Completely rebuilt after a wartime drubbing, Nagoya (名古屋) is a modern metropolis of high-rise buildings, wide boulevards, multi-lane highways and flyovers, where business takes precedence over tourism. Here you’ll find the headquarters of industrial powerhouse Toyota as well as numerous other companies that exploit the local skill of monozukuri (making things) to the hilt.
Less overwhelming than Tokyo or Ōsaka, the capital of Aichi-ken and Japan’s fourth-largest city provides an easily accessible introduction to urban Japan and all its contemporary delights, one of the highlights of which is its food scene. The grand Tokugawa Art Museum and attached gardens display possessions of the powerful family who once ruled Japan, and who built Nagoya’s original castle back in 1610. Another highlight is the Toyota Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology, an appropriate tribute to Nagoya’s industrial heritage.
Excellent transport links, including an international airport, make Nagoya an ideal base from which to tour the region. Day-trip possibilities include the castle towns of Inuyama and Gifu, both places where you can view the ancient skill of ukai – fishing with cormorants. The Shima Hantō can also easily be visited from Nagoya.
Dating back to 1608, Arimatsu (有松), once a town on the Tokaidō highway but now a suburb of southeastern Nagoya, is famous for shibori, an intricate and time-consuming traditional method of tie-dyeing cotton that is still practised here. One shibori kimono typically takes up to six months to complete, which accounts for the high price of shibori goods. You’ll find many shops selling them along the very picturesque street lined with prime examples of old Japanese architecture that lies just south of Meitetsu Arimatsu Station. If not for the utility poles and power lines, it could be a scene from a woodblock print – the old wooden houses with intricate tiled roofs providing the perfect backdrop to spring and autumn festivals (held on the third Sunday of March and first Sunday of October) when ornate floats are paraded down the street. Find out more about the tie-dyeing industry at the Arimatsu-Namuri Shibori Kaikan (有松鳴海絞会館).
Arimatsu can be reached directly from Meitetsu Nagoya Station (20min), but if you’re already at Atsuta-jingu you can board the train at the closer Jingu-mae Station. The ticket collector at Meitetsu Arimatsu can give you an English map of the area, although the houses are clearly visible from the station exit. One of the first of the old wooden houses you’ll pass after you turn left into the conservation area street is Kaihantei, which is also home to the delicious bakery-café Dasenka.
The area around Nagoya’s trio of train stations is like a mini-Manhattan with a clutch of tower blocks including Midland Square, Toyota’s headquarters. Apart from the shops, restaurants and multiplex cinema here there’s also the Sky Promenade, a partially open walkway that winds its way down from the 46th to the 44th floors of the building for a panoramic view of Nagoya.
The city’s industrial heritage is neatly covered in a couple of fascinating museums. Ten minutes’ walk north of Nagoya Station is Noritake Garden. The former factory and grounds of the celebrated china manufacturer have been transformed into a very pleasant park within which you’ll find a craft centre where you can watch pottery being created and try your own hand at painting a plate (¥1600). In a 1904-vintage brick building, the Morimura-Okura Museum Canvas reveals in ingenious ways the history and science involved in the ceramics technologies of the Morimura group (of which Noritake is a member). Elsewhere on the spacious green site there is a good café, a gallery of modern pottery and showrooms where you can buy Noritake products.
Ten minutes’ walk northwest of Noritake Garden, and close to Sakō Station on the Meitetsu Nagoya line, is the Toyota Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology. Housed in an old red-brick Toyota factory, the museum is made up of two pavilions, one housing cars, the other textile machinery (though now famous worldwide for its cars, Toyota began life as a textile producer). In the first pavilion, rows of early twentieth-century looms make an incredible racket; in contrast, a computer-controlled air-jet loom at the end of the display purrs like a kitten. In the automobile pavilion, it’s the car-making robots, some of which look like giant, menacing aliens, that grab the attention.
Some 5km south of central Nagoya, amid extensive wooded grounds, lies the ancient shrine of Atsuta-jingū (熱田神宮), home of the kusanagi-no-tsurugi, or “grass-cutting sword”. This, along with the sacred jewels in Tokyo’s Imperial Palace and the sacred mirror at Ise-jingū, forms part of the imperial regalia and remains hidden deep within the shrine, which had to be rebuilt after World War II.
Within the shrine grounds there’s a small museum where you can see many other swords offered to the Shinto gods at Atsuta-jingū, including a ferocious 2m-long blade in the entrance hall. Within the grounds, look out for the giant camphor tree, said to have been planted by the Buddhist saint Kōbō Daishi 1300 years ago. It takes around twenty minutes by subway from Nagoya Station to reach Jingū-Nishi Station on the Meijō line, the closest stop to Atsuta-jingū.
Stroll west from the subway station towards the Hori-kawa, on the other side of which is the charming Shirotori Garden (白鳥庭園). This classical stroll-garden, arranged around ponds and streams, has an elegant traditional teahouse that is said to resemble a swan landing on the water.
