I arrived in Nagoya in the early hours, even after the night bus sat stationary for almost two of the eight-hour journey somewhere on the outskirts. It was great because everywhere was closed and everywhere was cold. I wandered around the dark morning streets trying to get a sense of the layout around the station, passing a group of teens setting up a camera and practising dancing, and someone dressed as Santa sitting on the floor with two friends live streaming. My preconceived image before coming to Nagoya wasn’t a good one, thanks in part to the opinions gathered through osmosis over the years that it was a pretty boring place and not worth visiting. “You don’t need to go there,” a friend said while dismissively shaking his head a month earlier. But as I was here over Christmas, I’d hoped there would be at least some excitement.

One thing the city is known for is its cafe culture, but the first cafe I could take shelter in was one of the slew of Starbucks, meaning the famed breakfast of anko (red bean paste) on toast would have to wait another day. Still groggy from a sleepless and uncomfortable night on the bus, I headed towards Nagoya Castle. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and while still chilly, the sun began to soften the sharp morning cold. Walking through the city was surprisingly peaceful and relaxing. Despite its size it didn’t feel busy, a bit like Tokyo, I thought, if there was an apocalypse. 


There were only a handful of people around when I approached the castle, but the peace was soon broken by two buses filled with tourists. The rear of the castle towered above, impressive and its resplendent white walls photogenic against the vibrant blue sky. Heading to the courtyard around the front revealed a hideous modern tower attached on for visitors to enter. A man loudly and incessantly offered his photography services in English and Chinese, but the hordes of tourists came well prepared. 


The main keep, finished in 1615 under the order of Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, was, like many others, destroyed during World War 2 and later reconstructed. I had little interest for this reason, but fortunately the grounds are extensive and the Ninomaru Garden proved to be worth the trip here. I’m not sure why the remains of a small tea house were more interesting to me than the reconstructed castle, but I don’t make the rules. 


The tourists must’ve been on a strict time limit, for as quickly as they’d arrived and taken their selfies, they were ushered back onto their buses. This left the large garden area empty. I peered over the moat to an adjacent park where a group of students played handball, and another practiced what looked like a traditional dance, before casually strolling through the garden until I felt I got my 500 yen’s worth.

The back-streets were a mishmash of modern buildings and those which looked like they were built with the Fallout 4 base builder. I followed under the shadow of the elevated highway for a time, returning to the skyscrapers surrounding the station around noon, deciding then to venture to the top of the Sky Promenade. There are a few choices for observation decks, but this is the tallest in Nagoya, and also where I discovered I suffer from a sort of vertigo. 


The glass lift running up the side of the building sure provided a superb view, and moved pretty fast up its 247-metres to the 46th floor, but the ear popping, dizziness, and slight nausea I could’ve done without. However, the panoramic view of the city was worth the price of admission. I grabbed one of the comfortable seats beside the window, drank some apple juice, and stared for a while into the distance, where factory chimneys rose from the sprawl of grey industrial buildings, adding clear white plumes to the otherwise untarnished blue sky.

Finally, making my way through the extensive construction going on behind the station, I found my hotel, checked-in, showered, and headed back out again. Coffee complimented the night view from the cafe overlooking the front of the station, where I pondered what I would do that night, but getting no sleep the previous night had caught up to me, and before I was even halfway through my latte, I fell asleep for an embarrassing amount of time.

The following day was Christmas, and I enjoyed a breakfast of anko on toast. Verdict: Good, but would’ve been even gooder if I’d been given more than a third of a slice of toast. Onward to Atsuta Shine, thirty minutes away on the metro, and one of the most important places of worship in Japan, getting around nine million visitors a month. The high stone walls and towering trees concealed the site from the surrounding busy roads and also helped to dampen the noise when on the other side. It was one of those curiosities that, despite there being a fair few people wandering around, still felt very serene.


The shrine was built around 1900 years ago, but it was (collective groan), destroyed during World War 2 and rebuilt in the years after. I don’t feel places like this are affected too much though, where most of the site is nature, with scatterings of buildings within, still able to maintain an ancient facade. A large queue of people waited to say a prayer at the most sacred shrine, and an old security guard came to scold me for taking pictures. I scampered off around the back, where it seemed Nagoya had forgotten it wasn’t autumn anymore, as the forest path wove through a sea of almost golden leaves.

