Japan’s third-largest city is often overlooked in favour of Tokyo’s modernity and Kyoto’s culture. Yet this commercial and manufacturing centre is packed with attractions – from its historical castle and cool cafes to major museums and shopping districts.
It’s also a perfect jumping off point for exploring the preserved towns along the old Nakasendo highway – at their finest in the gentle warmth of late spring and early summer.
Here’s a selection of the very best experiences in Nagoya to add to your itinerary.
THE EXHIBITION: Great Collectors: Masterpieces from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Until 1 July, the Nagoya/Boston Museum of Fine Arts near Kanayama station is hosting one of the more eclectic art exhibitions you’ll see in Nagoya. Featuring 80 masterpieces donated by private collectors to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the exhibition showcases a diverse range of artworks that includes ancient Chinese, Egyptian and Japanese art, as well as contemporary paintings, prints and photography from the US and Europe.
THE ROAD TRIP: The Nakasendo
During that sweet spot between chilly winter and sweltering summer, the preserved stretch of the old Nakasendo highway between the picturesque towns of Magome and Tsumago is perfect for a break away from the city. Part of a route that once connected Kyoto with Edo (today’s Tokyo), the eight-kilometre walk between Magome and Tsumago takes in lush countryside, while the towns’ cobbled streets are lined with historical wooden buildings, some functioning as traditional inns and cafes.
THE FESTIVAL: Iga Ueno Ninja Festa
Iga, 90 minutes west of Nagoya, is ninja country. During Japan’s feudal era, the Iga-ryu school of ninjutsu built a legendary reputation for the stealth, speed and guile of its spies and assassins. On weekends from early April until early May, the town celebrates this heritage with a month-long festival – visitors can wander Iga dressed as a ninja, learn how to throw shuriken, use blowguns and sample other dark arts mastered by the ninja.
THE CAFE: Trunk
Nagoya is known for its old-fashioned cafes and their cheap, beloved ‘morning sets’ of coffee and toast. With Trunk, Nagoya also does trendy. Just behind Takaoka station, Trunk serves speciality coffee in laidback Nippon-Nordic surrounds. That vibe stretches to the Danish craft beer on the menu – which it also sells at Trunk Cafe and Craft Beer, its second outlet opened in 2017, a few stations south at Kamimaezu.
THE INSTAGRAM SPOT: Sky Promenade
The Midland Square building towers over Nagoya station. Head to the Sky Promenade, an open five-level atrium at the top, for dizzying views across the city from 220 metres up. Alternatively, aim a few floors lower and mix the photogenic views with dinner and a window seat at one of the half dozen or so restaurants on the 41st and 42nd floors.
THE DISH: Tebasaki
For a country with such vaunted cuisine, chicken wings might seem out of place. Not in Nagoya. Tebasaki is one of the city’s great comfort foods: chicken wingtips deep-fried until the skin is slightly crispy, then dipped in a sweet-savoury glaze that includes soy sauce, rice wine, vinegar and garlic, and given a sprinkle of pepper before a final showering with white sesame seeds. It’s beer’s best friend. For a taste, head to Sekai no Yamachan izakaya, a Nagoya-based chain with dozens of branches across the city. Or there are restaurants like Gomitori, in business since the 1950s, which also does yakitori using premium Nagoya Cochin chicken, as well as regional staples like miso stew and miso katsu.
THE GOLD USED ON THE ROOF OF NAGOYA CASTLE WEIGHS 215.3 KILOGRAMS
THE HOTEL: Kyoya Ryokan
A traditional inn with contemporary touches, the nine-room Kyoya provides a touch of tranquility in the heart of Nagoya. The rooms blend classic design features like tatami mat flooring and sliding screen doors with modern wooden decking and sculpted garden views. And with piping-hot communal baths and multicourse dinners featuring a succession of small dishes using in-season ingredients, Kyoya goes all out on the best ryokan traditions.
THE NEIGHBOURHOOD: Tokoname
Around 45 minutes south of central Nagoya, the town of Tokoname is all about ceramics. You can visit pretty brick-built workshops here, pick up local Tokoname-ware and take part in a pottery class. In spring and summer there’s also the chance to try digging for clams at Sakai beach – a popular activity among Japanese kids.
THE SHOPPING DISTRICT: Osu Kannon
Now 400 years old, the Osu Kannon shopping district initially served the area’s Buddhist temples (including the one it was named after). With 1,200 businesses, ranging from traditional crafts to cosplay shops, it’s since turned into a wonderful mish-mash of anything goes. That includes festivals like its spring matsuri in early April, a cosplay extravaganza in late July and a festival of street performers in October, as well as the flea market at the Osu Kannon temple on the 18th and 28th of every month – making it a good place to dig up a souvenir.
THE BASE: Red Planet Nishiki Nagoya
You’d be hard pushed to find a better located hotel than Red Planet Nishiki Nagoya. Opened at the end of 2017 right by Nagoya station, the budget boutique offers modern, white (albeit small) rooms and a lobby with Apple computers and an interactive selfie screen. The hotel is easily located by the giant red ‘R’ pasted on the exterior.
● From Chubu Centrair International Airport, take the Meitetsu Kuko line to central Nagoya (journey time is less than 30 minutes). A taxi ride into town is pricey: generally more than ¥13,000 (HK$950).
● Nagoya is well connected with the rest of Japan: the fastest bullet train to Kyoto takes just over half an hour, while Tokyo can be reached in 100 minutes.
● A visit to Nagoya Castle should be high on the list: those interested in meeting a local (and learning a bit about the castle) should join a free English-speaking tour offered by the Aichi Goodwill Guides Network. nagoyajo.city.nagoya.jp
● Nagoya is easy to navigate, with a network of six subway lines. The Meijo line forms a loop, with easy access to a number of key attractions. A one-day subway pass is good value for exploring. kotsu.city.nagoya.jp/en/pc
Cathay Pacific flies to Nagoya from Hong Kong and Taipei 21 times a week