Nagoya Japan Fall Trip Report: Days 1 – 3

Nagoya was not our first or second choice for this leg of our Japan trip. Originally, we wanted to visit Sapporo. (“We” in this case is me; while willing to go, I think Sarah is perfectly fine on not visiting places where it snows. Unless they have monkeys…and these places all do.) We nixed Sapporo after determining the commute would consume too much time. Nagano seemed like a good alternative since it’s home to Jigokudani Monkey Park (you’ve probably seen the photos), but there were literally zero Airbnbs there that wouldn’t necessitate a car rental, and hotels were cost prohibitive.

Somehow that led to me looking at Shirakawa-go and Gokayama. I spent a lot of time going down that rabbit hole (look at these photos to see why), first determining that we needed to stay in one of the farmhouses before finally realizing if we were going to put the effort and money into doing this, we needed to do it right, and go during the winter illumination. Consequently, Shirakawa-go and Gokayama were tabled until a future trip (or until I forget about them).

Since this was the last portion of the trip to be booked, we were boxed in with only a few nights, and couldn’t extend this portion to accommodate a proper stay elsewhere. I don’t know how we even ended up on arriving on Nagoya as an alternative to all of these winter destinations. Maybe I misspelled ‘Nagano’ on Airbnb and ended up with this. It’s really anyone’s guess…

In actuality, our reason for going to Nagoya was that it’s Japan’s fourth-largest city, and is conveniently situated on the Shinkansen line between Tokyo and Hiroshima (our next stop). We’ve passed through numerous times while going between Tokyo and Kyoto, but never had looked into visiting.

Upon doing some research, we realized it had more than enough to fill a few days. Based upon our research, Nagoya looked like it had several worthwhile museums, plus a castle and a few shrines. There was also LEGOLAND Japan, should we get bored with “learning.”

Our commute to Nagoya was hellacious, starting from Mount Fuji and then backtracking to Shinjuku before taking the Shinkansen (our first of the trip!) to Nagoya. Really only the Mount Fuji to Shinjuku stretch was bad. The highway bus is not a fun experience, and that’s compounded by traffic.

Conversely, the Shinkansen is the epitome of a pleasant transportation experience. It currently reminds me of what I envision air travel being like in the 1960s or 1970s. It’s spacious, relaxed, and (for us at least) there’s still a sense of novelty and ‘newness’ to the experience.

If I had to make a top 10 list for things to do in all of Japan for foreign visitors, the Shinkansen absolutely would be on that list. The journey is part of the destination (or attraction?), or something like that.

I’m not sure why luxury fashion brands always have such odd window displays. Does Moncler’s target audience have an obsession with UFOs or is this just some sort of artistic statement? Don’t get me wrong, I love bizarre window displays that are so common in the fashion world, but I have zero interest in the brands on display.

(This photo was supposed to illustrate that Nagoya is a fashionable, trendy place.) 

Our place in Nagoya was the first in a string of Airbnbs that had the potential to be “questionable.” In Tokyo, we were splitting a unit with the Selgas, so there was a necessary minimum size component, and also the fact that we’d only be paying half the total cost. Everywhere else, our frugality was unfettered. The only requirements were that we be within walking distance of a train station and the unit have at least a 4.0 star average score.

Upon walking into this Airbnb, I had a sinking feeling. What have we done?! Our unit was the size of a walk-in closet, and I’m pretty sure it was off campus housing for a nearby university (one of the rules–don’t tell anyone you are renting–was a bit of a giveaway). We’d only be in Nagoya for two nights, so it wasn’t a huge deal, but it was comparable to what we’d booked everywhere, so our concern was this would be part of a trend.

Despite its quality (but perhaps because we were staying in a dorm and our host needed to keep us on the “down-low”), we had an absurd number of rules. Not just a list, but literally a 20+ page book of them.

The above rule was my favorite. Other highlights included warnings against letting random strangers into the apartment and an admonishment about mixing trashes improperly and being fined for it. (Japan is serious about stranger danger and its garbage disposal laws, I guess!)

For our meals in Nagoya, we had a lot of potential options. I had done a decent amount of research on places to eat in Nagoya, and discovered it’s something of a foodie city with a few local specialties and plenty of reasonably-priced restaurants that were highly regarded. Perfect, that’s exactly our scene.

