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.
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
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 Station
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.
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.
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
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 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.
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.