Home to sleek high-rises and wide streets, the world’s biggest train station, and no. 1 powerhouse among all the car manufacturers (Toyota Motor Corporation), it might come as a surprise that Nagoya has an identity crisis. While Nagoya conveniently lies halfway between Tokyo and Osaka, not all travelers care to explore Aichi Prefecture’s capital and Japan’s fourth largest city. Many travelers struggle to pinpoint what Nagoya’s main draw is and a lot of people see it as just another modern and industrialized city.
But in reality, Nagoya holds the past considered a turning point in the Japan that we have come to know today and will know in the future.
Though Nagoya might not look like it, it is a samurai city. The origin of Japan’s three most famous warlords at that. In addition to samurai stories, the city offers other ancient relics. You will get live both the past and the present and glimpse into the future while traveling in Nagoya.
I stayed for a few nights in Nagoya since it is a great base for exploring the mountainous region of Chubu, but I think one whole day will probably suffice for Nagoya if its numerous museums aren’t on your itinerary.
I started at Nagoya’s oldest landmark, Atsuta Shrine.
Atsuta Shrine is Japan’s second most important Shinto shrine after Ise Shrine. This is where one of the Japanese imperial family’s three regalia is housed, the sacred sword Kusanagi no Tsurugi.
So what does the imperial family have to do with the holy like shrines and Shinto gods? According to Japanese myths, the members of the royal family are believed to be the sun goddess Amaterasu’s direct descendants. Legend also has it that Kusanagi no Tsurugi originally belonged to the storm god Susanoo and the imperial family received the sword from Amaterasu herself.
This means that Atsuta Shrine is very ancient. Though the wooden buildings that we see today were reconstructed in 1966 after being destroyed World War II, the original shrine was first built more than 1900 years ago.
I heard that Atsuta Shrine gets very, very crowded during New Year and other traditional Japanese festivals, but on a normal day like this, it was peaceful.
The grounds is vast and very leafy with cypress trees. More than a good first impression, this is a nice way to defy the misconception that Nagoya is all about business and factories.
Time went by and a new powerful group emerged. That new group was the warriors or samurai. Throughout the samurai age, different clans fought each other for power. While the strongest ones ascended as Japan’s ruler called shogun, they were constantly at war with other samurai clans, hence the civil unrest for over a hundred years.
Until the three powerful samurai with a dream of uniting Japan and becoming the ultimate ruler came along. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Oda Nobunaga, and Tokugawa Ieyasu are their names and what a coincidence that they all were born in the area that has become present day Nagoya (Hideyoshi and Nobunaga) or nearby Okazaki (Ieyasu).
In the end, it was Tokugawa Ieyasu who succeeded in unifying Japan in 1603 and ruled Japan as the first shogun of the Edo Period (1603-1868).
From the days of the emperors to the shogun rulers, let’s move onto Nagoya Castle. Japanese castles were the seats of power in the olden days and Nagoya Castle was no exception. It is also one of Japan’s largest castles.
Surrounded by tranquil gardens, Nagoya Castle wouldn’t have been completed without Kato Kiyomasa, one of the strongest samurai and daimyo (feudal lord) who was also born in Nagoya.
While Ieyasu enlisted many daimyo to build Nagoya Castle after his rise to absolute power, Kato Kiyomasu is probably the most famous among the castle architects for his unique way of supervision.
To ensure earthquake resistance and prevent easy invasion, the keeps of Japanese castles are built on fan-curved stone foundations (Ogi no Kobai). A lot of huge stones were essential to the construction, but they were obviously not easy to haul back in the days without technology.
But time was a pressing issue. Apart from helping design Nagoya Castle, Kato Kiyomasa oversaw the construction itself, too. To make his people work faster, Kiyomasa would sit on one of those big stones and make the people sing the cadence while hauling the stones.
Kiyomasa’s way of encouraging his people did work and he was immortalized as the statue called Kiyomasa’s Stone Pulling.
Before visiting the main keep of Nagoya Castle, I stopped at Honmaru Goten Palace.
When it comes to Japanese castles, most of us are familiar with the multi-storied white towers with Japanese-style roofs, right? Those buildings are for battles. The real residence of the lords of Nagoya Castle was inside Honmaru Goten Palace, not the keep.
Nagoya Castle was constructed around 1610 as the Tokugawa clan’s seat in Owari Province (today Nagoya and around) and the Owari branch is one of the clan’s three most powerful branches. As Nagoya grew more and more powerful, the castle town also flourished and it became one of Japan’s biggest commercial hubs. It is no wonder lavish decorations like gold foils were used for the sliding doors (fusuma) and walls of Honmaru Goten Palace.
The palace is actually a post-WWII reconstruction, but some decorations are the original that were relocated and kept safe outside the castle area before the bombs hit. The current Honmaru Goten Palace was also carefully rebuilt with traditional materials and methods thanks to its blueprints from the Edo Period.
