As a destination, Nagoya is not the biggest tourist magnet, yet there is reason enough for dawdling here instead of just whisking through on the Shinkansen.
Nagoya has its grand castle, ferroconcrete, yes, but grand nonetheless. Nagoya has Atsuta, one of the country’s most venerable Shinto shrines. And lively Nagoya will soon be home to Japan’s latest airport — the dreadfully named but spanking-new Centrair.
Best of all reasons, though, for stopping off at Nagoya is its proximity to Inuyama.
Around 30 minutes by train from Nagoya, Inuyama is situated where the Kiso River leaves the mountains for the Nobi Plain. This river is noted for its rapids, which visitors can take on by boat, and for its cormorant fishing by torchlight in summer.
The sobriquet happily applied to the river by the local tourist office is that of “Nihon Rhine” — a name first dreamed up by a local geographer, who evidently had a fondness for Germany as well as an over-active imagination: For all the similarity the Kiso bears to the German original, it might just as feasibly be dubbed the “Nihon Tiber.”
Standing prominently above the river is the major attraction within the city itself — Inuyama Castle. Built in 1537, Inuyama Castle has the oldest surviving donjon of any castle in Japan. It was also until recently the only privately owned castle in the country, and photographs of the 12 generations of Naruse-family castellans are displayed within. This castle is rather a charming pint-size affair, with little of the bull-neck, military aspect of the fortresses at Nagoya and Osaka. As with most castles, it is better viewed from afar than from within, which, since it is the original building, has the perilously steep staircases held dear by Japan’s castle-builders. From the top of the castle, there is a sweeping view that takes in the mountains, the Kiso River and the gray industrial haze hanging over Nagoya. Not far from the castle is Uraku-en, a quiet gem of a place that is one of the great little-known gardens of Japan.
The garden might actually be a little more visited if they put up a signpost or two nearby in Japanese or English letting people know where it is. Even with a map, it took me 15 minutes of tramping around the vicinity before I found the spot, but the effort was worth it. I am in no way a garden aficionado, but this garden was one of the most pleasant strolling gardens I have visited. And it was made even better by the fact that I was the only person there that day doing any strolling.
Uraku-en has all the attractive features that you would expect of a Japanese garden — stone lanterns, bamboo groves, graded pebbles and sand, mossy lawns and stone paths with stones artfully placed so as to appear totally haphazard. The point of pride within Uraku-en is Jo-an, which by general consent is one of the finest tea-ceremony houses around. All that is visible of this house with its 3.25 tatami-mat tearoom, though, is the wood and buff-paneled exterior.
Uraku-en takes its name from Oda Uraku, a younger brother of Oda Nobunaga, the military dictator who was one of the prime movers behind Japan’s reunification in the 16th century. As well as being a general like his big brother, Uraku was a master of the tea ceremony: In those days this combination would have not seemed so odd because if there was one thing that the samurai of old savored more than decapitating an opponent it was sitting down to a nice cup of tea.
Where Uraku-en is an exercise in small-scale landscapes, Inuyama’s most-famous attraction is anything but. Located 7 km southeast of the city, Meiji Mura is the huge repository of Japan’s great buildings of around a century ago. Despite the name, Meiji Mura consists of buildings not only from the Meiji Era (1868-1912), but also from Taisho times (1912-1926).
As theme parks go, Meiji Mura is rather good since the buildings it houses are original structures, brought here from all over the country. The trouble with this park is that you wonder why it has to exist at all: It would be rather nice to see these splendid buildings in their originally intended locations rather than here, relegated to one corner of Aichi Prefecture.
Meiji Mura is sprawled out over a huge rambling site, and the place has a breezy sense of fun, with its various sections divided into areas called 1-chome, 2-chome and so on. There is a kabuki theater where you can see performances, a confectioner’s where you can buy old-style candy, a post office where you can post letters. Here you find old banks, churches and public buildings, all executed in that elegant hybrid of Eastern and Western styles that worked so well in Meiji and Taisho times. In those days, even a prison building, as in the one brought here from Kanazawa, was put together with a touch of style.
Prime among the buildings, though, is the former Imperial Hotel designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and erected in Tokyo in 1923. This fine building survived the ravages of the Great Kanto Earthquake of that year; it survived the ravages of American B-29s in 1945; sadly it failed to survive the ravages of Japanese developers and was dismantled in 1968.
With its stone and brickwork reminiscent of some Aztec or Mayan structure, the hotel is one of the loveliest works by one of the 20th-century’s greatest architects. Had it remained in its original location, it would have been a point of pure delight in a city not big on architectural charms. And it is worth making the trip out to Inuyama just for the experience of sitting in the hotel lobby, soaking up its magical ambience and picturing yourself checking in to such a place.