Biodiversity in Kanazawa: Winter’s Lesson

In winter, Kanazawa bears witness to rain and snow in their myriad forms. The beginning of winter is signaled by thunderstorms reverberating against the mountains. They are said to “awaken” not only the snow (yukiokoshi), but also the shoals of yellowtail (buriokoshi) that start their seasonal migration southward along the coast.

Moisture-laden winds blowing across the Sea of Japan hit the slopes of the Japan Alps and rise high into the colder strata of the atmosphere, where the vapour condenses and falls over Japan’s northern coasts in various forms of precipitation. Seemingly never-ending rains that have been drenching the streets and black tile roofs all day suddenly metamorphose into fine drizzle. As the night engulfs the city, the twisting silhouettes of lightning and the sound of thunder give way to hail and sleet pouring down as if the skies have broken apart.


Many features of Kanazawa’s cityscape have developed in response to the winter climate. Traditional houses in the city have low projecting eaves to provide protection from wind, rain and snowfall. The streets have long been equipped with canals into which the piling snow can be cleared. Ingenious methods have been devised to make ornamental gardens withstand the weight of accumulated snow, while also highlighting its special beauty.

But not only the form of the city has been shaped by the characteristics of the climate. Long winter months spent indoors have had a formative impact on the city’s richness of crafts and performing arts. Some of the artifacts, such as Kanazawa’s paper umbrellas, have been created especially as solutions to the challenges posed by the climate. A large variety of preserved foods have been produced for the winter season. As the city kept adapting to its environment, a cultural landscape became superimposed over the natural landscape and a distinct material culture developed.

Kenrokuen: A cultural landscape at the heart of the city

The grey of the low-hanging sky is washed with the white brush strokes of large, soft snowflakes known as ‘peony snow’ (botan yuki), blown by the wind from every direction. In the centre of Kanazawa, where the land suddenly rises into the slopes of a plateau, the ancient stone walls of Kanazawa Castle and the trees overhanging them seem traced in the monochromatic tones of ink paintings. On the adjacent hill, some eight thousand trees are hibernating under the heavy snow in Kenrokuen, the castle’s outer garden. Their branches bend with the weight of the snow over the landscaped pathways and ponds.

Each year before the onset of winter, poles are erected among the branches of the trees in Kenrokuen and rice-straw ropes suspended from their tops are attached to the branches to provide support against the snows of the Sea of Japan coast. These canopies of ropes, known as yukitsuri, shroud not only the vast aged trees, but also fragile younger trees and bushes. The practice of using ropes to protect the trees in winter is mentioned in records dating from the late Edo period (1603-1868). In addition to preventing snow damage, yukitsuri arrangements add to the aesthetics of the landscape, forming together with the trees elegant architectural structures.

The conical veils of ropes are part of the winter scene in Kenrokuen, with its pictorial composition of snow-covered pines, teahouses, bridges and stone lanterns reflected in the still mirror of the ponds.

Cultural values influencing the landscape

The current design of Kenrokuen is the result of two centuries of imaginative remodeling of nature by the master gardeners of the feudal era. Originally built as the private garden of the Maeda clan who ruled the Kaga domain, Kenrokuen developed from a small garden around a villa on the slope facing the castle, where the lord entertained important guests and chief retainers, and held maple-leaf viewing banquets in autumn. Over the years, the garden was transformed to reflect the tastes of the successive generations of clan lords and was gradually enlarged, currently covering about 10 hectares. After the clan system collapsed at the beginning of the Meiji period (1868–1912), Kenrokuen became a public park.

Kenrokuen is a spatial illustration of how the diversity of nature and the diversity of culture interact to create unique, place-specific forms. Despite the appearance of naturalness, which it shares with other traditional Japanese gardens, Kenrokuen is nevertheless an artificially created garden, a world unto itself that does not merely reproduce natural beauty, but gives expression to an idealized nature. The various elements of vegetation, topography and climate have been artistically incorporated into the design to enchant and surprise the senses. In Kenrokuen, a cultural landscape has been worked into the natural landscape over the centuries, based on aesthetic, philosophical and religious ideas and values.

Some of the garden’s features reflect aesthetic notions derived from Japan’s centuries-long cultural exchange with the mainland. As in many other Japanese gardens, the ponds and islands of Kenrokuen are inspired by Chinese legends of mountain islands on the sea that were the abode of Taoist immortal hermits. Thus, besides being admired for their beauty, the ponds and islands were also symbolic of prosperity, longevity and wisdom.

In winter,  Kenrokuen garden exalts the spellbinding stillness and purity of snow.

The very name ‘Kenrokuen’, meaning ‘Garden of Six Qualities’, is a reference to an eleventh-century Chinese text, which stated that a perfect garden was difficult to achieve because it required the combining of six features grouped in mutually exclusive pairs: spaciousness and seclusion, air of antiquity and human artifice, water features and panoramas.