When I visited in 2015, the reconstruction was still in progress, so I didn’t get to see everything. The restoration was finally completed in June 2018, so you can now see Honmaru Goten in its full glory. It is praised as one of the Shoin masterpieces (a samurai-style architecture).
The rain was coming, but luckily, I was entering the main keep of Nagoya Castle. The main keep was reconstructed with concrete in 1959 and each floor was turned into a museum exhibiting the city’s history, the stories of the three famous samurai, and surviving treasures from that era.
This year the main keep will be torn down, though. The city is going to rebuild it with wood and the new keep is set to be completed in 2022.
Anyway, one of the most noteworthy artifacts is the gilded two-meter roof ornament, Kin no Shachi or Shachihoko. Possessing a tiger’s head and a carp’s body, the statues were placed at the top of the castle and now visitors can get a closer look at Kin no Shachi inside the castle.
Since Shachihoko has become the mascot, they prepared a nice photo spot where you can ride this mythical monster. (This reminded me of a crescent moon. Don’t you think so?)
Even after keeping myself occupied with the antiques and interactive exhibits, the sky was still gloomy when I reached the observatory at the top floor.
Despite the incomplete Honmaru Goten Palace and bad weather, Nagoya Castle was a very worthwhile stop overall. I think the place helps visitors connect the dots about how Nagoya has come to be as well as how the samurai culture evolved and shaped Japan.
Nagoya became one of the most powerful cities in the Tokugawa family’s reigns and with that came its status as a commercial and industrial hub. Even after the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate, Nagoya still evolved with time and technology. Many world-famous brands have its headquarters in Nagoya, especially heavy industry.
This is also why Nagoya played a key role in manufacturing machinery and weapons during World War II and this eventually led to the bombing of the city, leaving barely any traces of the glorious samurai culture that originally pushed Nagoya’s development.
Post-WWII Nagoya is full of futuristic structures, but the most iconic buildings of all are what we can probably call yesterday’s future. These two buildings are conveniently located close to each other in the shopping district Sakae.
Constructed in 1954, Nagoya TV Tower is Japan’s first TV tower. Yes, this 180-meter-tall building is older than Tokyo Tower.
Nagoya TV Tower also has observation decks, but I was fine with just looking at it from Hisaya Odori Park.
The other unique building is my personal favorite structure in Nagoya, Oasis 21. It was built in early 21st century as the name suggests.
Shaped like a spaceship, Oasis 21 serves as a lot of things, from bus terminal and shopping complex to event venue and even observation deck.
There is a Jump Shop here, but it is quite small and doesn’t offer as a big variety of Jump manga character goods like the Tokyo store.
What I love about Oasis 21 is the rooftop observatory. The glass platform is filled with water, hence the name Spaceship Aqua.
I walked up there in the evening. It is a nice place to relax and watch the sun go down.
Bonus: you can see Nagoya TV Tower.
Nagoya isn’t the kind of the city that will take your breath away with its beauty, but it undeniably has more than commercial value. As a place where Japan’s past, present, and future meet, its historical importance deserves to be recognized more.
I have just been officially awarded the Japanese Government (MEXT) scholarship and will be studying at Nagoya University this April. I will start as a research student and hopefully, I will eventually be able to pursue a Master’s Degree there.
I am nervous because I am going into a different field (International Development) from my undergraduate studies (Arts). They are somewhat related, but still, both my knowledge and experience are quite limited. And this will also be my first time staying away from home for years. However, I willingly signed up for it and studying something that can facilitate sustainable tourism is one of my goals, even though I just discovered it after graduation.
When I visited Nagoya as a tourist years ago, I never thought that I would return as a student, let alone going to a graduate school anywhere… Never thought that I will be chasing my dream in Nagoya, putting my past and present together to make my future there, where Japan also faced its turning point.
Though I am nervous, I am excited, too. I will also have more opportunities to travel around Japan and maybe its neighboring countries. Being a slow writer that I am, I don’t know if I will ever finish writing my travel tales, but one thing is for sure: I will rediscover Nagoya and write a more in-depth review of the city. Next time as a local, instead of a short-term visitor.
When to visit: Always accessible
How to get there: Take the Subway Meijo Line and get off at Jingunishi Station.
Or catch the Meitetsu Nagoya Line train to Jingumae Station.
When to visit: 9am-4pm, daily
How to get there: Take the Meijo Subway Line to Shiyakusho Station.
Fee: 500 yen
Nagoya TV Tower
When to visit: 10am-9pm, daily
How to get there: Take the Subway Sakuradori Line to Hisayaodori Station.
Fee: 700 yen
When to visit: 10am-9pm, daily
How to get there: A few minutes’ walk from Nagoya TV Tower.