Kanazawa was, is, and looks set to remain the gold leaf capital of Japan, living up the city’s “golden swamp” name.
As the second richest feudal domain in the samurai era, Kanazawa had an enviable, but nonetheless real, problem of what to with the wealth they generated. The traditional option of pouring the excess into military power and fortifications (beyond the impressive Kanazawa Castle) would have aroused the ire of the ruling Tokugawa Shoguns in Edo.
So they encouraged traditional crafts and industries, including gold leaf production, to flourish. The gold leaf industry started back in 1593. Apart from availability of gold a key factor in gold leaf production is actually humidity, since it reduces static electricity which interferes with manipulating and applying gold leaf that is produced to an amazing 1 – 1.2 / 10000mm thinness.
The traditional gold leaf production process
Gold and silver leaf has been an important part of Buddhist culture for centuries, used extensively in temples. Now it is used also in ceramics, glass and lacquer ware, and even some food production – we enjoyed gold leaf sprinkle in our coffee on a visit to the Nanto Peninsula from Kanazawa.
You can see and learn all this for yourself at several Gold Leaf production houses and shops in Kanazawa’s historic Higashiyama crafts district.
Even better, you can make your own gold leaf memento for a very reasonable cost – from just ￥600 for a pair of chop sticks – working with a craftsman for an hour or so to produce it.
The process of gold leaf making begins with the gold alloy ingots, which blend small amounts of silver and copper with gold. The ingot is pressed to make a 5/100mm thin foil in a rolling machine. The foil is cut into 6cm squares called koppe, which are then placd between leaves of specially made paper – called Zumuichigami – and placed in a leather bag to be beaten by the Zumiumuchi pounding machine. This process used to be done by hand pounding!
The pounding process is repeated 5 times as the gold leaves are placed between larger papers each time. This gets it down into 20cm square leaves of a very thin 2/1000mm.
Then it moves on to books of Hakuuchigami paper, which has been specially processed over 3 months of treatment by soaking and beating in a mixture including persimmon tannin and egg whites. A stretched 20cm leaf foil is divided into 12 parts that are placed in between sheets of hakuuchigami in sets of 1800 sheets. Laboriously assembled, these are wrapped in a leather bag and machine beaten for 3 minutes, then allowed to cool for 15 minutes.
The final result of this exhaustive process is the super thin final product with each leaf just 1 to 1.2/10000mm thin.
Seeing the leaves being taken out by the skilled ladies tasked with this you understand the importance of Kanizawa’s humid climate – static electricity would interrupt the delicate process.
Make your own gold leaf memento in Kanazawa
The Sakuda Gold & Silver Leaf Co. is one of the best, in the Higashiyama craft district of Kanaizawa, which features streets lined with traditional buildings.
Making your own gold leaf memento is a lot of fun, inexpensive – you only pay for the memento option you choose ranging up from chop sticks at ￥600 a pair through compact mirrors and traditional broaches to card, jewellery and make up boxes and hand mirrors to name a view. Choose deep red or black lacquered base items.
A friendly skilled craftsman guides you through the process of tracing and cutting out the tradtional design options. These are cut out then placed over your item, brushed with over with glue then the gold leaf applied and removed to leave your masterpiece. It’s covered in plastic to protect it for the 3 months required to allow the glue to dry thoroughly and your design to be set.
Look I did it! A lot of fun, educational, and incredible value, the Kanizawa gold leaf craft experience is a must.
The shop has a huge array of other items for purchase as well.
After the gold leaf experience you can stroll on to the Hagashi Chaya (Tea House District) next to the crafts area. The temple at the top of the street is worth a look too, and offers a good view over the city across to the castle and mountains behind.
More Kanazawa Attractions
From Tokyo to Kanazawa the fastest Hokuriku Shinkansen Kagayaki service takes just 2 hours 28 minutes, with minimal stops – Omiya, Nagano, and Toyama.
The slower Hakutaka service stops at smaller stations like Iiyama, Joetsu-Myoko, Unaduki Onsen and Shin-Takaoka, while the Tsurugi service acts as a local service between Kanazawa, Takaoka and Toyama. Connect to this from Nagoya and Gero via the JR Takayama Line.
From Shin-Osaka to Kanazawa the JR Special Express Thunderbird takes 2 hours 30 minutes, or 2 hours 40 minutes from Osaka Station.
Express buses to Kanazawa are good for connecting from and via major regional attractions like Shirakawa-go from Hida Takayama and Matsumoto. Check Nouhi Bus for timetables and bookings or visit the tourist offices at stations.
Driving to Kanazawa the Hokuriku Expressway (E8) is the main route along the western Honshu coast, from Kyoto and Osaka to the south and Niigata and Nagano to the north.
The Tokai-Hokuriku Expressway (E41) connects central Japan areas from Nagoya and Gero to Kanazawa. Some scenic slower mountain routes are closed in winter.
Kanazawa accommodation deals and options
Book the latest deals from booking.com, just enter your target dates to see the range of options available. We recommend staying in the old town centre area.