In Kenrokuen, however, the spaciousness of open, light areas exists side by side with secluded walkways, interweaving a sense of immensity and intimacy. The ideas of antiquity and human artifice are represented in the placement of the weathered rocks, in the carefully tended moss cover on the ground, tree roots, lanterns and stones, and in the artfully trained tree branches designed to convey an impression of the workings of time. Water is abundant in Kenrokuen’s ponds, fountains and meandering streams, while at the same time the garden affords panoramas of the mountains to the south, the hills across the Asano river to the east, and the distant Noto Peninsula extending far into the Sea of Japan to the north.

Another instance of how cultural values inform landscape design in Kenrokuen is the attention given to the passage of seasons. The various natural elements composing this landscape are combined in such a way as to give full expression to the ideal beauty of each season, reminding of the use of prescribed seasonal topics in classical Japanese poetry.

In winter, the garden exalts the spellbinding stillness and purity of snow. Spring envelops Kenrokuen in hazy clouds of cherry blossoms. In early summer, irises fill the waterways with hues of purple, and a fresh tapestry of velvety moss softens the contours with its rich greens during the rainy season. As autumn progresses, the array of dark green foliage starts turning branch after branch into flaming scarlet, glowing orange and radiant gold.

Urban green spaces and their ecosystem benefits

Continuous engagement of humans in nature is required to maintain the aesthetic and cultural values of the landscape in Kenrokuen. The appearance of spontaneity is achieved through sustained human effort. Each tree and patch of moss receives meticulous attention to ensure that the garden’s natural beauty is maintained. In early spring, the first buds of the pine trees are carefully hand-picked in order to control the shape of the trees and encourage a second flush of green growth.

Every morning, women with their heads bound in scarves and covered with conical straw hats clean the leaves and twigs that have fallen overnight onto the moist carpet of moss. Then in November, as the year starts slowly falling into winter, gardeners again climb the large poles erected for yukitsuri to toss down coils of rope that will be attached to the branches, bringing the annual cycle to both an end and a new beginning.

A human-designed landscape meant to offer a feast of both the senses and the spirit, Kenrokuen is very different from more natural local landscapes. Yet with over 180 species of plants and its diverse pattern of land and water features, it is rich in species and microenvironments. The garden attracts numerous birds and insects, as well as some small animals, which travel along the green corridors leading from the forested hinterland along the river terraces and into the heart of the city. A wide variety of mushrooms sprout on the ground and tree trunks.


Photo by Kentaro Ohno

Kenrokuen shows how a biodiverse urban space can provide a variety of ecosystem services — the benefits that people obtain from ecosystems. Of these, the most obvious are the cultural services, which include a sense of cultural identity, heritage values, aesthetic pleasure, spiritual services, inspiration for literature and other arts, and recreation. The garden is also a powerful illustration of the economic relevance of cultural ecosystem services. As Kanazawa’s major tourist attraction, Kenrokuen receives nearly two million visitors every year, making an important contribution to both the local and regional economy.

Kenrokuen is also a provider of lesser known regulating ecosystem services that are often taken for granted. The layered vegetation provides much needed shade in hot weather and helps reduce the heat island effect together with the water surfaces. It creates a barrier to noise and wind, and improves air quality by filtering pollutants. The soft ground surfaces allow rainwater to seep through, reducing flood risk and replenishing precious groundwater reserves. All these processes are underpinned by supporting services such as soil creation, carbon absorption or habitat provision, which also relate to human wellbeing. As part of a larger landscape, Kenrokuen is also a source of provisioning ecosystem services, with underground water from the surrounding mountains springing out on its grounds.

In winter, the carpet of snow obliterates colours and boundaries in Kenrokuen. And yet, in the uniqueness of each arrangement of straw ropes embracing the white sculptural shapes of the trees, in the unexpected rhythms of the landscape, there is a sense of nature and culture being infinitely diverse.

Paper umbrellas of Kanazawa: Interaction between humans and their environment

As snow turns into rain and then rain back again to snow, on Kanazawa’s streets dark figures below umbrellas hurry to their destinations in ones and twos. The world has shrunk. Thunder clouds hang low in shades of charcoal. The wind carries the rain sideways. The fragile-looking umbrellas under which people huddle seem the only patches of colour in the liquefying gray cityscape.

Given Kanazawa’s wet climate, umbrellas have long been an essential feature of daily life in the city. Today, umbrellas are made from nylon or see-through vinyl. But for hundreds of years before the advent of modern Western-style umbrellas, traditional Japanese umbrellas were made from oil paper and bamboo.

Extant documents depict scenes from the past in which paper umbrellas made their appearance: large decorative umbrellas being carried in the clan lord’s procession as he travels to Edo with his retinue of 2,500 attendants, to fulfill his obligation of residing in the capital in alternate years under the ‘alternate attendance’ system; a samurai’s daughters setting out to visit the local shrine, their slender umbrellas against the dull, snowy sky; at the market, the varied sights of a jostling crowd of forms and faces, half concealed by umbrellas and bamboo hats; itinerant monks with dark robes and coarse brown umbrellas known as bangasa; a young man in a stylish kimono crossing the bridge in the morning snow storm, sheltering himself under a borrowed half-open umbrella on which the name of a tea house is inscribed in large characters.

