Fifty years ago, Buffalo and Kanazawa, Japan entered into a sister city relationship. You are cordially invited to experience the rich culture of Kanazawa and Japan in general at the Japan Culture Day on Sunday, November 4 from 12:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. at the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society. Admission is free.
This article about Kanazawa from September, 2009 is being reposted in conjunction with the 50th anniversary celebration:
Kanazawa, Japan, Buffalo's sister city there, is a former castle town founded over 400 years ago. I recently spent a week there. Despite being half a world apart, Kanazawa and Buffalo share many similarities. Both are mid-sized cities, and we both are proud of our respective nature, history, and culture.
The Maeda family ruled the Kanazawa region for just over 250 years. The head of the family, Toshiie, seemed to have a knack for picking the winning side in Japan's long series of wars that finally unified the country in 1600 under the Tokugawa family. As a reward, Toshiie was granted the richest land holding in Japan, outside of the ruling family. This was the Kaga region on the western coast of Japan, which today includes the Ishikawa, Toyama, and Fukui prefectures. The Maedas were so rich, they were said to be worth over 1,000,000 koku a year, a measurement of rice, the basic unit of income at the time. The next largest holding was worth only 770,000 koku, and down it went from there.
Toshiie located his capital in Kanazawa. Lying between two rivers and atop a low hill the castle was built according to good feng shui and strategic principles. A temple district was established to the northeast to protect the city from that unlucky direction. The Maeda's samurai retainers were told to live next to the castle, providing an additional line of defense, and the rest of the city was laid out in districts according to profession.
(A street in the Samurai District)
Finally, two entertainment districts were permitted to develop, one in the east and one in the west. Both are now preservation districts today; walking the streets and visiting the shops and museums that are housed in the former tea shops, one can imagine merchants and samurai patronizing the pleasure quarters, and the sound of shamisen music and loud laughter coming from second floor windows. One may still occasionally catch a glimpse of an actual geisha as she arrives at a restaurant to entertain with music and witty banter some well healed guests.
(The Higashi Chaya Entertainment District)
During the next 250 or so years of feudal rule, a central problem for the ruling class was that income was agriculturally based. According to the governing ideology, the only proper economic pursuit was agriculture, and trade was to be despised, putting merchants at the bottom of the social pyramid. As a consequence, while merchants followed their detested business and got rich, the samurai faced an economic crisis as their numbers and economic desires grew exponentially, while agricultural output rose only slowly. Many samurai and lords sunk into poverty and debt, but the Maeda family was too smart for that. Bucking the ideological leanings of their peers, the Maeda's encouraged and protected crafts and other industries. Kanazawa became a center of silk weaving and dying, and many crafts associated with the Japanese tea ceremony including ceramics and confectionaries. Gold and silver leaf work was by law permitted only in the Tokugawa family controlled cities of Tokyo and Kyoto, yet the trade flourished in Kanazawa, albeit secretly. The central government certainly knew of this flouting of its regulations, but given the power of the Maeda family, more than likely decided that don't-ask-don't-tell was the wisest response. With its location near the Japan Sea, Kanazawa was also a center of salt production and active trade with the northern island of Hokkaido.
It was during this time that the Maeda family constructed Kenrokuen Garden, today one of the three most famous in Japan. It is a strolling garden, and at a little over 25 acres in size, there is plenty of room to escape the pressures of the workaday world, even for a samurai lord. Strolling gardens were at their peak during the Edo period (1603-1868), when the aristocracy and feudal lords constructed them. Kenrokuen is open year round, and each season has its own beauty. Perhaps its most well known feature is Kotoji-toro, a stone lantern with two legs, said to resemble the bridge on a Japanese koto. It is an icon of both the garden and Kanazawa. One may notice the resemblance to the stone lantern in Buffalo's own Japanese Garden. That is no coincidence; the Japanese Garden in Delaware Park is a gift from Kanazawa to Buffalo.
Unfortunately for Kanazawa, the Maeda family was a little too slow to back the winning side during the overthrow of the Shogun's government, and so was excluded from the new government. Things got even worse with Japan's determined Westernization over the next several decades, and the traditional crafts and industries that had made the city so wealthy now lost their market. This was the time when Westerners such as Frank Lloyd Wright were able to scoop up thousands of Japanese wood block prints for a song because the Japanese themselves regarded these prints as vulgar. Kanazawa experienced a severe industrial downturn, and became a bit of a backwater.
Because the Americans recognized the value of its cultural heritage, Kanazawa (and Kyoto) was spared the intense American fire bombing that left, for example, 100,000 dead in Tokyo in just one night's raid. Largely because of this, Kanazawa is today the best-preserved castle town in Japan. Kanazawa has leveraged this cultural heritage to rebuild its prosperity, and is today a living center of Japanese arts and crafts, drawing tourists from around Japan and the world. In fact, just this past June Kanazawa was named a City of Crafts and Folk Arts by UNESCO.
You can experience a taste of Kanazawa this Thursday, September 17 at "Celebration of the Japanese Garden" fundraising event at Marcy Casino in Delaware Park. At 4:30 and 6:00 you can join a walking tour of the garden, and in the casino you can enjoy a display of ikebana, a spot of Japanese tea, and a slide show on Kanazawa. All proceeds will go to benefit the projects of the Friends of the Japanese Garden of Buffalo. Their upcoming project is to fund traineeships for two Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy staff to learn about Japanese Gardening in Japan in October 2009. The Olmsted gardeners will meet Japanese colleagues for an intercultural exchange and bring their experience back to Buffalo's Japanese Garden. Suggested donation is $15. For more information, call 716.830.8267.
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