I visited Nagoya out of guilt. For two years, I had only ever transited through it. The 3rd most populated area in Japan deserves more respect.
Almost every city in Japan has well-defined images associated with it. If someone said “Tokyo”, I would immediately think of Tokyo Tower, vibrant lights, and massive crosswalks. With “Kyoto”, I pictured palaces, pagodas, temples, and bamboo forests.
Although it is the third most populous region in Japan, there aren’t many symbols foreigners readily associate with the city. I must have passed through Nagoya a half dozen times without taking time to explore.
After 16.7 miles of hiking with a friend along the famous Nakasendo Trail the day before, I planned on passing it once again. The idea had been to take a morning Shinkansen back to Yokosuka to launder my filthy clothes and rest before work. That morning, I changed my mind.
It was high time I actually visited it.
History of Nagoya
In 1610, the powerful warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu moved the capital of Owari province to present-day Nagoya.
The city became a major industrial hub during the Meijii Restoration. Nagoya quickly developed as a prime region for manufacturing, shipping, and transportation. It produced automobiles, textiles, steel, and aircraft. In the 1940s, the city’s production of material that could be used to support the war effort made it a key target for Allied air raids during World War II.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki are arguably the two cities in Japan Westerners associate as having sustained the most damage. One would never have guessed from the clean, bustling city of today that Nagoya took so many hits.
Nagoya castle is surrounded by a moat and gorgeous gardens. It looks like a pristine, move-in ready castle. The first impression you have is that it looks NEW.
Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu ordered construction of the castle in 1610. As with most castles and religious sites, the castle was the focal point around which the rest of the town developed. The Nagoya castle towers were so significant they were designated a national treasure in 1930.
Later, the castle used as a headquarters for the Tokai district army. The castle was all but destroyed during World War II following multiple air raids.
Nagoya castle was rebuilt in 1959 using old measurements, surveys, and drawings. However, the main tower is presently closed due to concerns about its stability during an earthquake.
It’s a mere ¥500 to walk the castle grounds. There are plenty of food stalls offering local specialties, as well as interactive areas for children to practice Edo-era skills like archery.
It’s a beautiful place to spend an hour or two.
Toyota Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology
If Nagoya castle was the focal point of the city for several centuries, it’s the Toyota Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology that is the prime draw today.
Japan’s public transportation system is top notch. Who needs a car?
You don’t have to be a car fanatic to appreciate Nagoya’s outstanding Toyota museum. It has been a decade since I was last behind a wheel, and two hours there were not enough. I could happily have spent a full morning or exploring the exhibits.
The original brick buildings were designed by Sakichi Toyoda in 1911 to study automatic looms. The textile industry developed quickly and played an important role in Japan’s modernization.
Sakichi’s son Kiichiro Toyoda adapted the principles behind the automatic looms to develop something far more complex: an automobile.
Cars rose to prominence in Japan the 1930s, and Kiichiro Toyoda was determined to produce Japan’s first domestic vehicle. On September 1, 1933, the Toyoda Automatic Loom Works created its automobile division. Out of the fruit of the original loom was born…the Toyota Motor Corporation.
The company evolved many times over the decades. During the war, Toyota Motor Company was designated as a munitions plant. Control was wrested from the managers and given to the Ministry of Supply.
The museum is far more than a time capsule; it’s a look at how companies are impacted by the geo-political environment. Above all, it’s a look at mankind’s constant search for innovation.
The staff is very friendly and helpful. Children will love how interactive parts of the museum and how, with the press of a button, they can move four robots into action on a car. Indeed, fully grown adults were eagerly pressing buttons with rapt fascination.
Japan’s Unique Relationship with Robots
A sizable audience assembled in the foyer at 11:10 a.m. to hear Toyota’s violin-wielding robot play “Pomp and Circumstance”. We watched, phones and recorders out, as the gleaming robot’s fingers delicately worked the violin.
It’s hard to feel anything but awe. Japan’s concept of robots is much less Terminator than it is Wall-E and R2-D2. The demonstration presents a very hopeful, idealized expression of how robots could help make human life richer.
I think it also highlights the natural tension between a culture that prizes its past, and yet is a leader in developing cutting-edge technology.
Finally, it is a reminder of just how strong the Japanese are when it comes to adaptation and creativity. From looms to automobiles to robots, Japan keeps evolving.
Nagoya as a Gateway
Nagoya was always a gateway to OTHER places in Japan I really wanted to get to. It was a springboard to Mie, home of the famous Ama divers and Mikimoto pearls. Nagoya was where to change trains to get to Gifu and the Japanese Alps. It’s a great place for matcha lovers to overnight before heading to Nisshio, the capital of matcha tea production.
Nagoya was never the destination because there were always other places I wanted to see more. I do not intend any offense. It’s simply that I’m not a big-city kind of girl.
However, it would be wrong for me not to acknowledge Nagoya’s charm. There are so many tiny details about the city that are adorable. For example: check out these manhole covers! Almost every city I’ve traveled to in Japan has a different design.
Cool, right? At first glance, I was certain the smiling creature was E.T. (In my defense, I’m not the only one to think “alien”.)
The creature is actually a type of water strider that is only capable of living in pristine water. It’s a clever way of relaying that Nagoya is proud of the purity of its water.
As with every big city, the best way to appreciate the quiet surprises and depth Nagoya has to offer is by walking.
Major transit hubs tend to draw an international audience. Indeed, Nagoya reflects a very cosmopolitan group of tourists. We heard a lot of Chinese, Vietnamese, and Korean at the castle and at the Toyota museum.
The multi-cultural influence permeates the entire city. Are you hungry for Vietnamese cuisine? Thai? Italian? French? You’ll find a robust variety of culinary delights. It’s also worth noting that Nagoya has a massive underground presence full of shops and restaurants. One thing is certain: there are plenty of options.
You won’t go hungry.
If You Go
Plenty of trains and buses connect Nagoya to major cities in Toyko, Kyoto, and Yokohama.
The question of where to go and what to see always comes down to time. Sadly, many tourists spend less than 10 days in Japan. In truth, I would not recommend spending one of those 10 days in Nagoya unless I knew you were a hard-core car enthusiast.
Would I recommend Nagoya to U.S. service members or foreigners living in Japan? Those with the luxury of time? UNEQUIVOCALLY! It’s a beautiful city.
I highly recommend staying near the main train station. The hotels in the area are clean, and conveniently located near restaurants and entertainment.
Here’s wishing you a safe and excellent adventure!