I swallow nervously. It'll be my turn soon and I can't remember whether I should turn the bowl clockwise or anti-clockwise. I've also forgotten the phrase I'm supposed to repeat back to the pourer and exactly how and when I have to bow. The expectant eyes of our hosts - two immaculately dressed Japanese women - are following the bowl around the room and I'm starting to sweat.

Supposedly, samurai warriors would sit down to a traditional Japanese tea ceremony to relax before going into battle. The precise movements and etiquette of this highly ritualised process would help them focus their thoughts and calm their minds.

When the bowl reaches me, I'm feeling about as relaxed as a cornered meerkat.

Thankfully, our hosts are clearly used to blundering tea ceremony virgins because, despite me doing pretty much everything wrong, they still smile and nod politely.

Although the ceremony itself might be a little angst-inducing, the setting certainly isn't. I'm in Gyokusenen, a tiny garden paradise of mossy, winding paths and calming, tranquil pools in the heart of the bustling city of Kanazawa.

We follow a stepping stone path that meanders under a lush green canopy to the garden's original wooden tea house and marvel at its doll's house proportions. Samurai taking tea here would be forced to remove their swords in order to fit through the front door - a deliberate design feature intended to preserve the ceremony's peaceful origins.

Kanazawa is the capital city of the Ishikawa prefecture, at the base of the Noto Peninsula in Japan's heartland. Despite having almost half a million residents, it gets nowhere near the attention received by its better publicised neighbours Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka.

About four hours by train from Tokyo and 2 hours from Kyoto and Osaka, it makes a good base for exploring one of the less touristy regions of Japan, plus it has a compelling list of attractions of its own. We leave the tranquillity of Gyokusenen and make our way up the hill to one of Japan's gardening heavyweights: Kenrokuen.

It's rated as one of the top three gardens in Japan and is unusual in that it offers panoramic views from its hilltop position and several large lakes (something normally found only in low-lying gardens). I'm no landscape designer but even I was impressed by its scale and setting. In spring it explodes in a riot of cherry blossom while in winter it gets so much snow that many of the trees require artificial support to prevent their branches from collapsing under the weight.

To do it justice you'd really need a day but we're short on time and I'm keen to learn more about the two other cultural icons for which the city is renowned: geisha and samurai.

Higashi Chaya is one of three geisha districts in Kanazawa and the area is made up of a web of narrow lanes lined with traditional slatted wooden-fronted merchant houses that now operate as tea houses, shops and restaurants.

We visit the 180-year-old Kaikaro tea house, which is open to the public for tours during the day but reverts to a private residence where geisha perform for wealthy patrons by night. We're shown around by Yukiko, a serene kimono-clad woman, who artfully dodges our questions on sensitive subjects such as the type of clients they entertain and for what price.

Despite several high-profile books and films, geisha are still an intriguing topic because of the shroud of mystery that surrounds how they operate. For a start, you can't just turn up and pay at the door - you need to be introduced by an existing patron. Prices vary, but visitors will often pay several thousand dollars to be entertained by two or three geisha or maiko (trainee geisha), who play traditional instruments, sing, pour drinks and are generally elusive and desirable.

Of course, the mystery is intentional, given it's their very exclusivity that drives demand, which in turn determines what they can charge.

From one uniquely Japanese phenomenon to another: samurai. Just the word conjures up a vivid mental image of a highly trained, sword-wielding warrior and Japanese history is awash with legends of these nomadic figures and the battles they waged.

As with many romanticised historic tales, the reality is slightly different, with many samurai no different from hired mercenaries. Most were attached to a lord and when not fighting battles would live in a samurai district similar to Nagamachi, near the centre of Kanazawa.

It's surreal to leave a busy shopping thoroughfare filled with luxury boutiques such as Gucci and Chanel and five minutes later be in a maze of eerily quiet laneways whose high walls hide sprawling residences that once belonged to samurai. Most are now privately owned but a few are open to the public and, for a small fee, you can take a look around.

After leaving our shoes at the door, we pad through the palatial former residence of one of the highest-ranking samurai, given the house as a reward for defending the area against invasion. Thin paper screens separate sparsely furnished rooms with tatami mat floors and the occasional shrine or artwork. The only extravagance is the garden, a delightful montage of koi-filled pools, bridges and meandering pathways.

On the surface Kanazawa seems like any other forward-thinking, modern Japanese city but it has been careful to preserve its heritage.

The result is an easy-to-navigate, culturally rich destination that offers an appealing and less crowded alternative to Japan's traditional tourist drawcards.

Rob McFarland was a guest of Japan National Tourism.