One place that was high on our list was Maruya Honten Meiekiten, a restaurant specializing in grilled freshwater eel (unagi). We were hesitant to try Maruya Honten Meiekiten our first night since many reviews warned of hour-plus waits. It was a weekend night, so we feared for the worst, developing a back-up plan in case the line was too long.

To our surprise, the wait was less than 10 minutes. This restaurant was a bit outside our budget, so we played it conservatively and ordered the unagi for two. This was also a good way to get our feet wet, as we’d have no clue whether we’d like it. (Pretty much anything with eel tends to be our least favorite sushi.)

I loved the unagi. Had I not known, I would’ve had no idea it was eel. Sarah wasn’t quite as enthusiastic, but she enjoyed it, too.

After that, we decided to quickly do a bit of necessary shopping before returning to our Airbnb. Well, the intent was to do it quickly. It turned out that purchasing deodorant was much more complicated than expected, and I had to do some serious searching to find something I was pretty confident was deodorant, and not shaving cream, hair spray, or who knows what.

This was the only bottle with English on it, seemingly a dead giveaway that it’s what I needed. Then again, I’ve heard Glade room fresheners referred to as deodorant sprays, so who knows…maybe I’ve been using room air freshener on myself every day for the last month?

Our first priority the next morning was eating. One of the breakfast foods for which Nagoya is known is ogura toast. There was a Komeda’s Coffee near our rental, so we opted to eat there.

We got a bit carried away with two orders of the ogura toast plus a pizza breakfast sandwich (when it comes to weird concoctions, I can’t resist the impulse buy), which was way too much food…but we ate it all, anyway. Komeda’s is a chain, so I’m guessing there are better places to get ogura toast, but we enjoyed it.

After that, it was on to the SCMaglev and Railway Park, which was about an hour away by train. With so little time in Nagoya, we wouldn’t normally do something like this, but we had such a blast at the previous railway museum, that we couldn’t resist. Plus, this was heavier on the Shinkansen and Maglev (hence the name).

I know I heaped praise upon the Railway Museum in Saitama, but this was even better. If I could only go to one museum in Japan, this would unquestionably be the one.

It’s probably absurd and pointless to compare different types of museums around the world, but if I had to choose between the SCMaglev and Railway Park and the Louvre, I would choose the SCMaglev and Railway Park without hesitation.

Suffice to say, there were several times in the museum that I exclaimed, “this belongs in Epcot!” (And many of those instances pertained to Future World, rather than the Japan pavilion.) It should go without saying, but I’ll be doing a full write-up on the SCMaglev and Railway Park at some point (soon!) after the trip.

The SCMaglev and Railway Park vindicated our “decision” to stop in Nagoya, and made me a little less bummed about missing out on the snow monkeys. Seriously, this museum would be worth the day trip from Tokyo.

With very little time left in our day after taking the train back into the city, but enough time to do Nagoya Castle. With lukewarm reviews and several museums in the area we wanted to do, Nagoya Castle wasn’t even on our original itinerary, but this was the most logical option with limited time.

We were both pleasantly surprised by Nagoya Castle. The reconstruction of the former palace remains ongoing, but was not intrusive, and what had been recently completed was nicely done (albeit with an overt ‘newness’ to it). The City of Nagoya approved plans to demolish and rebuild the main keep out of wood, which is slated to begin in 2019 and finish by 2022.

I’m actually a bit surprised that something so significant and so close to Tokyo would happen (essentially) during the 2020 Olympics. We’ve seen many projects during our time in Japan with an “Early 2020” completion date, undoubtedly happening to prepare for the Olympics tourism boom.

Nevertheless, if you’re in Nagoya between now and 2019, we’d recommend ignoring the reviews and doing Nagoya Castle. On our “Japan Castle Power Rankings” it’s not at the top, but it’s not at the bottom, either. It’s somewhere in the middle of the pack.

After that, it was time for dinner. The agenda this evening was miso-katsu, which is a local specialty. This is a pork cutlet drenched in thick red miso sauce. Think of it as Nagoya’s twist on tonkatsu.

