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Edging Toward Japan: Celebrating Kanazawa, the heart of a historical region

A self-portrait by Clifton Karhu, a long-term resident of Kanazawa, is displayed. (Photo by Damian Flanagan)

By Damian Flanagan

    An American friend of mine, David Joiner, tells me that this year he is publishing a book called "Kanazawa." It's a work I am most looking forward to reading.

    It's little understood around the world that Japan is comprised of a myriad of regions that for much of their history were semi-independent domains. Cut off from one another by mountainous terrains, they proudly nurtured their own distinctive traditions, cuisines, ways of speaking and ruling clans.

    In fact, to truly understand Japan, one has to grasp first the myriad of regional differences. The regional cities of Japan are sometimes mistakenly perceived abroad as second-rate satellites to the great conurbations of Kanto (Tokyo) and Kansai (Kyoto-Osaka). But I think that, like Italian cities, they are more correctly understood as being their own mini suns, centres of their own cultural domain.

    A couple of years ago, following a lecture in Toyama and a short trip around the Japan Alps, I thought on the way home to drop in and see David Joiner for a night out in Kanazawa. It was a bitterly cold, February evening, a time of record snowfalls when even the Thunderbird train line between Kyoto and Kanazawa had to temporarily cease operation. I trudged across a maze of snowy back streets to meet David in a Japanese restaurant overlooking the rushing waters of the Asanogawa River.

    Originally from Cincinnati, David lived for some years in Vietnam and his first novel was set in that country. But a few years ago he bought a run-down, traditional style Japanese farmhouse in a village in the mountains outside Kanazawa. Bored of Western writers endlessly obsessing about Kyoto, he wanted to write a book that would capture the distinctive flavour and outstanding artistic traditions of Kanazawa, once the capital of the richest domain in Japan and boasting a fine castle and gardens.

    After testing together every local Ishikawa Prefecture sake that the restaurant had to offer, we set out amidst the piled up snow as David took me on a midnight tour of literary, historic Kanazawa. Rambling along the beautiful riverside we passed the houses where master stylist Izumi Kyoka and novelist Tokuda Shusei once lived and where the poet Basho stayed. Apparently the poet Muro Saisei was also a Kanazawa native and I learnt about the Finnish-American artist Clifton Karhu, a former resident. It was a revelation to me that Kanazawa had such a rich literary past.

    People walk in the snow at Kenrokuen garden in Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture, in this December 2020 photo. (Mainichi/Chinatsu Ide)

    The following day I revisited Kanzawa's famous Kenrokuen garden, one of the most famous gardens in Japan, but discovered it submerged under a foot of snow.

    In his "Narrow Road to the Deep North," the poet Basho wrote a famous haiku about the garden as the intense heat of summer finally gave way to autumn cool.

    Still burning bright red,

    The evening sun relentless,

    In the autumn wind.

    There was though no redness or relentless sun in evidence on the day I visited. I made a few seasonal adjustments and turned Basho's poem into,

    Icy whiteness everywhere,

    The midday sun clouded over,

    Catching a spring cold.

    Perhaps Basho's own famous journey to the Deep North is best understood as a journey into the myriad diversities of regional Japan, as he wandered from one fascinating domain to another.

    We should regard Basho as a man who understood that to uncover great art and culture you sometimes need to leave the capital behind and traipse provincial paths.


    (This is Part 33 of a series)

    In this column, Damian Flanagan, a researcher in Japanese literature, ponders about Japanese culture as he travels back and forth between Japan and Britain.


    Damian Flanagan is an author and critic born in Britain in 1969. He studied in Tokyo and Kyoto between 1989 and 1990 while a student at Cambridge University. He was engaged in research activities at Kobe University from 1993 through 1999. After taking the master's and doctoral courses in Japanese literature, he earned a Ph.D. in 2000. He is now based in both Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, and Manchester. He is the author of "Natsume Soseki: Superstar of World Literature" (Sekai Bungaku no superstar Natsume Soseki).

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