Its reputation as a manufacturing centre and a hub for carmakers makes it hard to imagine visitors arriving in droves. But Japan’s third-largest city has its charms, with numerous reasons to visit – from its historic multi-tiered castle in the heart of the city to the delights of slurping its delicious red miso noodles, not forgetting its pet cafes. It’s also a perfect jumping off point for exploring the preserved towns along the old Nakasendo highway
Here’s a selection of the very best suggestions of what to do in Nagoya during your next trip.
THE GAME: Pachinko
One of Nagoya’s more unusual claims to fame is that it is the birthplace of pachinko, the Japanese pinball game. Today, a concentration of eardrum-burstingly loud, smoky, neon-lit pachinko parlours – crammed with very serious-looking gamers – can be found in the Naka district. The curious (and the brave) should visit Zent Nagoya Kita, billed as the biggest in Japan, with 1,200-plus machines.
THE SUB CULTURE: Cosplay
Nagoya has a reputation for sub cultures – the Osu Shopping Arcade is the birthplace of the World Cosplay Summit, which each summer celebrates the niche activity of dressing up as cartoon characters. Those visiting out of season can take part in a professional manga drawing class at a local manga school in the Osu district.
THE RITUAL: Breakfast
If you’re wondering what to do in Nagoya, do as the locals do and follow the very specific breakfast ritual, which involves queuing at a local cafe for a ‘morning set’ – normally coffee plus a basket of toast and a boiled egg. Look out for outlets of the popular Komeda cafe chain across the city.
THE MOST INSTAGRAMMABLE SPOT: Mocha
Head to Mocha, a cat cafe opened in 2017 with huge cute appeal thanks to its feline residents. The cats wander among the tables or lounge in gold hanging baskets as customers sip tea, causing their iPhones to go into meltdown due to photography overload. Hardcore cat lovers shouldn’t miss the 11am and 7pm feeding times.
THE FLOWER: Plum Blossoms
The Winter is too early for the iconic cherry blossoms erupt in spring – but it’s possible to enjoy Nagoya’s flowers from late January, with the arrival of the much-revered plum blossoms. Top spots for viewing the flowers – which come in a spectrum of hues from white to pink to red – include the grounds of Nagoya Castle and Higashiyama Zoo and Botanical Gardens.
THE SOUND: Noodle Slurping
A visit to Nagoya is incomplete without a bowl of earthy miso noodles. Join the city’s chorus of slurping noodle lovers by heading to the nearest branch of the city’s famed noodle chain Yamamotoya Honten and ordering a dish such as miso-nikomi udon – thick noodles stewed in a rich red miso broth.
THE RESTAURANT: Garden Restaurant Tokugawaen
Perhaps Nagoya’s most atmospheric venue, Garden Restaurant Tokugawaen is a serene enclave overlooking an elegant lake and Edo-era landscaped gardens, complete with a network of traditional Japanese buildings linked by lantern-lit stone garden walkways. French food is served in the grand restaurant, while there are also contemporary Japanese tearooms.
THE THEME PARK: Legoland
Families wondering what to do in Nagoya should take note that the city is home to Japan’s first Legoland theme park, which opened in 2017. Don’t miss Miniland, created from 10 million plastic Lego blocks, with highlights including mini versions of Tokyo Tower, Kyoto’s Kiyomizudera temple and Nagoya Castle.
THE LANDMARK: Nagoya Castle
Nagoya’s castle is one of the city’s most iconic landmarks. Completed in 1612 (although rebuilt almost entirely after the Second World War), Nagoya Castle has plenty more than just a historical atmosphere: a ninja training school opened a few years ago, and every weekend the castle hosts a ninja show. Spot the castle’s golden kinshachi (mythical tiger-headed carp) from the 14th century, which symbolised the feudal lord’s authority.
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 southwest 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 the month-long Iga Ueno Ninja Festa – 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 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 HOTEL: Kyoya Ryokan
A traditional inn with contemporary touches, the nine-room Kyoya Ryokan provides a touch of tranquillity 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 multi-course 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 which normally take place on the 18th and 28th of every month – making it a good place to dig up a souvenir.
- Arriving at Chubu Centrair International Airport, it’s fewer than 30 minutes by train on the Meitetsu Kuko line to Nagoya. A taxi ride into town is pricey: generally more than ¥13,000.
- 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.
- Nagoya is easy to navigate, with a network of six subway lines. The Meijo line forms a loop, making it easy to access a number of key attractions. A one-day subway pass is good value for exploring.