Shinkansen bullet trains sleek in and out of Nagoya Station. Darting back and forth, to Tokyo one way and Osaka the other, they’re as quick as greased lightning. Soon, the trip to Nagoya will be even quicker for international travelers, when Garuda Indonesia starts direct flights from Jakarta to the region’s Chubu Centrair International Airport in March.
Nagoya’s airport-to-city express trains take about 30 minutes, a fraction of the two, three or more hours it takes to get from Japan’s other major airports (Kansai via Osaka and Tokyo’s two international hubs, Haneda and Narita). That means there’ll be more time to do the frivolous fun stuff in this energetic city – starting with a vertigo-inducing glasswalled lift ride up 40-something floors to the top of Japan’s fifth tallest building (conveniently adjacent to the main train station).
Planes, Trains and Automobiles
Commuters and trains may resemble dots and dashes far below, but the big city can be understood a little better thanks to the 360° panorama from the Midland Square observatory. It’s called Sky Promenade, and from the top of the 247m-high tower, the sharp-eyed can see beyond the fringes of the city – out to sea, and inland to hills and mountains – and that’s quite a way considering Greater Nagoya (aka ‘Chukyo’ or ‘middle capital’) is the third largest metropolis in Japan.
Nagoya is the kind of place that’s easily measured against other cities. Fifth tallest… third largest…first ever. The city is the engine house of Japanese industry. This is where Honda, Toyota and Mitsubishi (and luxury Lexus) build their cars, and where other world-famous brands make trains, motorbikes, cameras and power tools.
From Sky Promenade, just look due east to pinpoint an early emblem of the city’s engineering aspirations. The Nagoya TV Tower, the first of its kind in Japan, best seen by night, was completed in 1954. It stands astride a ribbon park that runs through Sakae, a long established downtown district where shopping and entertainment power the economy.
Sakae has long been busy keeping all-comers happy – as part of the old ‘castle town’ it has provided nourishment and nightcaps for locals and visitors for 400 years. Nagoya Castle (around which the town formed) was the principal stop on Minoji, a historical north– south road. It linked two major cross-country highways, Tokaido and Nakasendo, which – like today’s Shinkansen trains – connected Tokyo with Kyoto and Osaka… if perhaps not quite so speedily.
Once the preserve of the elite, Nagoya Castle today opens its doors to one and all, and there’s plenty to keep you amused: tours and displays, gardens and a tea house, re-enactments and demonstrations, and a calendar of seasonal events (from cherry blossom viewing in spring to chrysanthemum bonsai displays in autumn).
Station to Station
Suburban Okazaki (some 40 minutes southeast of Nagoya Station) has a castle, too. The current iteration is a 1950s reconstruction, albeit a handsome one set in a fine park. Okazaki is the principal firework manufacturing centre of Japan – although they make something else that’s equally banging here: miso. A couple of venerable companies have been fermenting the much-loved soya-bean-based seasoning for centuries (Maruya since 1337, over a century before the original castle was erected!)
You can get a taste of this hacho-miso across Nagoya because it is the star of a must-eat local dish called miso-katsu. Typically presented as a deep-fried cutlet on steamed rice ladled over with the salty, umami-rich sauce, a growing number of restaurants offer variations using chicken escalope or prawn in breadcrumbs. It’s dangerously moreish (that is, it could give you more of a waistline).
If you’re not particularly interested in castles, you may not get all the way to Okazaki, but certainly try going halfway, to Arimatsu, which is on the same Meitetsu railway line. Sightseers head here for just one street. It’s lined with traditional merchant houses, workshops and warehouses where the 400-year-old tradition of making shibori tie-dyed cloth is still going strong. As well as boutique shops selling everything from handkerchiefs to summer kimonos, there’s a museum where the Arimatsu– Narumi dyeing technique is demonstrated by elderly practitioners of the craft (look out for the annual festival too, normally held in the first weekend of June).
It’s hard to believe that this quiet, quaint street was once a short stretch of the medieval equivalent of an expressway: the great east–west coastal route called Tokaido. Arimatsu was chosen as the 40th of 53 official ‘stations’ along the road. As well as being an administrative and communications post, food and lodgings (and of course textile souvenirs) were offered to passing samurai, pilgrims and perhaps the occasional door-to-door salesman!
There were 13 ‘stations’ on the Tokaido between Arimatsu and the ancient capital of Kyoto. Today, the Nozomi Shinkansen from Nagoya to Kyoto takes just 35 minutes to cover the 140km route… with no stops in between! And by morning coffee time, you can be walking into iconic Higashiyama district with the same sense of wonderment and relief as the weary travellers who had been hiking for days (perhaps weeks) along the ancient routes. Although today, you’ll arrive at Kyoto Station, so get a ¥600 (US$5.50) one-day bus pass and hop on the number 100 or 206.
Walking into History
The Tokaido – having merged with its corresponding inland route from Tokyo called the Nakasendo – entered Kyoto on a thoroughfare just below the hill on which Kiyomizu-dera Temple stands. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as is Ginkaku-ji Temple at the very north of Higashiyama, the historical district on the eastern edge of the city. And in between the two? Enticing alleys, stepped lanes, lush gardens, more imposing temples and curious little boutiques.
Should Kyoto’s scale (and, let’s face it, popularity) not be for you, take a 30-minute train ride northwards from Nagoya to little Inuyama. Its ‘castle town’ – a historic district of wooden shop houses with plentiful distractions including rickshaw pullers, kimono hire and local handicrafts – is reminiscent of parts of Kyoto’s Higashiyama, and is a satisfying prelude to the town’s main attraction, its castle. The central wooden tower was erected in 1537 and is largely untouched, making it one of only 12 ‘original’ castles in all Japan (and the only one that’s privately owned).
The Kiso River flows past Inuyama and is a mercurial pathfinder through the mountains, boulder-strewn valleys and thick forest to the north. What remains of the Nakasendo inland route follows the Kiso for about 120km, and though on the map it may seem an age away from Nagoya, the direct Shinano express train stops at Nagiso, a small valley town on the historical path, after just an hour.
Catch the 7am departure, for example, and you will be strolling along the well-trodden cobbled path when the air is still pine-fresh and heavy with dew. A morning’s hike south along the well-signposted Nakasendo route, which meanders through hamlets, over streams and up hills, will first bring you to the antique post town of Tsumago (time for a local speciality: the chestnut-paste sweet called kurikinton at Sawadaya), and then on to Magome, a hillside village where you should slurp a delicious lunch of soba and mountain-veggie soup at Masuya noodle house followed by a reviving espresso at hipster Hillbilly Coffee, a little further down.
And so back to Nagoya, where sleek, glossy modernity is a constant reminder that this city is built on planes, trains and automobiles. But with a little effort – and perhaps via a journey on vehicles made in nearby factories – it’s not too hard to uncover the past, hidden beneath the 21st century shimmer.