Back in town, the iconic TV Tower, twice the victim of Godzilla, overlooked Hisaya Odori Park, a long park of green lawns and water features lined with cafes and restaurants. The day was just as pleasant as the previous. I went to a Mexican place for burritos and beer for lunch, and sat inside listening to “Last Christmas” by Wham while being surrounded by colourful calavera and other Day of the Dead symbols. 


As my food and beer arrived, a less festive song about making love seven days a week (the song used much more colourful language) came on and the festive atmosphere changed somewhat. The burritos filled a part of my soul I didn’t know was empty. Shakin’ Stevens’ “Merry Christmas Everyone” helped restore the spirit. Merry Christmas indeed. I had planned on checking out an advertised Christmas market that was selling German food, but perhaps I had a few too many beers, or maybe I’m an idiot, probably both, for I walked up and down the park without seeing or even smelling it.

Looking for bars to have a drink that evening, one called “SCUM” called out to me over all others. Not sure why. A few minutes after I entered the cosy bar and receiving a Guinness, the owner gifted me and the one other patron with a slice of cheesecake each, which went down surprisingly well with the beer. He took song requests all night, and we watched various live metal shows on the projector covering the wall. The five star reviews on Google had served well. 


Outside, the area felt a tad more sleazy when I left the bar. Rough looking touts stood on corners yelling out to each other and, I guess, trying to convince people that their dumpster snack bars smelt less bad than the others. The highlight was a gent wearing a red pimp suit, complete with hat and cane, who looked like he walked straight out of a 70s blaxploitation movie.

The following day I set off for Inuyama, a small town whose name translates to “Dog Mountain,” which I’m sure you’ll all agree is number one. Nagoya Station was a joy to navigate, and I most certainly did not get on the wrong train even after asking for directions, and assuredly did not waste a good hour of the day course correcting. The town was pretty unremarkable and didn’t stray from the usual look of these places until getting to Jokamachi, a historic street of old Edo style buildings now used as cafes, restaurants, and other eateries. 


At the end of the street, Inuyama Castle stood majestically on top of a hill on the bank of the Kiso River. What excited me about this castle was that it’s one of the only twelve original surviving castles in the country still standing. I ate a couple of mince cutlets and chocolate dorayaki, looking like a greasy fiend among the young couples dressed in kimonos recording videos walking down this picturesque street.

I ascended the winding the path past a bright red shrine and a small wooded area hiding stone lanterns green with age. Shoes off at the entrance, the cold wooden floor creaked with each step. It was constructed in 1537 during the very fun Sengoku period, and ruled over by Oda Nobuyasu until his premature death ten years later. His son Oda Nobukiyo lasted as lord for a while longer, but he became an obstacle in Oda Nobunaga’s (one of the three great unifiers of Japan) aspirations of uniting the Owari Province. This epic tale of three men with confusingly similar names climaxed as a supposed six thousand soldiers burned the town and marched on the castle, leaving Nobunaga to continue his fine work, and Nobukiyo to flee into the annals of time.


Much of the castle’s three floors were empty but for a few suits of samurai armour and a rather large map sealed behind glass. The stairs were extremely steep and short, and I felt my newfound vertigo threatening to make an appearance as I tried to keep my balance going up them. The highlight of this castle is the ability to walk around the balcony at the top. It was windy and the wooden barrier looked a tad too short, but I kept my footing and could appreciate the stunning views over the river and mountains to the north, and the sprawl to the south, with the towers of Nagoya in the far distance a mere greyish blur that faded into the darkening blue horizon.

On the train back to the city, I felt quite sombre that I’d soon be leaving, and waiting for what would be another wretched night bus journey back home. Was Nagoya awash with things to do and places to explore? Eh, not really. Did Nagoya have a great vibe that made it easy to walk around and relax despite its large size and population? Yes. Was I ever going to ride the night bus again? Absolutely not.


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