (¥200) using a credit or debit card (we used a British debit card which worked fine). You can rent bikes for up to 30 minutes and if you return the bike within 20 minutes, there’s no additional charge, so you can rent and return them throughtout the day. Since Kanazawa isn’t that big, it’s easy to keep within the 20-minute limit, but if you do go over it’s only an extra ¥200 anyway. So, pick a bike, check the map handily attached, and head off the Kenrokuen (bike stop number 15).
Wander through Kenrokuen Gardens
One of Japan’s top three gardens (a big deal, basically), Kenrokuen is probably the most famous spot in Kanazawa.
Known for the elegant snow protectors of winter and the plum blossoms of ealy spring, the landscapes within the garden change steadily throughout the year, meaning one visit is never enough. Kenrokuen means ‘the six sublimities’ and refers to spaciousness, artificiality, antiquity, seclusion, plentiful water, and expansive views—the requirements for a perfect garden.
If you arrive in time you can join the free tour at 9:30 am which takes just under an hour. Alternatively you can explore yourself and enjoy the gardens at your own pace.
Try traditional jibuni for lunch
Jibuni is one of the most popular example of the local cuisine called Kaga ryori. Using duck in a simmered broth, the dish is simple but substantial and a firm favorite with the locals.
If you get hungry during your park stroll, you’ll find a small restaurant within the garden serving it up for lunch (right by the oldest fountain in Japan) for ¥900. Served with tea and enjoyed on a bench in the sun, there are few things as enjoyable as lunch in the garden. If you prefer a restaurant, check out our guide to the best Kaga ryori speciality restaurants in town.
Stroll through the Nagamachi Samurai District
Hope back on a bike and cycle on down to the Samurai District, a preserved section of streets and museums to explore.
Stone-paved streets with earthen walls will take you right back to the city’s ancient past in no time. While many of the original samurai homes were sold and knocked down after the Meiji period (October 23, 1868 to July 30, 1912) began, some remain and they are beautifuly maintained. The most popular is the Nomura Residence, which has a small but very beautiful garden—however, at ¥550 it is out of budget, but those with spare change would do well to visit.
Nearby, the Shinise Kinenkan Museum has been restored to show a traditional store of the time as it was once a pharmacy, and costs an in-budget ¥100.
A little further on is the Ashigaru Shiryokan Museum, which is free and shows the lives of poorer samurai as their popularity declined.
Visit the Nishi Chaya District
Cycle across the river and head to bike station 10, closest to the quiet Nishi Chaya District.
With far fewer visitors, this tea district is a lot more peaceful, with only a few cafes, shops, and a small museum located in one of the preserved buildings. Walking along the main street is pretty relaxing and you may be lucky enough to hear some shamisen practice as you wander past. We even glimpsed a geisha reading by the window and waited to see if she was a prop, but she wasn’t!
The museum is called the Nishi Chaya Shiryokan and is a little way along the street on your left. With a small garden and the layout of a teahouse, it’s nice, but unfortunately most of the information is only in Japanese.
If you have time, we suggest you pop your head into Myouryuji Temple, aka Ninja Temple, which is just next door. Tours costs a non-budget ¥1,000, but we heard it’s pretty fun to see the trap doors and secret passageways.
Nearby are A LOT of non-ninja temples, so take your time exploring those if you like, by walking towards bike station 22 (possibly treating yourself to some sweet potato slivers from the cute shop along the way).
Tuck into udon for dinner and catch the bus
After all your cycling you’ll be pretty tuckered, so head into town and settle in for some noodles, which are pretty cheap at joints like Dainukiya.
Dainukiya serves udon but also “dainuki” (the tradition of serving udon toppings without the actual udon). The plain noodles start at a budget-permitted ¥550, with a chicken and rice bowl for ¥450. There’s also the option of trying the Kanazawa dish of curry udon topped with a local Noto pork cutlet coming out of budget (but totally worth it) at ¥1,150.
When you’re full, cycle on back to the hostel to collect your bags before cycling on back to the train station (or do this before eating if you prefer!) and you’ll be exhausted enough to catch at least a few winks on that bus journey back to the big city.
Tokyo to Kanazawa — City Escape Challenge Overview
|Transport||1||Bus: Tokyo to Kanazawa||¥2,500|
|Food||1||Lunch: Omicho Market||¥500|
|Sightseeing||1 + 2||Kanazawa Castle: First use of Kenrokuen +1 Pass||¥500|
|Sightseeing||1||21st Century Contemporary Art Museum||Free|
|Food||1 + 2||Dinner: Supermarket Sushi and Breakfast Onigiri||¥750|
|Accommodation||1||HACHI Hostel: Dorm Room||¥1,800|
|Transport||2||Bike Rental: One Day’s Use||¥200|
|Sightseeing||2||Kenrokuen Garden: Second use of Kenrokeun +1 pass||Free|
|Sightseeing||2||Samurai District: Shinise Kinenkan Museum||¥100|
|Sightseeing||2||Samurai District: Ashigaru Shiryokan Museum||Free|
|Sightseeing||2||Nishi Chaya District: Nishi Chaya Shiryokan||Free|
|Food||2||Dinner: Soba or Udon||¥550|
|Transport||2||Bus: Kanazawa to Tokyo||¥2,500|
So there you have it—a whole city break for just a tad over 10,000 yen (not quite as catchy we admit). If you like the idea of mini trips with strict budget rules and possibly bagels, check out the Kusatsu challenge. Or try out the Yunessun challenge for some unusual bathing options. If you like your day trips shorter and less financially controlled, here are 25 ideas easy trips from Tokyo to tempt you instead.