We opted for Yabaton Yabacho Honten, which was a fairly short walk from Nagoya Castle. We ordered two variations of miso-katsu, and really enjoyed them. The flavor was incredibly rich, and between that and the heartiness of the dishes, they left us ready for a nap. (This has been a common theme of our meals on this trip.)

Due to spending an inordinate amount of time at the SCMaglev and Railway Park (no regrets), we were faced with the dilemma of either doing a few more things that night, or pushing a lot of plans to the next day, which is when we’d be heading to Hiroshima. We opted for a mixed approach.

Our next stop was the Osu Shopping District, as we needed to find a 100 yen store, and that street has our favorite (Seria). It’s also interesting to see the various smaller retailers in these shopping arcades.

This area also led to a temple we wanted to visit, Osu Kannon. This is one of the more renowned temples in Nagoya, but that’s probably for lack of better options. It was fine as a free experience that’s open whenever, but it’s not a must-see destination. More interesting than the temple itself was the nearby Karakuri Mechanical Puppet Show that we stumbled upon while trying to coax a cat out from under a parked car.

Following that, it was time to head back towards Nagoya Castle to get some night photos. This was a simple, cut and dry thing that lasted maybe 5 minutes. I got a straight-forward, pedestrian angle and was about ready to move on.

That is, until I decided that Nagoya Castle was too obscured by the trees. At this point, I started scheming. The solution was simple: go up into the nearby Westin, which clearly had elevated views that would get above the tree-line.

I’ve done this in a number of cities at a number of hotels, and usually it’s as simple as either going to a floor with banquet rooms/conference halls (if those are high enough–they usually are not) or going up to the highest floor of guest rooms, and looking for a random window (often found across from the elevators). Usually, this is easy.

In this case, it was not. We started by going up to the second floor of the Westin, where there was a banquet area. Somehow, there was not a single public window in this area with a view of the castle. (This hotel is literally called “The Westin Nagoya Castle.” Half of the windows in the place should have castle views.)

After getting lost and then waiting through two elevators that were full of people, we headed up to a guest floor. After wandering for a bit and finding nothing, we decided to go up to the lounge. This was a terrible idea.

Normally, I’m pretty sure of myself in these situations–a little confidence and, failing that, politeness, can go a long way. Instead, when we got to the podium at the lounge, I froze like a deer in the headlights, and just stood there for a few seconds as the host looked at me. When I turned around after not saying anything and rushed back towards the elevator, Sarah said, “what happened there?!”

At this point, I’m not sure why we didn’t just give up, but we decided to head to the wedding area on the third floor. Again, nothing. As we were wandering this otherwise empty area, a staff person asked if we needed any help. I think this was a polite way of saying, “nothing is going on here, what are you doing?” We took the hint, and left.

Right around the corner from the hotel, there was a tall apartment complex with an open exterior stairwell. We climbed that to the top floor, got my shot and quickly left. It’s not even that good of a shot. Seeing this building in the first place could’ve saved a lot of embarrassment and wasted time. (And ultimately, I ended up liking the first ground-level perspective best. Because of course.)

Even though we still had several things to do, we decided to call it a night and just spend close to a full day touring Nagoya on our check-out day.

Unfortunately, the best-laid plans of mice and tourists often go awry. We neglected to look at the weather forecast before making those plans, and when we got up the following morning, it was raining. After dragging our luggage for about 15 minutes in the heavy rain, I was about ready to throw in the towel and head to Hiroshima.

Realizing that if we did that, we’d simply be stuck in Hiroshima with our luggage prior to our Airbnb check-in time and a similar predicament, we decided to get a locker and do at least the Toyota Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology and see how things were looking after that.

This museum was a bit of a mixed bag. The exhibits at the front of the museum about the manufacturing process of textiles were (I guess?) interesting if you’re into that sort of thing, but neither of us considered these all that captivating. We ended up spending a lot of time in this front half of the museum out of a sense of obligation, leaving insufficient time for the second (awesome) half about automobiles. Very good museum overall, but you’re definitely best served by rushing through the first half and spending the vast majority of time in the second half.

