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Nagoya - A Great Adventure Awaits in Japan's Heartland

January 5, 2018 - By David J. Latt

As we rushed to board the Shinkansen (the “bullet train”), I remembered to buy a bento box lunch at a take-away stand in the train station.

We settled into our reserved seats and I opened my book. As the train picked up speed, I looked out the window to watch the countryside as we whizzed by at 200 mph. While I read, I snacked on Japanese treats of grilled fish, tamago (egg omelet) with vegetables, steamed rice with bits of seaweed and a selection of pickled and steamed vegetables. Before I knew it, we had traveled the three hours from Tokyo to Nagoya. Now it was time to begin my journey into Japan’s heartland.

Enjoying Japan beyond Tokyo and Kyoto

Japan's rich cultural history, amazing food and beautiful landscapes have always made the island nation a premium destination for discerning travelers. Recently travel to the island has become easier for English-speaking visitors. On my latest trip I was happy to zip around Tokyo using my English-language subway app, crisscrossing the city with ease. The name of each station was announced over the PA in both English and Japanese. When I did have a problem understanding a sign or, in one case, not knowing how to buy a subway ticket, a friendly English-speaking, uniformed guide approached and explained which ticket I should buy.

Many visitors focus their attention on Tokyo and Kyoto. I wanted to explore Japan’s heartland so I headed west from Tokyo to spend a week in the Shoryudo Region (“Dragon Rising”), an area stretching from the Sea of Japan to the Pacific Ocean.

In that week I visited coastal cities, villages sheltered by towering mountains, amusement parks devoted to the love of flowers and Zen Temples surrounded by exquisite parks. The richly agricultural area is home to rice paddies that stretch to the horizon, orchards, fisheries and industrial complexes producing high-tech products sold around the world.

My starting point was the largest city in the Shoryudo Region, Nagoya, which benefits from the warmer weather of Ise Bay and the Pacific Ocean beyond. Today the city has first-class hotels, lovely parks, shopping districts, excellent restaurants and historical sites. But during WWII, with Toyota’s and Mitsubishi’s heavy manufacturing plants based in the city, Nagoya was a frequent target for U.S. bombers. After the war, the city rebuilt and reestablished its importance as a center for tourism, manufacturing and agriculture.

Nagoya Castle

Nagoya Castle

My first stop was one of the city’s most famous historical landmarks, Nagoya Castle. Originally designed in the 17th century with elaborate moats and defensive walls to protect its inhabitants from invading armies. Today the castle and park grounds offer a serene refuge from busy Nagoya.

Walking through the entrance of the castle grounds, the engineering prowess of the builders was evident in the construction of the outer wall, built in the Uchikomihagi-style with a mix of large and smaller stones. Each giant stone was shaped in such a way that it lodged against its neighbor without benefit of mortar. The inner wall was built in the Nozura-style, in which all the stones are the same size, except those on the corners. Both imposing walls were beautiful.

Contrasting with the solid fortifications were the thousand cherry blossom trees planted on the castle grounds. Some of the trees were four stories tall and hundreds of years old. I envied the visitors who come in late March and early April when the castle is aglow with cherry blossoms in full bloom.

I was too late for cherry blossom season, but I had arrived during the annual Autumn Festival.
An area just beyond the First Gate had been set aside for horticulturists to compete with displays of their prize-winning chrysanthemums. A dozen varieties were on display with a cascade of colors, sun-bright yellow, deep magenta, pure white and deep pink. They were gorgeous. But what took my breath away were the bonsai chrysanthemum plants.

Nagoya chrysanthemum bonsai

Some plants were young, with thin, trailing branches and delicate flowers while others appeared to be ancient growths. From one gnarled trunk a foot thick, three slender limbs reached high in the air with dozens of button-sized bright yellow chrysanthemum in full bloom. In a shallow wooden planter, another ancient tree had outstretched branches covered with ribbons of white chrysanthemum flowers, their centers a deep yellow.

Passing through the Second Gate, we entered the fortified area where the families, retainers and samurai had lived.

Walking past us on the crushed stone pathway, a pair of black suited ninja warrior-performers carrying sharply pointed weapons walked by. Their pleasant waves and calls of “Kon'nichiwa” (“hello”) undercut their fearsome look.

Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1612), who completed the unification of Japan after a century-long series of feudal wars, built Nagoya castle for the families of his nine sons and many daughters. Completed in 1612, much of the castle was destroyed in WWII during a series of devastating air raids in 1945. Reconstruction of the castle grounds began in 1957 and again in 2013, continuing to today.

One of the most impressive buildings in the castle was Hommaru Palace where the Shogun stayed when he visited his family. The current mayor of Nagoya, Takashi Kawamura, began a renovation of the palace which is expected to be completed in 2018. The interior has been restored while the exterior of the palace and other buildings on the grounds were still framed by scaffolding.

