Olesya's Return to Kanazawa: How this "city of gold" has changed, and how it's changed her

I travel quite often, but I don't see a lot of cities doing what Kanazawa does best: preserving its traditions and history while also sharing it with visitors so openly and with such great hospitality.

Three years after her epic trip to Kanazawa to make art fly, international artist and traveler Olesya returned for a fortuitous visit to her Japanese home-away-from-home. I had the good pleasure to catch an interview with her at Kotomi Cafe near the 21st Century Museum, with a view of Kanazawa Central Park and Kanazawa Castle.

Has your impression of Kanazawa changed from when you first came?

I remember everything like it was yesterday. I have very clear, vibrant memories of places, food, the whole sensory experience. It simply reignited when I returned.

Kanazawa is only beginning to blossom, but not too suddenly, like how things pop up in other cities these days—you arrive in a city three years later, there’s new skyscrapers and apartments and industrialization—you don’t see that in Kanazawa. In some magical way, it’s preserving its history, and the growth that’s there is with great hospitality. And really, I love that about Kanazawa. I don’t see in a lot of cities traveling the world these days.

You come here, and it’s true authenticity with a really nice modern wave that’s not intruding onto the history, and that’s so beautiful to see. For example, to be able to go to a 200-year-old restaurant like Tsubajin to have a meal was like being in a museum, surrounded by the remarkable. You don’t see that very much that often.

As an artist, what in your opinion does Kanazawa offer artists?

There’s so much sensory experience, but not in an overwhelming way. In different places where you go, you get this visual fuel that’s so rich and so enlightening, that all you think about after being there is creating because you’re so inspired.

We paused for a moment while the staff brought our orders of Kaga-boucha, a local variety of roasted stem tea, and of gold-leaf flecked ice cream of the same flavor.

And of course, I think, speaking of food here, that’s a whole other artistic, culinary adventure, and I think that’s just a huge discovery for everyone—not just artists!

Honestly, we’re all artists inside. That’s why people who have never painted can love art. You can appreciate the beauty and connect to it. The same thing goes for food because food is art, and you can see that here, too.

Could you think of a specific example of something that inspired you?

Every new place I visit here is inspirational. Mainly things that are of an organic nature or historical background.

For example, we went to the Forest of Wisdom by the mountains south of Kanazawa, and immediately, that rich saturation of greens in all shades, all tones— and I’m a color person—it’s just so vibrant and stimulating that I’m inspired. Seeing the textures and reflections and the sun rays hitting the meadow of green velvet moss, everywhere, moss. It was a magical, dreamy experience.

Olesya at the Forest of Wisdom, a carefully preserved moss garden in Komatsu, Ishikawa

And then there are the details everywhere, like what  you see at the temples on the hand-carved and hand-painted trims above the doors. All those elements are so beautiful. And if you pay attention, you notice them more and more everywhere. Everything is touched by an artist, and all those elements are telling a story of something. To me, that is also always inspiring; I always look for that.

Can you tell me about one of your favorite memories of Kanazawa?

The geisha experience. That was unbelievable. I was brought to this wonderful, painted place with walking dolls out of history, these women whose every movement is learned, and they don’t do anything excessively. Everything is for a purpose, every movement they make, their absolute beauty and grace. They’re so regal. And to be next to them, I can’t describe this feeling! To be in their surroundings with them, playing games and having tea. Those are usually such little things, but this was such an experience on a large scale when it was with geisha.

Has Kanazawa changed you? In what way?

It makes me slow down and think about things! About life, but not in a complicated way at all. It’s more. “back to basics.” Here you can look from an outside perspective on things.

When you’re in your world and living in your country and moving around within your town, you miss so much. But when you’re in Kanazawa, everything is quite different in such an enduring and wonderful way that you just want to be a part of it and you want to learn. It makes you appreciate things that you normally don’t. I really am grateful for that.

If you had to choose only one thing about Kanazawa that you want to communicate to the world, what would that be?

I have to say the food! You don’t experience food anywhere in the world like you experience it here, not even in Tokyo.

People in Kanazawa will wait the whole year for things like autumn vegetables or the limited season crab fishing is allowed. There’s this certain mushroom in the fall that’s you can only have it that one time a year, and it’s so fresh! You can appreciate everything so much more.

They rarely even season anything. They don’t need to. They have this beautiful formula that they’ve followed for ages. It’s like it all naturally comes together in the most delicious way possible that is distinctly Kanazawa.

seasonal soup served in handmade lacquerware bowl at Tsubajin in Kanazawa; image courtesy of kaname-inn.com

On top of that, they present everything so beautifully that you can taste the season first with your eyes. It’s a painting in front of you.

It really becomes a part of your life’s history to experience traditional Japanese cuisine in Kanazawa. I had no idea I could think of food that way.

Is there anything else you’d like to add, personally?

I hope to inspire people who know me and also travel to come and experience this beautiful city. Then I hope to share this with as many people as I can.

I believe as people we are here on this earth as messengers to each other, and I’ve come across the most remarkable messengers in Kanazawa. So I want to be a messenger and guide on this planet as well. Being able to do so through art is amazing because when people see a painting that’s inspired by being here—telling a story through art—it’s more fascinating and strikes up more curiosity to inspire people to travel.

But even just to have a conversation over coffee, to tell somebody about the travel experience, too. Either way, I can be the catalyst for people to live a richer life through travels. I’m a huge proponent for that, for travel. We’re given this world to see, and to be able to share this amazing experience makes me happy.

I’d really love to see more foreign faces here. I get so delighted when I see the tourists here. It’s great. You see them, and they feel really calm. They’re not rushing; they’re curious and they’re exploring. I watch their expressions and they’re really fascinated. You can tell. I’d like to see more of these fascinating faces here. That’d be really great.