After this, we decided to cut our loses and just head to Hiroshima. There was a lot we still wanted to do in Nagoya, but we realized there’s no way we could do it all in the span of an afternoon, so a return trip would be “necessary.” Despite its lack of snow monkeys, we found Nagoya to be a pleasant surprise–we really enjoyed our time there!

Finally, a quick housekeeping note: after this installment, we’ll be going out of order to cover our experience in Kyoto. As you may have surmised by now, this has ceased being even a live-ish trip report. In large part, this is because our agenda for the trip changed after about a week in Kyoto. It’s also because I don’t want to rush through the report with cursory explanations, and it’s easier to write this in my down-time once we’re back in Indianapolis than it is as I steal a few minutes here and there on the train, etc., in Japan. Anyway, I hope to have the first Kyoto installment up this week, so stay tuned!

Check out All Installments of Our Japan Trip Report for more on what we’ve done. If you’re planning a visit, please check out my other posts about Japan. I also recommend the Lonely Planet Japan Guide to help plan.

Your Thoughts

Have you ever visited Nagoya? Did you visit any of the spots referenced in this installment of the trip report? What did you think of the city? Have any embarrassing photography/travel stories like our experience in the Westin? Any questions or feedback about what we did in this installment of the trip report? Hearing your feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!

6 replies
  1. Comfort
    Comfort says:

    I really wanted to go to Okunoin, Japan’s largest graveyard. But it is so far from the other things we wanted to do it is hard to justify. With you spending so long there, is this anything you considered?

    Reply
  2. Amanda
    Amanda says:

    Thoroughly enjoying the not so live, live report.

    I am going to need resolution to the burning question this installment left me with – were you or were you not able to coax the cat out from under the car? Was he friendly?

    Reply
  3. Ross
    Ross says:

    At least you made the right decision with Maglev Park being better than Legoland.

    Nagoya isn’t a fashionable city…nor is it much of a food city I think. More just car city. Unagi don is pretty good but you can also generally find good chicken karage on the street in Nagoya.

    Inuyama Castle and the surrounding town is probably a more fun experience than Nagoya Castle which is pretty average. If you head to Inuyama you can also do Japan Monkey Park (Monkey Museum and Amusement Park). There’s also a meiji mura museum that way.

    The Toyota museum I thought was fun in the textiles area. The staff would demonstrate how the machines work when I went there…although maybe a little Japanese and being with someone who can speak Japanese helps facilitate that interaction a little better.

    The science museum (the planetarium is meant to be good but haven’t done that), higashiyama zoo and the aquarium are all ok. Nagoya Aquarium is better than Osaka Aquarium-haven’t done the Kyoto Aquarium. The only aquarium in Japan that I have done that is better is Hakkejima Sea Paradise.

    Nagashima Spaland, an amusement park that also has an onsen next to it, is a day trip south and the second best thrill park in Japan.

    Nagoya also often has cheap, reasonable business type hotels-my stays and hotel smile being a couple of the common options. Double bed, desk, not room for much else but you have your own bathroom. They’re around Sakae which is convenient for nightlife and a short walk to Osu etc for $50/night. Probably better than the Airbnb you stayed in.

    Also, Nagoya is known as the armpit of Japan-it is very humid during summer, don’t under-estimate how sticky it can be.

    I’m yet to do the hokuriku route to Kyoto/Osaka but would probably recommend that over Nagoya on the tokaido route. Kanazawa sounds much more wonderful than Nagoya or Shizuoka.

    Also yuck on your Mt Fuji back to Shinjuku, not sure why you didn’t cut back down south Shin-Fuji or Odawara or Shizuoka or somewhere in between like that.

    Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      I briefly looked into Inuyama, but it didn’t seem like there was enough to do. In hindsight, there would’ve been more than enough.

      The hands on stuff in the textiles area was neat, and people on the Japanese tours seemed to be having fun, but without much explanation, the area left something to be desired—at least for us.
      I’m not sure why we “had” to take that route, from Fuji, beyond being all Google Maps gave us.

      Good to know about other points of interest in/near Nagoya. Thanks for the info.

      Reply
  4. Kel
    Kel says:

    I just wanted to say that I am loving these “live” Japan trip reports. I’m a huge fan of traveling in Japan and I love to read about travel experiences to cities I have yet to visit. Thanks for all the hard work!

    Reply

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