After removing our shoes at the entrance, we entered a wide corridor. For our tour, we were joined by Haruna Fijuita from the Nagoya Bureau of Tourism who told us about the history of the palace.

The design of the building mirrored the Shogun’s qualities. Strength, elegance, power and wealth were reflected in the solid construction. The interior was framed by beautifully polished hinoki cypress wood. Two-foot wide flooring planks were constructed from single cedar trees.

Aesthetically the massive wooden beams and polished floor were balanced by delicate shoji paper screens that bathed the corridor in a soft, tranquil light.

In the palace, the shape and size of the rooms made a statement. Fijuita explained the ways in which the rooms of the palace reflected the status of the visitors who came to pay their respects to the Shogun. The larger the room and the more detailed the decorations, the more important the visitor.

When nobles entered the palace, before their audience with the Shogun, they were led to the Genkan waiting room. The ornate decorations were designed to impress. The walls were covered with richly decorated screens depicting fields of gold and delicate bamboo forests. A master of psychology, the Shogun also decorated the room with images designed to intimidate. On the screens lining the walls, his artists created paintings of tigers, their fierce mouths open wide, their angry eyes staring down on the nobles while they waited.

The decorations in the other waiting rooms depicted a very different side of the Shogun’s world. Exquisite paintings of nature suggested the serenity created by the Shogun’s rule. Birds sat peacefully on the outstretched limbs of flowering cherry blossom trees in that best moment of spring. Fijuita pointed out that the ceilings in these rooms were higher and had delicate finishing touches. These were rooms reserved for high ranking samurai who were part of his inner circle. He had no need to intimidate them.

Nagoya

The Shogun’s room was at the end of the corridor. Similar to the others, it was different in significant ways.

Unlike the other rooms, the Shogun’s room had a raised floor. A visitor who approached from the corridor looked up at the Shogun who was framed theatrically by a proscenium arch. That was meant to impress.

As in the other rooms, highly polished wood and meticulously painted screens framed the sparsely decorated space. But, hidden behind these richly elegant details was a deadly secret. If any noble arrived with the intent to assassinate the Shogun, a sudden move with a weapon and heavily armed body guards would spring from their hiding spaces behind the gold-leaf screens and bring sudden death to an attacker.

A 17th century village in 21st century Nagoya

When Tokugawa Ieyasu unified Japan, he had a problem. For a century, Japan had been ravaged by warfare between feudal lords. Besides subjugating his enemies in battles, Ieyasu needed a strategy in peace to control the nobles. He hit upon a strategy that worked for two hundred and fifty years.

Every other year, a noble was required to travel to Edo, the site of modern Tokyo, to pay homage to the Shogun. The effort required to make that trip was considerable at a time before trains and airplanes and even stagecoaches when most people traveled on foot. And the cost would be high since each lord might be accompanied by as many as a thousand retainers and family members.

Bankrupting his nobles kept them dependent on his largess and less able to raise armies.

To facilitate that travel, five routes were created that crisscrossed Japan. Linking Kyoto and Edo along the coast, the Tokaido Road (the East Sea Route) passed through Nagoya. To provide lodging and feed the travelers, 53 stations were built along the route. In those stations, inns called honjin were constructed to provide lodging for the nobles.

We had a taste of that history when we visited Arimatsu Village. South of the city center, the village has been restored as a living homage to that pilgrimage route.

Walking in Arimatsu Village we saw what those travelers would have seen four hundred years ago. Over time, besides the honjin, businesses that catered to travelers opened and flourished. The restored two-story buildings reflected the prosperity of the village.

At Arimatsu-Narumi Shibori Hall we stopped to watch artisans create tie-dyed cloth (shibori) in a technique that became famous all over Japan. In its heyday, shibori clothing was sold to travelers as they passed to and from Edo. At the time, virtually every building in the village housed a shibori factory, filled with workers hand-making fabrics with distinctive designs.

At Shibori Hall visitors can take a shibori-making class, screen a video about the history of the art, watch artisans create tie-dyed designs and buy products made on the site. We were hypnotized watching two of the artists, Yasue Asai and Makiko Horita as they created their designs. Asai demonstrated kanoko shibori and Horita spider shibori. Their work took equal amounts of artistry, skill and patience. We wandered through the gift shop marveling at the way the colorful shibori cloth had been transformed into scarfs, shirts, pants, purses and children’s clothing.

Nagoya

Eat like a local at an eel restaurant

Eel is popular all over Japan. Usually served in the hitsumabushi style on top of steamed rice, the preparation is called kabayaki where the head, internal organs, skin and bones are removed, the flesh butterflied before cooking. In some areas of Japan, the eel filets are steamed before grilling. In other areas, the filets are only grilled. For our meal at Kappo Unazen Restaurant, the eel was prepared Nagoya style where the filets were grilled without the seasoned marinade, which was added just before serving.

