SYNOPSIS:  There are cultural sites in Nagoya, not just shopping — a castle, a garden, a museum, and a famous craft center, but no theater this time of the year.  About Nagoya’s cultural side.


By American standards Nagoya is as much a cultural hub as it is a shopping center.  Only by Japanese standards and by the standards of one American teenager does it fall short a bit.  In Okinawa, my first stop after Tokyo, I met an American guy at the hostel who had spent 6 months at Nagoya as an exchange student.  When I asked him what there was to see his answer was: there is really nothing going on there!   As we continued talking it turned out that his dad is quite the Japanese culture freak and was hoping his son would catch on.  Boy, will he be in for a rude awakening!  This kid had not gone to any of the museums or sites.  I wonder what he will have to show his dad…  When I mentioned that there was a museum that was holding one of the most outstanding treasures of all of Japan he mumbled something like: yeah, that’s what my dad wanted me to see…  Oh brother!

I had to do with a kitschy reenactment movie of about 20 minutes since that cultural treasure in question, the “The Illustrated Tale of Genji is only on display for the public for one month out of the year.  But even without it, the Tokugawa Art Museum is no slouch.  The Tokugawas had ruled Japan as one of the major clans during the Edo period from 1603 through 1867.  The core of this museum collection was formed by the inheritance of one of the clan members, Owari Tokugawa, who had been handed over 10,000 objects of precious furnishings, armor, garments, scrolls, swords, theater costumes, etc.   This was an impressive, well laid out and well labeled (by that I mean bilingual) display of first-class objects illustrating the life of the period.  Definitely worth the trip.

Adjacent to the museum and practically integrated is the Hosa Library, technically it is the owner of the Illustrated tale of Genji since it’s a scroll.  Aside from the 10,000 objects from the clan, the Tokugawas also owned one of the most extensive libraries of the Edo period, about 100,000 volumes of manuscripts and pictorial works.  A copy of the Tale of Genji was for sale and I already got myself quite excited until I saw the price tag: $1000. For a mere print not even a facsimile. That was definitely not worth it.  I needed one of the zero’s gone…

And the third component of this cultural compound is the Tokugawaen, a garden. OK, as gardens come in Japan, this one really is not worth mentioning.  But there were two kids feeding the goldfish — that was worth seeing.  They are already as fat and overgrown as any goldfish can be.  Yet, they will practically jump out of the water, mouths wide open to catch one of the small food particles that can be used to feed the fish — on sale in the garden souvenir shop.

I made my round today by one of the sightseeing buses which I mentioned once before.  Larger cities have them and they are a godsend as they go straight from one to the next cultural attraction in town without wasting tourists’ precious time.  I had three targets.

The Tokugawa complex was number one.  The castle was number two — yes another castle.  Now this one was worth it, perhaps for the wrong reasons.  But it was my first “concrete” castle.  As so many things were destroyed in the raids at the end of World War II — this once mighty castle from 1610, ordered to be built by the great patriarch of the Tokugawa clan, Ieyasu himself — was turned into rubble and ashes.  And in the eagerness of the 1950’s to rebuild, it was poured in concrete.  One can sense the change of times and attitudes no better than in the fact that current reconstruction of castle areas such as one of the turrets and most importantly, the entire former palace or the Hommaru is done in the same painstaking authentic way, using tools,  technology and materials from the time period — as has been done at Himeji recently.  Visitors are invited to observe the reconstruction workshop in progress from a viewing gallery.   Displays explain the various stages, methods and funding projects.  And an impressively restored first wing of the palace is already open and finished.

But the rebuilding of the main tower in modern ways also has its bright side: The interior has an elevator, the building is handicapped-accessible, there are museum exhibits and a central stair case which makes for great pictures seven stories down.   Another good castle experience after all.  And the views from these castle towers across town are always fun.

My final stop was a bit off the beaten path but for those of you with brand-name recognition most likely a household name:  The Noritake Gardens and Craft Center.  Coming from Dresden where the porcelain manufacturing town of Meissen is not far, I saw quite a few parallels with this craft center and the one in Germany.  There, the secret of porcelain production first had to be wrestled from nature by Johann Boettger.  The two brothers who are behind the first Japanese factory of ceramics, the Toki Gomei Kaisha, built here in 1904 in the new western brick style, had no such obstacles.  But just as Meissen porcelain runs the gamut from simple and austere to baroque and gaudy, so does the Noritake production.  The museum part made that clear; there was something for everyone throughout the 100 years of production.  Whether plates appealed to the tastes of the European Art Nouveau movement or to American settlers of the wild west, there was something for queens and something for cowboys, something for heads of states and something for the daily kitchen.

The craft center, which was actually a fully operational ceramics lab with people working, was heavily guarded against photography — why on earth is anyone’s guess.  From the design process to the mold, from bisque ware to the final product, you could observe it all. And if you were so inclined and for a nice fee, you could go to the workshop area and try your hands on any part of the process yourself.

For me the most fun part was an area in the back of the old factory.  Once there stood six huge chimneys of 49 meters each which had towered over the town.  Next to the castle they constituted the highest points in town.  They crumbled during the war and were fast outdone by Nagoya’s new high rises.  They could have easily fallen into oblivion.  But instead they were preserved at their still impressive 9 meters and the stumps were worked into a garden in which parts of the original tunnel kiln can still be seen.

The garden closed on me, and the day came to an end.  That was a lot of sightseeing in one day and for a town which supposedly has nothing to offer culturally.  And it was only about half of the sites according to the tourist information.  Among other things Nagoya is famous for its Noh-Theater productions.  I had hoped to catch a performance and was quite disappointed to find out that the theater had closed for the season.  Will I get to see any of Japanese theater?!  I very much hope so.

But for now I will retreat into my 3-tatami-mat-sized compact room at the Eco hotel right across from that overwhelming train station.  And I will sleep just as well in this $25 room as I would have in any luxury hotel.  I am sure of that.

Good night.