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January 17, 2009

Maria Visconti experiences tea and tranquillity in an ancient Japanese district once swarming with samurai and geisha. Past the red lacquer stairs polished by the passage of a thousand stockinged feet -there is a red chamber dominated by an intriguing scroll painting. Taking up most of the back wall and against a gold silk background, a young woman Preserved ... a scroll painting at the sits in a summer yukata (light Kaikaro tea house Photo: Maria cotton kimono), her arms Visconti wrapped around an outdoor balustrade, her head reclined over her hands as if overwhelmed by the heat. Her fan has fallen and lies at her naked feet. The erotic line of her neck reveals snow-white skin. A magazine, or perhaps a novella, rests open by her side. Is she crying or is she daydreaming? Could she possibly be one of the entertainers of this house relaxing on a hot summer's afternoon before her night duties begin? The 180-year-old Kaikaro tea house, in the Higashi Chaya district of Kanazawa, was last redecorated during the art-deco period and the woman in the painting could have been drawn by Klimt. Lacquered screens and sumptuous kimono on stands adorn the rooms. In one of them, the tatami floor shimmers a soft gold. Woven not of straw - as is customary - but of gold ribbons, this room has a special significance. Originally the ribbons tactfully tied discreet money parcels given by customers to their favourite entertainers. The geisha donated the ribbons to the house. Over the years the accumulated booty was big enough to weave a floor covering. How many parcels changed hands, how many services provided, how much laughter - and tears - once filled these rooms are questions that hang like a presence in the softly lit atmosphere. The painting of the daydreamer in the red chamber makes even more sense after seeing the gold-woven tatami. We follow in the wake of our guide who, clad in an immaculate kimono, seems to glide through a maze of rooms. Our hostess who politely avoids answering questions about the cost of private functions - leaves us at the public tearooms, from where we can glimpse the world through the lattice on the front window. We have a cup of tea and a handmade sweet. The Kaikaro tea house, succumbing to the increased international interest in geisha houses (after the book and film Memoirs Of A Geisha) is open to the public during the day for guided visits and a cup of tea before regular entertainment programs resume in the evenings. Kanazawa has a long association with gold (Kanazawa literally means "marshes of gold"). Ninety per cent of all gold leaf in

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Japan comes from here. Also known as "Little Kyoto" - because it rivalled the ancient capital in the lavishness of its geisha districts - Kanazawa has beautifully preserved old quarters where ancient merchant houses are now converted to boutiques and restaurants. Hakuza, the gold-leaf shop, produces exquisite jewellery and ornaments. I can picture throngs of old gold merchants converging on the tea-house district ready to spend up big to be entertained. Conversely, we are told, the entertainment district was out of bounds for the local samurai class, which had its own quarters in the then-outskirts of town. Today, Naga-machi is an exquisite pocket of traditional samurai houses with sprawling gardens (unlike the merchants' houses, which are tall and narrow). Strolling along the painstakingly preserved, quiet, winding streets, I catch glimpses of trained conifers over wooden gates, ornate tile roofs, rain chains and discreet louvered look-outs from where householders can screen visitors without being seen themselves. Peace times were lean times for samurai. The triumphant would retire to big houses under the umbrage of their victorious commander and undertake duties as martial arts teachers while waiting for the next conflict. Lesser samurai had it tougher but would find solace in the artful making of ornate kites and other artistic pursuits such as poetry. Some accepted temporary employment as bodyguards. Others reverted to farming. Leaderless guns-for-hire (ronin), whose chiefs had been ousted, could only roam the streets in despair - often drowning their sorrows in warm sake. Kanazawa's old samurai district is now inhabited by patrician families who live surrounded by channelled water in a virtual island, just minutes away from the distinguished designer haunts. A few of these exquisitely preserved houses are open to visitors. Kenrokuen Gardens, next to the Kanazawa castle, is considered to be one of Japan's three best gardens and features one of its trademarks, the ubiquitous method of protecting huge pine branches from snapping under the weight of snow. Ropes arranged in a conical shape hold the branches up from November 1 and become themselves enveloped in snow and ice, creating an eerie winter landscape. Garden lovers the world over visit Kenrokuen year-round. One couple recently visited for the fourth time to see the garden change during each of the four seasons. A magical place awaits just a five-minute walk from Kenrokuen. When we pass under the low gate of Gyokusenen, the Nishida family garden, the feel is of entering a secret walled garden. This green gem crammed with ancient trees and shrubs attracts the experts who relish in this smaller-scale paradise where, at the time of our visit, a choir of crickets adds an extra dimension. Created by a Korean-born chamberlain to the Maeda family in the late 16th century, it has been added to and cared for by generations of expert gardeners. The tiny tea pavilion used for tea ceremonies has a 60-centimetre hatch-like entrance that prevented the visitor from entering armed (the sword would get jammed), reminding the guest to follow the ancient practice of purity and serenity necessary for the appreciation of a tea ceremony. Stone lanterns, ponds full of fish, dripping water on stone and moss-covered bridges create an enchanted space. Our day finishes with dinner at one of the little Omicho market eateries, a must not only to admire "Kanazawa's kitchen" but to experience what countless businessmen have over the centuries. With fewer than half-a-million inhabitants, Kanazawa feels vibrant, modern and sophisticated but like most foreign visitors, I fall in love with the intriguing old geisha and samurai quarters and that sleeping girl in a yukata. Maria Visconti travelled courtesy of JNTO. FAST FACTS

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Getting there The nearest major international airports are Tokyo and Osaka. Malaysia Airlines has fares to either city for $926 with a change of aircraft in Kuala Lumpur, while Philippine Airlines charges $1100 with a change of aircraft in Manila. Kanazawa's airport is in the city of Komatsu, a 40-minute bus ride, ¥1100 (about $16) from central Kanazawa. Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airlines fly there from Tokyo for ¥17,239 one-way, not including tax. Kanazawa can be reached in 41/2 hours by train from Tokyo with a change at Maibara. All air fares are return from Melbourne or Sydney and do not include tax. Touring there Kaikaro tea house is at 1-14-8 Higashiyama, open daily. Admission ¥700. Phone 253 0591. Gyokusenen Garden is at 8-3 Koshomachi, Kanazawa-shi, Ishikawa-ken - a two-minute walk from Kenrokuen-shita bus stop; five-minute walk from Kenrokuen. Reopens in early March. Admission ¥500. Phone 076 221 0181. See or Ads by Google

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