Most tourists bypass Nagoya en route to Kyoto or the shrines of Ise, but if you’re visiting on business and have some free time don’t just snooze in your hotel room: Get out and explore.
In a few hours you can visit Antarctica, meet a Greek goddess and take tea with a daimyo — all in a manner of speaking. What’s more, you can do all this with a volunteer “goodwill guide,” who will point you in the right direction, and tell you about life in the “white city.”
Nagoya’s nickname is unfortunately due to a lack of greenery. In the full glare of summer an excess of concrete lifts the temperature to the gaman level. Fortunately, I visited in spring and the weather was balmy, the wisteria dangling picturesquely in front of the castle and an afternoon in the city looked promising.
A good first stop is to Nagoya-ko, the port. Emerging from the subway the warm breeze turned into a salty blast. There was no mistaking the direction of the sea, and we set off at a 45-degree angle in search of the Antarctic. Luckily, it wasn’t far away.
A bright orange ship anchored in the harbor turned out to be an old ice-breaker that had creaked its way southerly. This was home to the Japanese Antarctic survey team from 1965, and if you want to see how they spent months sloshing through “sherbet” sea ice, you can go inside.
The nearby aquarium is one of the biggest in Japan, with an Antarctic section and a collection of penguins. Far from being cute, the Emperor penguins are the noblest of birds. All through the dark Antarctic winter they stand on bare ice, frozen by blizzards, balancing a single precious egg on their toes. They cannot eat, and are so devoted that if they lose the egg, they will try to incubate a ball of ice instead. One hopes they are enjoying an easier life in Nagoya.
If you like boat trips and industrial scenery, there is a giant dolphin-shaped boat, which putters around the harbor. Or if you prefer a trip back in time, the new Nagoya/Boston Museum of Fine Arts located in the Grand Court hotel complex by Kanayama Station is your place.
Until Sept. 26, you can wander through lovely French landscapes in the picture gallery at the museum (“Monet, Renoir and the Impressionist Landscape”), or you can plunge into the mysterious “Art of the Ancient Mediterranean World,” where in the dark galleries, the ghosts of 5,000 years who have been stirred from temple and tomb whisper in your ears. The exhibition depicts the flow of civilization through Egyptian, Greek and Roman art, including rare Greek ceramics and a wall from a villa in Pompeii. This is worth visiting more than once — which is just as well since it’s here for 5 years.
For history a little closer to home, visit the Tokugawa Art Museum. The lords of old Owari had close family ties with the ruling Tokugawa shoguns, and their heirlooms reflect the flowering of Japanese art after the civil wars were over. Starting with flashing armor and helmets bristling with mustaches and horns, the exhibits continue on to the peaceful arts of theater, poetry and tea ceremony.
The 17th century was an age of elegant living; household items include golden lacquer cosmetic cases and purple Chinese tea caddies, that gleam like plums in the moonlight. Explanations in English are informative and interesting, and the settings show objects in their context. For example, there is a tea ceremony room in which a screen slides back to reveal whisks and water jars stored in the kitchen.
The family’s most famous treasure is an almost complete set of 12th-century picture scrolls of the “Tale of Genji.” Due to their fragility, the actual scrolls are rarely on display, and rather disappointing photographic copies are shown instead. The video is of a better quality, and a family tree helps to identify some of the friends and lovers of the “shining prince.”
Actually, the ladies with their impossible clothes and fluffy eyebrows all look the same, but the pictures evoke the poetic world of the Heian court and are a magnet for any fan of Japanese literature.
While we lingered over these gorgeous things, the tearoom had closed, so we settled for vending-machine tea and just looking out on the garden. By now stray visitors were being rounded up, and the gates were closing at yet another tourist spot we wondered to: Nagoya Castle. Still, it was a lovely evening, and we had a pleasant stroll through the leafy paths around the moat.
The castle, built by Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1612, helped consolidate his hold on central Japan, and his descendants ruled here until the end of their era, in 1868. An important industrial center, Nagoya suffered heavy bombing in the World War II and the main building of the castle was destroyed. Fortunately many of the lavish Momoyama screen paintings were rescued from the fire, and these are displayed in the re-built concrete keep, topped once more with its golden dolphins. Three of the outer turrets survived the blitz, and in the setting sun they looked as graceful as egrets folding their wings.
By then, I had definitely stayed too long and it was a dash to catch the train back home. As we whizzed past an Art Deco city hall the friendly taxi driver chuckled, “There’s no sightseeing in Nagoya!”
I was too tired to disagree.