Overlooked — and undervalued

Tourists may bypass Nagoya, but the city has a charm all its own


If there is one major spot in Japan that visitors somehow tend not to make a beeline for, it is Nagoya.

The Japan National Tourist Organization confidently declares in its leaflet on Nagoya that the country’s fourth-biggest city “abounds in places of scenic and historic interest.” But then that leaflet lists as second among Nagoya’s must-see attractions a TV tower, which — even the most sympathetic observer would have to concede — does share considerable points of similarity with every other TV mast they have ever seen.

Before feasting their eyes on Nagoya TV Tower, however, wise visitors check out an older piece of local history. At its zenith, in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, Nagoya Castle was one of the greatest bastions in the country — with a soaring 48-meter-high donjon famously surmounted by a handsome pair of kinshachi (golden dolphins).

At the castle’s nadir, in World War II, both donjon and dolphins met the same fate as the one-quarter of the city that was leveled by U.S. bombers. Today’s castle is a ferroconcrete facsimile dating from 1959. Fake it may be, but it’s an impressive fake. It captures fairly well the majesty of the older fortress and gives the center of town a much-needed historical pivot — though the visitor quietly assumes that the large concrete elevator shaft attached to the donjon did not figure in the original architect’s plans.

Nagoya Castle was built by local-boy-made-good Ieyasu, the first in an unbroken line of Tokugawa shoguns who ruled Japan for 2 1/2 centuries. Tokugawa was one of a trio of military generals, the others being Hideyoshi and Nobunaga, who helped restore centralized government to Japan in the latter half of the 1500s after a century of anarchy. And by remarkable coincidence, all three leaders were born within eight years and 40 km of each other in or close by Nagoya.

Another great Tokugawa legacy in Nagoya is seen in the Tokugawa Art Museum. Built on the grounds of a mansion owned by the Owari branch of Tokugawas, this superb museum presents some of the dazzling riches amassed by the powerful family. The star attraction among the more than 10,000 treasures, artworks and knickknacks is the exquisite 12th-century illuminated scroll of “The Tale of Genji” — a priceless treasure so fragile it is only very rarely displayed.

In addition to its great military captains, present-day Aichi Prefecture, of which Nagoya is the capital, also boasts its captains of industry. Prosperous Aichi is home to one of the country’s largest industrial zones. Just down the road from Nagoya is Toyota City. This aspect of Aichi is certainly evident in its capital, which is a very practical, sleeves-rolled-up, let’s-get-on-with-it kind of place. It is reflected too in the Nagoyans themselves, who are renowned as the biggest skinflints in the land. Tightwad tales range from the guests taking the flowers home with them after a funeral, to families having granny shop for the evening bargains in town because she can travel for free using her pensioner’s pass.

One of the spots where granny no doubt happily shops is Osu. This lively market district certainly knows how to cater for all tastes: A store selling shoes my own grandmother would have rejected as old-fashioned 30 years ago stands by another displaying Brigade Rosse terrorist T-shirts; a stall hawking sweet, glazed dango dumplings is just along from a cafe serving seriously good Brazilian fare. At the heart of the district is Osu Kannon temple — all bright, breezy-red and fluttering white flags on the outside, all midnight black on the inside from the accumulated soot of candles.

More famous by far than Osu Kannon, though, is a shrine further to the south. Thought to have been founded 1,900 years ago, Atsuta is second only to Ise in nearby Mie Prefecture in terms of veneration among Shinto shrines. The cause for all this reverence is that Atsuta Shrine supposedly houses the sword member of the three Imperial Regalia (mirror and curved jewels being the others). This sword was originally taken from the tail of a giant dragon and presented to the sun goddess before being passed on from emperor to emperor. It is, therefore, the stuff of high legend, and as such is kept safely from the sullying view of the hoi polloi.

Atsuta Shrine may be a sacred spot but, perhaps because of its proximity to Nagoya, it doesn’t exude the spiritual power of the shrines at Ise or Izumo in Shimane Prefecture. Like the rest of Nagoya, Atsuta Shrine is a bustling, businesslike sort of place. Arrive there on an auspicious Saturday in spring and you will witness Japan’s great wedding machinery (weddings are one area where Nagoyans go conspicuously spendthrift) at close hand — the beaming grandmas, the cocky-looking brides, the disconcerted-looking grooms — with the wedding parties being trundled in and out of the place as smoothly as sushi plates on a conveyor belt.

Atsuta Shrine may have its merits, but it is probably not the place for which the city fathers feel the greatest pride. That is undoubtedly found in the shape of Towers, the name given to the huge paired structures that stand atop Nagoya Station. As such developments go, the gleaming white edifices are not so unattractive and certainly have more by way of air and grace than Tokyo’s glumly chiseled twin towers of the metropolitan government offices.

In all, Nagoya is no bad destination. It has attractions in the city itself. And within easy striking range are such spots as the Grand Shrines of Ise, the huge Meiji Mura outdoor museum at Inuyama in Aichi Prefecture and the castle town of Hikone, by Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture. Nagoya warrants spending some time in rather than just passing through. After a while, you find yourself warming to the place — perhaps almost to the point where you might start forgiving it for being the birthplace of pachinko.