Off the Beaten Track in Japan’s 4th Largest City: Nagoya, Japan
Nagoya is one of Japan’s largest and most populous cities: fourth after Tokyo, Osaka and Yokohama, and is located directly in between Tokyo and Kyoto, on the Shinkansen (bullet train) line.
So why, when Tokyo and Kyoto draw in the region of five million overseas tourists every year, does Nagoya remain almost unvisited?
How is it that the major guide books have almost nothing to say about Nagoya? How has Japan’s fourth biggest city managed to stay off almost every tourist’s itinerary, off the radar, and so ‘off the beaten track’?
Though it’s true that Nagoya doesn’t offer a lot in the way of “attractions” and “sights” – at least none that can’t be found elsewhere in the country – this mass overlooking of Nagoya by foreigners has created a paradise for those few travellers who do make it here.
Where else could you experience modern life in big city Japan combined with this level of authenticity? While Tokyo and Osaka paint a stylised portrait of contemporary and future Japan, villages such as Tsumago and Magome attempt to replicate historical Japan for tourists, and Kyoto desperately tries to do both, Nagoya remains one of the only places to see real, unadulterated Japan at its best.
As every seasoned traveller knows all too well, destinations with an established tourist trail also tend to bring hassle, unfriendliness and greedy attitudes towards visitors. Nagoya is free from all of that and is the best place to experience the true Japanese sensibility and feelings towards outsiders.
In Nagoya you can see and experience life as the Japanese live it, free from the millions of tourists you’ll find in the other cities.
Japan is a country famed for its long history of isolation, which is exactly what makes it one of the most unique cultures in the world and one of the most interesting places to visit, and while that’s not the impression you get in Tokyo or Kyoto, there is no better place to experience the legacy of Japan’s isolation than in Nagoya.
What to do in Nagoya, Japan
While it has all the usual tourist sites (such as Nagoya Castle, Atsuta Shrine, Nagoya Port, and the temple and shopping district of Osu Kannon – Nagoya’s answer to the likes of LA’s Venice Beach and Brighton’s North Laine) Nagoya’s real attraction is simply that it is teeming with life, twenty-four hours a day. The budget traveller can give the main sights a miss. Because of Nagoya’s unique zoning laws, or lack thereof, the best place to look for Nagoya’s history is often on its back streets, where you’ll find lonely rice paddies, hidden Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines and a wealth of old buildings that date back to the turbulent Samurai era, all hidden in the cracks between car dealerships, konbinis and supas (convenience stores and supermarkets).
Nagoya is actually the home of three of Japan’s most influential warlords: Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu, without whom the country would not be the place of peace it is today.
The Aichi district is also one of the most notorious areas in Japan for Yakuza. However, contrary to popular myth, the Yakuza often greet foreigners with respect. (I met one.) Both the Yakusa and foreigners have been treated as outsiders in Japanese society and so share a unique bond. If you’re lucky you might even be able to have your photo taken with one. Look out for tattoos and a missing little finger.
Other things to do in and around Nagoya:
- Experience a tea ceremony.
- Or try some Zazen meditation.
- Hit the annual Sumo Championships! (Nagoya is the only place the catch these outside Tokyo.)
- Dress up like a Samurai!
- The nearest sand beach is Utsumi, located on the Chita peninsula and accessible via the Meitetsu line.
- Hang out on the many University campuses! – Nagoya is a huge University town.
Food and Shopping in Nagoya
For a cheap bite to eat, or to taste Japan’s take on food from around the world, hit the Osu district. Shops stay open until eight in the evening, so after you’ve purchased those jeans you can relax in the cool evening air with some Brazilian chicken, Turkish kebab, or whatever else takes your fancy.
However you spend your stay in Nagoya, don’t miss out on the teriyaki burger at makudonarudosu (McDonalds), or better still, Japan’s own fast-food; a hot bowl of Ramen!
Nightlife in Nagoya
A short walk away is Sakae, the epicentre of Nagoya’s roaring nightlife scene. There is no shortage of restaurants, trendy bars and live music venues. My Bar, Mujica and Shooters are among the best, not to mention Club ID, the largest and most foreigner-friendly nightclub in the city, complete with five floors and a range of music from rock to reggae and hip-hop to hard-house.
Other Nagoya nightlife highlights include:
- The beer garden on the roof of the Meitetsu building
- Most drinking establishments in Japan offer nomihōdai (all you can drink) and tabehōdai (all you can eat) deals – sometimes for as little as 890 Yen (£6/$9) per person for two hours!
- Karaoke! Get a private room for you and your friends and go nuts. These are to be found almost everywhere in Japan.
- Chain bars like Ogiya (decorated in the old, wooden style) and Hub (a poor imitation of an English pub, but the unofficially meeting point for foreign expats in any Japanese city big enough to have one).
- Licour Mountain – Fancy a quiet night in instead? Well you can forget about that! Try Japan’s alcohol superstore answer to the humble off-licence. Here you’ll find aisles upon aisles of Japanese whisky, which can be bought in plastic bottles as large as 10 litres!
Located in its central position in Honshu, and all of Japan, Nagoya makes the perfect base for trips to Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Nara, Yokohama, the Kiso valley, the Japan Alps, Ise, Kanazawa, Hiroshima, Miyajima, and in fact all the major destinations in Japan! With the new Chubu International Airport and a rapidly expanding subway network, Nagoya is set to only get more popular as a place to go in Japan. My advice? Get there while it’s still relatively off the beaten track!