“More pickles? - Do you want more pickles?” The staff in the Yamamotoya restaurant near Nagoya Station‘s Shinkansen exit prowl the room offering second helpings of pickled vegetables, rice and tea. Yamamotoya is popular with Japanese travellers passing through Nagoya for its salty miso-boiled noodle dishes and the generous portions – the shop even has a small storage room to accommodate luggage. And the Nagoya locals also flock to the restaurant chain with its numerous shops dotting the city, to share a meal with colleagues or to meet friends.
Nagoyans like hearty food and good deals. And they also like the convenience of cafés and restaurants they already know at every street corner. They like their sweets really sweet and the savoury food really salty, or spicy. They like kitsch and practical, modern but not avant-garde, they like horoscopes and chiromancy. Nagoya is rather like inaka (backcountry) turned metropolis, and in our opinion it is a very convenient city for travellers, too.
Nagoya is Japan's fourth-largest city, situated right between Tokyo and Kyoto, but certainly not on the tourist trail. Admittedly the local sights might not be up to a comparison with Kyoto, but the huge rebuilt Japanese castle, the private art collection of a 250-year-long ruling family, the headquarters of one of the largest automobile companies in the world, around a dozen technology museums, many kilometres of underground shopping malls, an enormous aquarium… offer enough to pass time in the city.
And Nagoya does have a good selection of accommodation. Especially in the lower price segment behind the main station, the choice is yours: From men-only sauna and capsule hotels to tiny single rooms costing less than 2500 ¥, to proper business hotels at rates you don't get elsewhere in Japan. Add to that the big portions in the restaurants, the propensity for special deals in all kinds of shops, many-storied second-hand brand-name department stores, the abundance of "ticket shops" that sell not only train tickets but all kinds of tickets and gift cards at a discounted rate – and you have a very reasonably-priced base to explore the surroundings. Apart from the normal, real life in Nagoya itself – something most travellers want to see and experience but rarely do in all those cute and touristy places where everyone else is either a tourist or in the tourist business – there's a number of serious attractions nearby.
Every 20 years, the goddess moves house to a neighbouring Shrine, exactly like her previous home. The old one gets torn down, and specialised craftsmen immediately begin to build a new one so that it will be ready by the time she moves again. Ise Jingu is Japan's most important pilgrimage centre: it is where Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess, resides. The enormous wooded shrine precincts are located on the Kii Peninsula about 80 km south of Nagoya.
The cute little castle on a hill in Inuyama is one of the best-preserved mediaeval castles in Japan – it is a national treasure, but not as crowded as the larger castles such as Himeji and Matsumoto. In the very navigable town below, nicely restored old houses line the streets, and particularly young Japanese like to come here for an outing. Dozens of shops and restaurants offer different types of kushi (skewers): sweet or salty, with rice balls, fruits, meat and whatever you can imagine. Walking around tasting different kushi is rather fun. There's also a major open-air museum nearby, Meiji Mura, which displays houses from that experimental and innovative period at the end of the 19th century when modern Western styles got suddenly mixed with very traditional ones.
Toyota has a dozen automobile factories in the vicinity of Nagoya (most of them in a town called, well, Toyota) – and you can take a guided tour of the car assembly line in one of them. For about an hour, you get to see how they screw together all the parts on a huge conveyor belt and try to make this ever more efficient. Strictly no photos, though, and a reservation is required.
Hiking the Nakasendo trail
The Kiso valley is in a mountainous region to the Northeast of Nagoya. It's cold enough that people gather around open hearths in the houses and that they celebrate the spring festivals a month later then elsewhere. But in the Edo period one of the major trade routes passed here, the Nakasendo, or "path in the middle of the mountains", and the villages were reasonably prosperous. The villages of Tsumago and Magome have resisted over-modernisation, and restored the old streetscapes. You can visit the former official guesthouses for VIP travellers, and best of all, walk on the old mountain path through forests and rice paddies.