Japan’s Gold Leaf: Gilded, Gastronomic, & Glorious!
Eating Gold Sushi: Cheaper than you think! (prices listed are from March, 2019)
Rather than indulging in pure gold, Japan gives its goods the Midas touch with gold leaf. And more than 99% of Japan’s gold leaf comes directly from Kanazawa, whose oldest name means “abundance of gold.”
In Kanazawa, you can enjoy gold leaf in many ways! You can eat gold. You can beautify yourself with gold. You can immerse yourself in rooms covered in told from floor to ceiling. And, of course, you can make your own gold leaf souvenirs!
Eat the Rich(es)
Edible gold is nothing new. The “upper crust” takes theirs on truffle-infused pizza and wrapped around drumsticks and donuts, forking over stacks for the privilege. But as the El Dorado of Japan, Kanazawa is overflowing with gold-flecked food. Finding a bite in your budget is no difficulty.
Gilded Sweet Bean Soup
Zenzai, or sweet red bean soup with mochi rice cake, is a common treat in many Japanese cafes, especially in the touristy areas like the eastern geisha district of Higashi Chaya. The geisha tea house Kaikaro maintains a cafe on their first floor, and this is their most expensive item. (Careful of your expectations: the shock of seeing the gold leaf as you pry open the lid is the primary pull of this purchase.)
Coffee Jelly with a Crown of Gold
Along the west side of Kanazawa Castle is the cafe Kanazawa-ya Cōhī-ten, or the Kanazawa Coffee Shop Head Office. You can get coffee and tea here, of course. Their coffee jelly, pictured above, is spot on. The gold is a lovely sparking yellow, but does lose its luster under the milk.
Gold Leaf Ice Cream
Naturally!! In fact, if you’ve ever had gold leaf ice cream anywhere in Japan, the gold most likely came from Kanazawa, which is not only the top gold leaf producer of the country, but also Japan’s biggest consumer of ice cream. Prices vary by shop and the amount of gold used, from sprinkled flakes in Higashi Chaya to massive coats in Omicho Market. We opted for a strip from Imai Kinpaku Hirosaka, off the corner of Kenroku-en Garden.
Gold Wrapped Ice Pops
Wanna bite down on cold gold but vanilla soft serve is not for you? Grab and ice pop instead. Milk, sweet red bean, matcha green tea and mango flavors available at Sakuda Gold and Silver Leaf Crafts north of Higashi Chaya (not to be confused with their other store centrally located in the geisha district).
Japan takes their food souvenirs (called omiyage) very seriously, with large shops and markets dedicated to their sale, particularly at hubs and stations like Kanazawa Station’s Anto shopping area. Here, you’ll find no shortage of sweets and snacks sprinkled or decorated with edible gold leaf. But there are two particularly eye-catching nibbles we couldn’t pass up.
The “Gold Leaf Sweet Bean Jelly” by Matsui looks like a gold medallion under water. Layers of smooth sweet red bean jelly, gold leaf, and clear jelly. Despite the high listing of sugar as an ingredient, it’s not too sweet to enjoy.
Gold Topped Japanese Sponge Cake
The boldest layer of gold we’ve yet seen on omiyage is definitely that on the castella cakes of Mameya Bankyu. The sakura (cherry blossom) is a special flavor just for spring! You can get them pre-cut into adorable seasonal shapes, like cherry blossoms, butterflies, goldfish and rabbits.
Sprinkled Edible Gold
This one comes in two kinds from Hakuza. Breaking apart a set of specially-made chopsticks gives a nice experience and a one-time use novelty gift. The heaftier tube of furikake (lit. “sprinkled over”) provides more gold and more to share.
Gold Leaf Sushi
If sushi is the quintessential cuisine of Japanese, then lightly seared blackthroat perch topped with a whole sheet of gold leaf surely must be Kanazawa’s.
Because as long as you’re stuffing your face with gold, you might as well apply it all over!
Gold Beauty Mask
Clean up, lotion on, and then apply! Fair warning: the paper backing can be quite stiff. To say one’s face becomes more brilliant is no lie, though. The gold has an exfoliating effect and was fun to wear. Expect to pay several thousand yen for this one.
Lotions, Cremes, Gels & Soaps
If you’re into cosmetics and beauty products, you are in for a gold mine! (*cough*) There are no shortage of bottles, pumps, sprays and jars of every type of skin care product you can image. Hey, if it was good enough for Yang Guifei and Cleopatra…
Most shop assistants insisted on using and demonstrating them to me, showing how much they could make skin glitter and glow. Prices vary.
The Must-See Absurdities
Let’s play “How much gold leaf can we fit into one room?” Here’s a quick run down of our top five must-see places too gold to be believed, and a few extra, just for fun!
New! Sakuda’s Higashi Chaya Store
Sakuda already ranks highly for the gilded glory in their Higashi-yama store (see below). But recent trips to the largest geisha district in Kanazawa have put me eye-to-eye with this guy:
I’m cheating a little, as this isn’t a gold covered room, per se. But the amount of gold leaf used on the statue proper—not to mention painstakingly applying gold leaf to every single stone beneath it—is worth a sight.