Nagoya’s single best sight is the Tokugawa Art Museum (徳川美術館) and its lovely attached garden Tokugawa-en (徳川園), laid out in the late seventeenth century. The museum, around 4km east of the stations, houses heirlooms from the Owari branch of the Tokugawa family, who once ruled Nagoya, and includes items inherited by the first Tokugawa shogun, Ieyasu, reconstructions of the formal chambers of the daimyō’s residence and a nō stage, around which beautiful traditional costumes are arranged, which enables you to really get a sense of the rich and cultured life led by the Tokugawas. The museum’s most treasured piece is the twelfth-century painted scroll The Tale of Genji; it’s so precious and fragile that it’s only displayed for a month each year from November 10 – the rest of the time you can see reproduced panels and video programmes about the scroll.
Three kilometres west of the museum, back towards the train stations, brings you to the moat surrounding Nagoya-jō (名古屋城). Tokugawa Ieyasu started to build this fortress in 1610 but the original was largely destroyed during World War II – all that survived were three turrets, three gates and sequestered screen paintings. A handsome concrete replica was completed in 1959, the central donjon topped by huge gold-plated shachi, the mythical dolphins that are one of the symbols of Nagoya. The Hommaru Goten (本丸御殿), the palace that once stood at the foot of the donjon, is currently under reconstruction; the first stage opened in 2010 but it won’t be fully finished until 2018. Eventually it will house Edo-era painted screens including the famous bamboo grove, leopard and tiger scenes.
Five minutes’ walk southwest of Nadya Park, and beside the Ōsu Kannon stop on the Tsurumai subway line, is Ōsu Kannon (大須観音), a vermilion-painted temple bustling with a steady stream of petitioners. A lively antiques and flea market is held in the temple’s precincts on the 18th and 28th of each month; at other times it’s still worth heading here to explore the bargain-hunters’ district of Ōsu, where old-style arcades are lined with shops selling discount electronic goods, cheap clothes and used kimono – it’s an area that’s popular with Nagoya’s youth and you’ll find several funky clothing and gift shops around here, including the mega retailer Komehyo selling everything from electronics to used clothing priced by weight.
Around 2km south of Ōsu, Kanayama (金山) is a major Nagoya district revolving around a busy train station. Next to the south side of the station is the excellent Nagoya/Boston Museum of Fine Arts, an annex of the respected US art institution, with several different exhibitions staged at a time. The plaza in front of the museum is a favourite spot for young busking musicians and dancers to perform.
Sakae (栄) is Nagoya’s central shopping and entertainment playground. Hisaya ōdōri-kōen, a swathe of parkland splitting the area, is punctuated more or less in the centre by the 180m Nagoya TV Tower. This handsome silver-painted structure, Japan’s first TV signal transmission tower, built in 1954, has been designated a National Tangible Cultural Property. It’s best visited for its good range of places to eat and drink. The UFO-shaped complex immediately east of here is the bus station Oasis 21; its oval-shaped roof, covered with a shallow pool of water, provides an attractive elevated perch from which to survey the surroundings.
Immediately behind Oasis 21 is the Aichi Arts Centre, a major concert and performance hall. Head to the top floor to visit the excellent Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art (愛知県美術館); its permanent collection provides a brisk romp through superstars of the post nineteenth-century art scene, including pieces by Picasso, Klimt, Matisse and Modigliani, as well as Japanese painters such as Kishida Ryusei and Takahashi Yuichi. The large galleries here also host good temporary exhibitions, and the museum is the focus of the Aichi Triennale international arts festival, first held in 2010.
A short walk south of the art museum is the Nadya Park Building; on the fourth floor you’ll find the engrossing Design Museum, which charts the commercial design of modern products, such as telephones and radios, and has hi-tech displays and computer simulations. Push the buttons on the display towers to shuffle through the various exhibits, including the museum’s unique collection of American Art Deco items.
No business is more closely associated with Nagoya than Toyota, whose 47-floor headquarters are based in the Midland Square Tower opposite Nagoya Station. The automobile company was started in 1937 by Kiichiro Toyoda as a spin-off from Toyoda Automatic Loom Works, founded by his father Sakichi, who invented the wooden handloom in 1890; the company diversified into car manufacturing in 1933. You can learn much about the company’s history at the Toyota Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology. Devoted auto enthusiasts will also want to visit one of Toyota’s factories to see its famous production processes in action. The one-hour tours are free but reservations are required.
Short for “costume play”, cosplay is when fans dress up as their favourite character from anime, manga, video games or Japanese rock (J-rock) bands. It’s said the word was coined by Japanese journalist Nobuyuki Takahashi in 1984 when he wrote a feature about US fans dressing up for a masquerade (a combination of a skit show and fashion parade for people in cosplay costumes) at a science fiction convention in Los Angeles. Since then, the term has caught on and it’s now inconceivable for an anime convention anywhere in the world not to have a substantial cosplay element to it. At the ultimate level there’s the World Cosplay Summit held annually in early August since 2003 by the Aichi Broadcasting Company in Nagoya with participants from up to fourteen countries. The main events are a cosplay parade in the Ōsu district and the championship show itself, held in the public areas of Oasis 21.