Such snapshots tell us of how the climate and natural environment of a place influence material culture and lifestyles. Kanazawa’s paper umbrellas were produced in response to the climatic conditions, relying on natural materials, most of them harvested from around the city. Timber bamboo madake and the larger variety known as moso bamboo were used for the wooden frames, which were covered with thick paper made from the wood of the kozo tree and glued onto the frame with a paste obtained from fern-root starch. The umbrella would then be waterproofed by treating the paper with persimmon tannin and applying green shiso oil, paulownia oil or linseed oil.

Over 100 umbrella stores dedicated to manufacturing paper umbrellas are said to have been operating in Kanazawa during the Meiji (1868–1912) and Taisho (1912–1926) periods. To meet the high demand, the workers specialized in a certain stage of the production process. In one place they would be busily engaged in splitting, trimming and curving the bamboo ribs. In another they would be cutting the paper, gluing it onto the wooden frame or oiling the umbrellas.


Today, traditional paper umbrellas are no longer a part of daily life. As a result of rapid post-war changes in Japanese lifestyles, they have been displaced by cheaper and more readily-available Western umbrellas. Only one artisan, Hiroshi Matsuda, still carries on the ancient craft of umbrella making in Kanazawa. Today’s paper umbrellas are aesthetic objects, sought as accessories for traditional theatre or dance performances, or doubling as advertisements and decorative objects at Japanese inns and restaurants.

When a paper umbrella is closed, most of its surface is folded inward and hidden from sight. As it is opened, a work of art is slowly discovered. The space takes on a different light and depth under the paper hand-painted with flowers, insects or abstract patterns. The natural materials give a feeling of warmth and aliveness. With its robust, full design, its four layers of lacquered paper applied to the centre, and its intricate web of colourful strings attaching the frame to the base, the Kanazawa paper umbrella is a reminder of the harsh climate it was created to withstand. The artisan’s labour of love and his endeavour to combine beauty with durability is apparent in every single detail, inspiring a sense of respect and care.

Endlessly perfected in the interaction between people and their environment, the paper umbrella has been elevated to a work of art. It enhances the beauty of the dancer’s silhouette as he poses on stage, holding his umbrella overhead and looking off at the imaginary mountains in the distance.

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The video featured here is an extract from the “Book of Seasons” documentary and the text is from the new “Biodiversity in Kanazawa” booklet that are part of a multimedia project on biodiversity in Kanazawa that was initiated, designed and funded by UNU Institute of Advanced Studies Operating Unit Ishikawa/Kanazawa (UNU-IAS OUIK) under the coordination of the Unit’s Director, Anne McDonald. The project creatively “packages” OUIK’s cutting-edge research and explores complex aspects of the urbanization-biodiversity nexus in a form accessible to researchers, students, policymakers and civil society, both in Japan and around the globe.

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Biodiversity in Kanazawa: Winter’s lesson by Raquel Moreno-Peñaranda is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


Dr. Raquel Moreno-Peñaranda is a Research Fellow at the UNU Institute of Advanced Studies, Operating Unit Ishikawa/Kanazawa and instructor of the Sustainable Agriculture course and other disciplines of the UNU-IAS Master in Science in Environmental Governance. Her work focuses on sustainable natural resources management, especially in agricultural systems, looking at the linkages between sustainability and well-being in urban and rural settings. She has carried out extensive consultancy and advisory roles and research coordination for several local and sub-national governments, international environmental NGOs, civil society organizations and multilateral development institutions. A native of Spain, where she graduated in Biology and obtained an MSc in Environmental Analysis, Raquel earned a PhD in Energy and Resources from the University of California, Berkeley.

Anne McDonald

ProfessorSophia University

Anne McDonald is a Professor in the Graduate School of Global Environmental Studies at Sophia University in Tokyo. She was formerly the Director of the UNU Institute of Advanced Studies, Operating Unit Ishikawa/Kanazawa and has been involved in agricultural and fishing community-related field research in Japan since the late 1980s. She has been a member of the Japanese national government’s committee for promoting environmentally sound agricultural practices since 1994, worked with the Japanese Ministry of Environment (MoEJ) government review team for the IPCC 3rd and 4th Assessment Reports, and is a member of the first national strategy committee for biodiversity for the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF). She is also a member of both national and regional government committees established in 2008 to explore satoyama policy initiatives.

A Programme Associate with the UNU Institute of Advanced Studies, Operating Unit Ishikawa/Kanazawa, Laura Cocora has been based in Japan since 1998 and holds a masters degree in Global Studies from Sophia University. She is interested in the interactions between the cultural and environmental dimensions of societies and the role they play in sustainable social and economic development.