The city of Nagoya is the crossroads of Japan. It doesn’t often make it onto tourist itineraries, except as a brief stopover while changing trains. While it doesn’t have the glitz and glamour of Tokyo or the rich cultural history of Kyoto, it is a fascinating city in its own right and well worth a few days of exploration. Although it is a large city by international standards, with a population of over 2 million within the city proper, Nagoya has more of a small town feel than other more metropolitan cities in Japan. This may be attributed to its conservative, working-class culture that largely revolves around the heavy industries.

A tourist will encounter far less English in Nagoya than in Tokyo or Kyoto; this may be a welcome challenge to some visitors, while others may find this a significant disadvantage. Although the residents are generally less willing to attempt to use English in conversation, the signage is still sufficient to travel around the city using the subway or train system. Also, because the city is a fraction of the size of Tokyo, visitors will likely find that navigation is much less intimidating.

Nagoya, JapanCredit: By M.Minderhoud (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

A visit to this city is highly recommended; it's good to get off of the main tourist route and experience another facet of Japanese life. Plus, the food is definitely worth the detour!

The following is a list of some of the city’s highlights, in no particular order.

1.  Nagoya Castle and Meijo Koen

Nagoya CastleCredit: By Base64 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsConstruction of the original Nagoya Castle was completed in 1619, but the current structure that stands on the site today is a post-war reconstruction. The inside of the castle has been transformed into a museum, displaying relics of both noble and peasant life during the 17th century. The view from the observation floor at the top of the castle is really quite stunning, though it’s difficult to imagine the countryside as the rulers would have seen it hundreds of years ago. The castle is topped by two famous kinshachi, or golden “dolphins” that were indicative of the city’s immense wealth.

The expansive grounds are also worth exploring, especially during the springtime when the cherry trees are in bloom. The castle grounds feature several gardens and walking paths that meander through the trees. A multi-year project to restore the Honmaru Palace is currently underway, so access to the palace site varies. During the construction, a number of exhibits display the traditional construction techniques used in the reconstruction project.

Meijo Koen is a park situated across the street from the castle. The park offers a number of gardens, a conservatory, a biking/walking path, and plenty of space for sports and relaxation. It is a great place to enjoy a picnic lunch and a stroll through the gardens.

2. Nagoya StationNagoya Station, JR TowersCredit: By JKT-c (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Most visits to Nagoya begin and end at the train station, as it is the main point of entry for the city. The train station is extremely clean, modern, and offers countless amenities. The twin towers house office space and a Marriott hotel in the upper floors, but the first 13 floors are devoted to shopping – most of which is part of the JR Takashimaya department store. There is also an adjacent underground shopping area comprised of four separate malls, with the claim to fame as being the largest underground shopping mall in all of Japan.

3. Port of Nagoya

The Port of Nagoya is a busy industrial port as well as a key tourist attraction for the city. Visitors can walk along the waterfront and watch ships being loaded with cargo for distribution all over the world. An observation tower offers a bird’s-eye view of the activity. The port also features an amusement park, a garden on a manmade island, and the retired Antarctic exploration ship Fuji. The Fuji now serves as a floating museum of Antarctic expeditions.

Port of Nagoya, JapanCredit: By Emran Kassim from Nagoya, Aichi, Japan (vessel at Nagoya port) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The most popular attraction at the port, however, is the Port of Nagoya Aquarium. This family-friendly aquarium features displays of marine life from all around the world, including regular dolphin and orca shows.

4. Sakae

TNagoya TV TowerCredit: By Benjamin Krause (originally posted to Flickr as Nagoya Tower) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commonshe district of Sakae is located in the heart of downtown Nagoya. The most prominent feature is the Nagoya TV Tower, which offers an observation deck for visitors to look out on the expansive downtown area. Nearby is Oasis 21, a quirky building that serves as a bus station as well as a shopping area.

Sakae is mainly known for its endless shopping opportunities. Many major department stores have branches here, such as Matsuzakaya and Mitsukoshi, in addition to high-end designer shops such as Tiffany and Co., Coach, Louis Vuitton, and many more. Like the area around Nagoya Station, Sakae also features an underground shopping mall that stretches for several blocks in all directions from Sakae subway station.

 

5. Osu-Kannon temple and shopping arcade

Osu Kannon templeCredit: By Gryffindor (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia CommonsThis large, Buddhist temple was relocated to the current site in 1612. Visitors can walk around the temple grounds and climb the stairs to view the main hall. The temple festival is held each month on the 18th, when the grounds are filled with vendors selling antiques and other curiosities.

Adjacent to the temple grounds is the Osu shopping arcade, which is an eclectic collection of second-hand stores and other non-mainstream shops. One of the primary attractions is Akamon Street, which features a vast array of electronics stores.  Although Osu borders the Sakae district, the area is vastly different in population and culture, with predominantly funky style instead of designer fashion. People-watching is fascinating in this district.

6. Atsuta Shrine

Atsuta ShrineCredit: Wikimedia commons, En:Atsuta Shrine. *Ja:熱田神宮の東門(神宮東門)。 Photo by Gnsin {{GFDL}}

This vast shrine dates back thousands of years as an important Shinto landmark. In fact, Atsuta Shrine is considered to be one of the three most important shrines in all of Japan. Visitors can tour the grounds, stopping to appreciate sites of immense historical and religious value. The shrine features several prayer halls, a garden, and a treasure hall that houses a fascinating collection of relics and other items.

Atsuta Shrine hosts a number of festivals throughout the year. During these times, the otherwise quiet grounds are transformed into a bustling collection of vendors, cultural demonstrations,  and events.

7. Yabaton

YabatonCredit: By Tennen-Gas (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia CommonsNagoya is known for its unique style of food, which many refer to as “soul food”. One of the cornerstones of Nagoya cuisine is the richly flavored red miso. The best application of red miso is misokatsu, which is a deep-fried pork cutlet coated in a bold miso sauce. This uniquely Nagoya take on the more traditional tonkatsu is not to be missed.

The best place to try misokatsu is at the restaurant where it all started, Yabaton. The original location near Yaba-cho station in Sakae is the flagship restaurant, but there are several other locations around the city (including one in the underground shopping mall at Nagoya station). Look for the iconic pig in a sumo outfit. No visit to Nagoya is complete without a meal at Yabaton and, perhaps, even a souvenir t-shirt to commemorate the experience.