Crisped on a fiery grill, the filets lacquered with sweetened soy marinade arrived at the table on top of steamed white rice in a covered wooden bowl along with a wooden paddle. To accompany the eel, we were served a pot of green tea, pickles, dashi (clear soup made with seaweed and dried fish) and a collection of seasonings called yakumi which included thin strips of nori (dried seaweed), grated wasabi (Japanese horseradish) and finely sliced chives.

The English language menu explained how to eat eel the Nagoya way. First, I was instructed to use the wooden paddle to place some of the rice in the bottom of my rice bowl. I added two fat sections of the filet on top of the rice. Since the rice was so neutral tasting, the flavors came entirely from the eel. The grilled bits of eel were crisp. The flesh was moist, sweetened by the salty soy marinade.

For the next bite, the menu instructed that I add textures and flavors by seasoning the rice with a dab of wasabi and a sprinkling of nori and chives before serving myself more of the grilled filet. In this part of the meal, the eel still predominated, but the seasoning added a layer of crispness (the nori), heat (the wasabi) and onion-y edginess (the chives). What a lovely combination.

To conclude the meal, I added the last of the rice and eel into the bowl, dashi broth and more nori strips and finely chopped chives. I swirled the rice grains into the hot soup to create a delicate congee. Once again, the eel was the centerpiece of the preparation but the seasoned broth thickened by the rice created a perfectly composed comfort-food dish.

Leaving Kappo Unazen feeling very satisfied, since the weather was cool, we decided to walk around the downtown area.

Nagoya

Shop like a local

We enjoyed a half-hour walk across downtown Nagoya to the Osu Shopping District, with some 2,000 shops stretching over a grid of pedestrian streets. Originally the shops were built adjacent to Nagoya Castle, but over time the castle gave up land and the retail area spread into the surrounding streets to create a destination of its own.

We stopped at the Central Japan Tourist Information Center to pick up informational brochures and discount coupons for shops in the Osu. The stores in the district sell just about anything you would need in life. Housewares, shoes, jewelry, fresh produce and seafood, beverages, snacks, used clothing and designer clothing. There were cafes, coffee shops and even a small chapel. One of the streets, Higashi-Nioumon-Dor, had a funky, New York East Village vibe, with snack shops selling Vietnamese, Indian, Italian and Middle Eastern food. If you want to bring back a kimono, stroll down Banshoji-Dor and stop at any of the half dozen stores selling Japanese kimonos in a multitude of styles for men, women and small children.

Nagoya

Our final stop in Nagoya was the Toyota Museum of Industry and Technology.

A museum of automation and the automobile

After concluding a century of destructive feudal wars and disappearing from the world-stage for hundreds of years in self-imposed isolation, Japan re-emerged from its cocoon in 1853 to discover a world transformed by the Industrial Revolution. Inventive and competitive, Japan rushed to catch up.

The Toyota Museum of Industry and Technology chronicles Toyota’s part in Japan’s industrial revolution after the Tokugawa Shogunate was replaced by the Meiji Restoration which propelled the island into the modern industrial age.

The growth of Toyota’s industrial empire mirrored Japan’s rise as a world power. The museum charted the company’s history as it rose to global significance first as an innovator in loom technology and later as a manufacturer of world-class automobiles. Beyond the story the museum told about one company, the exhibits were a testament to Japan’s resilience and ingenuity.

Named after the founding family, the Toyoda Automatic Loom Works focused on the design and manufacture of cotton weaving looms. With innovation and good timing, Toyoda looms sold well in Japan and around the world. But Kiichiro Toyoda, the son of the founder, was attracted to an even newer technology.

In the 1920s, automobiles were a rarity in Japan. When he visited New York, he was impressed by a dynamic city where automobiles and trucks commanded the roadways. Over the next decade, American companies, GM and Chrysler, opened automobile plants in Japan. In 1933, the Japanese government chose Toyota (the name was changed a few years later) to lead a domestic push into automobile and truck manufacturing.

To begin our tour, we walked into the Textile Machinery Pavilion, a football field-sized room. The noise was intense. Crowded into the space were displays of full-sized looms.

At the front of the exhibit hall, we watched a young man perform the simplest of demonstrations without benefit of whirling metal or electric motors. From a large ball of cotton, he plucked out one fiber, barely two inches long. Keeping that fiber connected to the cotton ball, he twisted it with his fingers.