This eagle is almost as big as I am! He and his tiger companion are excellent examples of seamless gold foil application.
If you pop into this store, be sure to explore around the back. I was equally charmed by these brush holders. Who wouldn’t want their own owl steward to help them with their calligraphy?!
Honorable Mention: Kanazawa Yasue Gold Leaf Museum
Sorry folks, no pictures allowed inside, but if you have an interest, do go! One of Kanazawa’s many, many museums, this one showcases the various elements that go into gold leaf coloration, an up-close look at a full sized industrial-era pounding machine, and the best models to demonstrate just how unimaginably thin gold leaf really is. Pun points for trees on the first floor with gold leaves. Just north of Higashi Chaya District.
#5: Golden Tea Room of Hideyoshi
A replica of that commissioned by the samurai general himself, 40,000 leaves of beaten gold cover the ceilings and walls of this tea room in Hakuza Honten, west of the Higashi Chaya geisha district.
#4: Gold-threaded Tatami Tea Room
If this amazing floor were simply coated in gold leaf, it would not rank here. But, in fact, the individual threads of the straw tatami mat have been intricately wrapped in gold, for a highly detailed and seamless view. On the first floor of Kaikaro Tea House in the Higashi Chaya geisha district.
#3 “Storehouse of Gold”
Japanese storehouses are unique architectural relics of a bygone area and, when not protected, renovated in new and surprising ways. This one is completely covered in a layer of gold leaf inside and out, with 20,000 sheets of gold leaf on the outside alone. The noonday sun bounces off the sides into the small garden with the glow of sunset. At Hakuza Hikarigura in Higashi Chaya.
#2 Gold & Platinum Restrooms. Yes, Restrooms.
The whole first third of this article is dedicated to edible gold food. Of course, we would end up here at some point.
The walls and ceiling in both the sink and toilet spaces are covered in told leaf. Even the soap has flecks of gold. Alas, the toilets were not covered, but the air freshener was!
Theses restrooms are on the second floor of the Sakuda Gold & Silver Leaf Crafts Higashi-yama store just north of Higashi Chaya. Check out the gallery on the same floor while you’re there.
#1 GOLDEN SAMURAI ARMOR AND LIGHT SHOW
The entire shop is worth a visit. It’s easiest to reach by car, but not impossible by bus (a ¥320 ride one-way with a 17-minute walk from the nearest stop). But indulge your eyes and go.
The basement serves as an interactive museum of gold leaf production. But the prime pull is the polished stage of an entire replica of Lord Toshiie Maeda’s armor, complete with his trademark tremendously tall “catfish tail” hat, and all in gold.
Only a few minutes long, the projected mapping shows in silhouette Toshiie’s wartime experience and entrance into Kanazawa Castle, alluding to the riches and craft heritage he and his descendants would cultivate in the coming years. It is, all at once, gaudy, gorgeous, and glorious.
There’s even a bit on the floor indicating the “best” spot to take a picture from, especially with friends. This spot is also marked with gold leaf, of course.
The rest of Hakuichi Honten Hakukoukan is equally polished, with English assistance everywhere. There are separate (and large) areas for a shop, a gallery and and a sunlit cafe.
Make a Gold Leaf Souvenir All Your Own
Most of the large gold leaf shops offer workshops for playing with gold leaf. For various prices you can decorate your own souvenirs, from chopsticks to larger vases.
Clean your item, affix a stencil, brush on some glue, and then, being stupendously careful so as not to mess everything up (!!!), gently lay a sheet of gold leaf on top. After some soft pressing, pull the stencil away, and you have a beautiful gold leaf product, made with your own hands.
Special thanks to Jess, our amazing model and gold leaf taster and to Amanda for last-minute graphics assistance.
Products and services for this article, listed in order of appearance, purchased from the following locations in Kanazawa:
- Kaikaro Tea House in Higashi Chaya
- Kanazawa Coffee Shop Head Office, Marunouchi
- Imai Kinpaku, Hirosaka
- Sakuda Gold and Silver Leaf, Higashiyama
- Matsui Wagashi Shop in the Anto shopping area of Kanazawa Station
- Mameya Bankyu at Daiwa Department Store, Kohrinbo (Japanese only)
- Hakuza Hikari in Higashi Chaya & Hakuza Honten, Moriyama (Japanese only)
- Kirari Kaiten Sushi at Kanazawa Station West Exit
- Hakuichi Higashiyama in Higashi Chaya & Hakuichi Honten Hakukoukan, Morito
- Kanazawa Yasue Gold Leaf Museum, Higashiyama
Hotel photos taken at Kaname Inn Tatemachi.
Prices listed subject to change.
About a decade ago Rachel fell off a bus and then fell in love with this traditional-crafts and ice-cream-consuming capital of Japan. Editor and amateur photographer with a penchant for nature and history. Not actually fifty songbirds in a trench coat. (Former penname: Ryann)