Nagoya rarely looms large in the minds of the common traveler to Japan. For most, it’s just one of those stops along the way from Tokyo to Kyoto, or Osaka, and you really can’t blame them. Sandwiched between the mega-city of Tokyo and charming old Kyoto, you couldn’t pick a worse place to put a city in a travel map. For after being awed by the capital of sophisticated urbanity that is Tokyo, and charmed by the graceful, cultured-as-a-geisha city that is Kyoto, what is left indeed to be seen in Nagoya?
Yet Nagoya is the centre of Japan’s third largest metropolitan area, after Tokyo and Osaka, and if you really want to know Japan, you really shouldn’t shrug it off as “just one of those places”, should you? Nagoya is home base to many of Japan’s largest industrial giants, including the leader of the pack – Toyota. It’s an industrial city, and it makes no pretences to look like something else. Compared to Tokyo and Osaka, Nagoya is noticeably rather bare. There’s no lively Shibuya, no bustling Shinjuku, and no brightly lit Dotonbori. From the time you step out of its main train station, you could sense that the city is serious…I would dare to call it the “capital of industrious Japan”. And if Japan were a cruise ship, I would consider Tokyo as the bridge and the high tech navigation room, Osaka as the bright and busy reception lobby, and Nagoya – well, it’s the engine room. Totally nothing fancy, but the ship would not be going anywhere without it, would it?
Nagoya has had a bit of the difficult past. As an industrial city, it was a main target of allied bombing in world war 2, in a bid to cut Japan’s industrial capacity and ability to fight. Consequently it was one of the most devastated cities in Japan (though of course, one couldn’t compare it to the fate of Hiroshima and Nagasaki), and as in most cities around the world where fighting took place, many of it’s historical landmarks got pounded to pieces, literally, and foremost of these was Nagoya Castle.
The original Nagoya castle dates back to the 1500’s, and it was supposedly the birthplace of one of Japan’s foremost historical figures, Oda Nobunaga, the first of the “3 unifiers”. Falling into disrepair through Japan’s chaotic warring period, it was reconstructed by Tokugawa Ieyasu after he unified Japan in the 1600’s. The current castle is just a modernised replica of the one which Ieyasu built though, as that one was obliterated during world war 2.
Though there’s not really too much to see – It’s fairly similar to other restored Japanese castles like the Osaka Castle – the grounds of the castle are filled with cherry blossom trees, and make for a lovely scene if you happen to be there during Sakura season.
Even the busiest of people look for a little rest, relaxation and entertainment once in a while, and in industrious Osaka, this means a trip to Sakae. Sakae is “down town” Nagoya, where all the fun takes place. Unlike most large cities though where the name of the game is to go sky high, in Sakae the main attraction seams to be underground. Beneath the streets of Sakae is a huge and sprawling shopping area – basically the basements of department stores connected together by a labyrinth of underground walkways lined with shops. Though I doubt there’s anything in Sakae that you can’t buy elsewhere in Japan, navigating it underground is an experience in itself.
Sakae does also have a couple of eye-catching landmarks above ground though. There’s the small scale replica of the Eiffel Tower called, what else, the Nagoya tower, and a futuristic looking transport-hub-slash-mall called the Oasis 21. If you have time (which we didn’t), the streets surrounding Sakae also supposedly offer some more shopping, and some of the city’s best eats.
Nagoya sits right in the middle of Japan’s busiest high speed railway, the Tokaido Shinkansen, and it is also the home of the line’s operator, JR Tokai (commonly called JR Central when translated in English). Located around 30 minutes by train from central Nagoya, the SCMaglev and Railway Park is JR Tokai’s train museum, where they have a collection of their historical trains, including the very first type of Shinkansen, the “0 Series”, whose sharply pointed nose gave rise to the term “bullet train”. They also have a couple of experimental trains in display, including the “SCMaglev”, an experimental, very high speed train than runs on electro-magnetic force rather than wheels. Though located some distance from the centre of the city, the museum is an interesting visit for kids, and non-kids who like stuff that run on rails.
The area around Nagoya Station, the city’s main train station, is also the city’s CBD. This makes Nagoya Station not just a transportation hub, but it’s the actual “heart” of the city. As far as I’ve seen, it’s the busiest, liveliest part. As our hotel, the Montblanc, was right next to the station, we spent quite a bit of time around the station, and it’s hard to run of out things to do, just going around the area. In the basement of the station is a huge expanse of restaurants right next to each other – you could go for a week without trying the same thing. Within and above it is Takashimaya, perhaps the city’s largest department store (and it is large), and around it are shops of all kinds – from electronics like Labi and Bic Camera, to high end fashion like Prada and LV. Needless to say, if you, for some reason, find yourself stuck in Nagoya Station, you won’t mind it too much.
And now, the airport. Nagoya’s airport goes by several unusual names, and I have no idea which one is the truly right one. Some “officially” name it as the Chubu Centrair, while some call it the Central Japan International Airport, and to some, it’s simply Nagoya Airport. Whatever name may it go by, it’s one of the best medium-sized airports one would see anywhere. Most people enter Japan through Tokyo’s two mega airports – Narita and Haneda, and some through Osaka Kansai, but there are quite a number of international flights that land in Nagoya too. Though the air passenger traffic in Nagoya is nowhere near approaching the likes of the Tokyo duo, or even Osaka, Nagoya’s airport still looks every bit world class, albeit at the smaller end of the scale in terms of size. Thoroughly modern, impeccably clean and with very good transportation (the airport train platform is just a few steps away from the check-in counters), it can put a lot of other larger so called “international gateways” to shame.