Amazingly, as he twisted the first strand, other strands followed, which in turn pulled out others. The young man continued to pull the first fiber, until, when it became too long, he wrapped it around a wooden bobbin. Smiling, like a magician about to perform his favorite magic trick, he placed the bobbin onto an antique spinning machine.

His work completed, it was time for a machine to show what it could do. With the press of a button, the motor whirled, the bobbin spun and the process accelerated so that in a few seconds the ball of cotton was transformed into a single strand dozens of feet long, as white as a cloud, as strong as steel.

We walked into the exhibition space where the looms were hard-at-work turning cotton thread into fabric. This area was devoted to displaying the magic of science and the awesome power of engineering. In Japanese and English, women and men in crisp uniforms explained the history and function of the machines.

The textile machines were arranged chronologically. The early spinning and weaving machines were made of wood and metal. We walked past rickety looms that evolved into massive metal giants whose parts moved in a blur. The last machine in the pavilion combined the enormous power of the Industrial Revolution with the marvels of the Technology Revolution. A weaving machine the size of a small bus, controlled by computer software, created complex designs utilizing dozens of colored threads. Toyota’s innovations in textile technology established the company as a manufacturing giant.

Nagoya Automotive Pavilion Toyota truck

The Automotive Pavilion traced the development of Toyota’s cars from a 1930’s wooden mock-up to a 21st Century prototype called “Flesby,” made out of a spongy material. The thinking behind the cartoon-looking car was that if you can’t prevent cars from hitting pedestrians, at least you could make a car that wouldn’t injure a person if that happened. Personally, even with the assurances from the engineers that it wouldn’t hurt, I would still jump out of the way.

Arranged between those two vehicles, the history of Toyota engineering was represented by showroom-perfect cars, trucks, buses and pick-ups manufactured by the company over eighty years. Included in the lineup of cars were the ubiquitous Prius and the very popular hybrid Lexus, examples of the steady evolution of automobile technology.

The museum was designed to be fun for young and old. With so many exhibits, there was enough to do to spend an entire day at the museum. And, with a café and an upscale restaurant, no one would go hungry. On our way out, we stopped in the Museum Shop to look at the creative children’s toys and the immaculately crafted scale models of popular Toyota vehicles. Before we left we stopped to watch the violin playing robot. Truly amazing.

Even after hours spent in the museum, I would have happily continued my automobile-immersion experience by driving across town to visit the Toyota Automobile Museum where 140 of the world’s best automobiles were displayed in quiet splendor. But, we had run out of time.

We were headed to Nabana no Sato Illumination and Flower Park and Nagashima Resort on the coast. In warm weather Nabana no Sato has acres of flowers in bloom. In cold weather, the park is illuminated with millions and millions of lights, creating a fantasy wonderland. The resort is an onsen, a natural hot springs fed by the earth’s magma deep underground. They were amazing. More about both in another article.

When you go

Arimatsu-Narumi Shibori Hall

3008, Arimatsu, Midori Ward, Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture 458-0924, +81-052-621-0111, http://www.shibori-kaikan.com/en/tie-dyeing-museum

Kappo Unazen Restaurant

1-17-26 Meieki Minami , Nakamura-ku, Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture, https://www.aichi-now.jp/en/foods/detail/9/. Features eel (unagi) grilled without seasoning in the Nagoya style (the seasoning is added after grilling) and serves other Japanese dishes. An English language menu is available.

Nagoya Castle

1-1 Honmaru, Naka Ward, Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture 460-0031, +81 52-231-1700,

http://www.nagoyajo.city.nagoya.jp/13_english/. Signs are written in many languages, including English.

Nagoya Tokyu Hotel

4 Chome-6-8 Sakae, Naka Ward, Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture 460-0008, +81 52-251-2411, https://www.nagoya-h.tokyuhotels.co.jp/en/index.html. Centrally located, the comfortable, modern hotel has Western style accommodations. A Japanese or a Western style buffet breakfast are complimentary.

Osu Shopping District

Osu Naka-ku, Nagoya 460-0011, Aichi Prefecture, +81 52-261-2287, http://inbound.nagoya-osu.com/en/. To pick up an English-language map of the area and to buy a coupon book, stop at the Central Japan Tourist Information Center NAGOYA-OSU, 2-19-22 Osu, Naka-ku, Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture, http://www.jnto.go.jp/eng/location/spot/tic/23028100.html

Toyota Automobile Museum

41-100 Yokomichi, Nagakute City, Aichi Prefecture 480-1118, Japan, +81 561-63-5155,

http://www.toyota.co.jp/Museum/english/. Undergoing renovations, not all the floors are open.

Toyota Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology

4 Chome-1-35 Noritakeshinmachi, Nishi-ku, Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture 451-0051, Japan

http://www.tcmit.org/english/. Hours: 9:30 AM – 5:00 PM.


 

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