26 December 2023

Kanazawa's Timeless Charm: The Higashi Chaya District


Take a step back in time as you wander the cobblestoned paths of the Higashi Chaya District in Kanazawa. Each alley, lined with age-old buildings, is a gateway to the Edo period (1603 CE - 1867 CE). Here, the vibrant social culture of Kanazawa, steeped in tradition and elegance, is not just remembered but vividly experienced.

Join us on this journey to discover the enduring splendor and the lively social heritage that still thrives in the heart of Kanazawa.


  • The Chaya Culture in Kanazawa
  • The Higashi Chaya District: A Portal to the Past
  • Shima: Kanazawa's Historical Gem
  • Journeying from Historic to Contemporary 

The Chaya Culture in Kanazawa

During the Edo period, chayas (teahouses) were exclusive establishments where people, primarily affluent merchants and townspeople, held social gatherings with entertainment. Chayas would answer to the requests of their patrons, and elaborately orchestrate banquets, encompassing a curated selection of catered cuisine, fine sake, and skilled performances by geishas. Access was often limited to personal referrals, adding to its mystique.

The chaya not merely offered a place for enjoyment but also played an important role in upholding the art of sophisticated social interaction. A deep understanding and appreciation of the arts was essential. Both patrons and geishas were held to a high standard of cultural proficiency, including expertise in traditional musical instruments like the koto, understanding Japanese poetry, and mastering the art of chado, the way of tea. This unique social setting fostered an exclusive world where the pursuit of iki (chic, stylish) was paramount.

The Higashi Chaya District: A Portal to the Past

There are three major chaya districts in Kanazawa, the Higashi Chaya District being the largest and most prominent. Officially established in 1820 by the Kaga Domain, its streets, with their distinctive lattice doors and second-story buildings, have retained the ambiance of the Edo period. Recognized as an Important Traditional Building Preservation Area, the district beautifully encapsulates Kanazawa's samurai-era architectural and cultural ethos.

In the Higashi Chaya District, your eyes are drawn to the unique wooden lattices adorning the buildings. Known as kimusuko, these lattices are a defining feature of the area, beautifully balancing visibility and privacy. From within, one can easily gaze out, while from the outside, the view is cleverly obscured.

Shima: Kanazawa's Historical Gem

Nestled near the center of Higashi Chaya District, Shima, established in 1820, holds the distinction of being a teahouse in the area to have been preserved in its original form. Designated as an Important Cultural Property, it exemplifies the sophistication of chaya architecture.

Teahouses typically feature rooms for banquets and entertainment on the second floor, while the first floor houses a kitchen and a space for geishas to prepare, and store their instruments and other items.

Shima showcases stylish and detailed teahouse architecture. The upper floor's unique design is marked by the absence of large walls, with rooms divided by sliding fusuma doors. When these fusuma doors are opened, they reveal a stage for geisha performances, framed by a golden folding screen and a traditional drum.

On the ground floor is a beautifully crafted small courtyard garden at the center. This quaint Japanese garden creates a unique and intimate world of its own.

The dressing rooms for the geishas were also located on this floor, along with the room of the okami-san, the proprietress, a stone chamber, and an irori (traditional Japanese hearth). An array of decorative hair combs once worn by geishas and beautifully embellished sake vessels, providing a window into the artistic tastes of the period, are also displayed on this floor. 

The kitchen, also located on the first floor, was mostly used for preparing beverages as all the food that was served was catered. You can see old sake carafes, known as tokkuri, lined in front of an aged wooden cabinet. 

At the back of the kitchen lies Kansonan, a small tea room, where for 800 yen, visitors can relax while enjoying matcha and Japanese sweets. You can relish the serene luxury of enjoying matcha tea, immersed in the gentle transition of the seasons outside the window.

Shima invites you on a journey through the rich tapestry of Kanazawa's cultural history, a blend of architectural wonder and a deep-seated respect for the past.

Journeying from Historic to Contemporary

Now, the Higashi Chaya District has blossomed into a vibrant fusion of heritage and modernity, captivating the hearts of many visitors.

A quick stroll through its streets might take a mere 15 minutes, but the magic unfolds when you delve deeper. Time stretches as you shop for exquisite time-honored crafts, and savor sweet delights in cozy cafes.

Within the bustling array of shops in the Higashi Chaya District, one familiar and lively shop is Hakuichi, famed for its Kanazawa gold leaf creations. Here, you'll find a captivating array of products embellished with gold leaf, alongside exquisite art panels and folding screens. 

View Hakuichi Collection

But even before entering the shop, visitors are captivated by Hakucihi's Kanazawa gold leaf soft serve ice cream. You can experience the delicacy and beauty of Kanazawa gold leaf right before your eyes.

A single sheet of gold leaf turns soft serve ice cream into a dazzling treat. The magic happens in the final touch when the gold leaf is transferred onto the ice cream, making each serving a delicate work of art. 

From experiencing the quiet elegance of a 200-year-old teahouse, echoing the art and refinement of the Edo period, to exploring the bustling, modern shops that mix old with new, Kanazawa warmly welcomes you to discover both the charm of its past and the energy of its present.