We spent four days in Nagoya, the original home of Toyota and Japan’s third largest city. There are some interesting things to see and do in Nagoya, but to be honest the city is a surprisingly unattractive place, just a mess of big, uninteresting buildings. To a degree that’s not entirely surprising, as he city was largely wiped out during the bombing raids of 1945. But even things that the Japanese typically do so well, like beautiful parks, weren’t that nice.
Still, there were some interesting sights. High on the list was Nagoya Castle and Hommaru Palace, dating originally from the early 17th century and for 200 years one of the most important castles in Japan. The castle and palace were both destroyed in the bombing raids of 1945, but the castle was rebuilt in the 1950s and the palace has largely been rebuilt; it is expected to be completed next year.
There was also both an unexpected gem and a huge disappointment. The gem was a museum and craft center from Noritake, Japan’s leading ceramics company for the last 100 years. The description in Lonely Planet didn’t sound particularly interesting but on our last day we weren’t leaving until a mid-afternoon train, so in the morning we walked down there. Who knew Japanese porcelain could be so interesting?
For instance, I learned that “bone china” has that name because it has (or at least had) actual bones in it? Chinese porcelain has an ingredient that is not available in Europe – or wasn’t in the 18th century – but some smart Englishman figured out that cattle bones would substitute and thus bone china was created. The china made by Noritake in Nagoya was exported, primarily to the U.S., and the museum section had a nice collection of the various designs throughout the 20th century. It was fun looking at the different pieces and seeing how time-specific they were. The 1981 design practically screamed Nancy Reagan. The 1965 version was slightly psychedelic. The 1927 pieces had a ragtime feel to them. I’ve just never appreciated porcelain and china collections before walking through this small museum.
The big bust was the Nagoya/Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Wait, a Boston MFA here in Nagoya? We used to have a membership at the MFA! And yes, there’s a partnership between the two museums, so off we headed. The Nagoya version includes Japanese art but also has pieces from Boston’s permanent collection. How fun, we thought. Until we got there, paid our admission fee, and discovered that there was no Boston collection. The half of the museum dedicated to Boston was closed. As I learned afterward reading the fine print on the website, there are two exhibits a year from Boston, each lasting for five months. But for two months a year the exhibits are in transition and apparently we hit the wrong period.
Still, there was a Japanese section and you would think that it was a Nagoya/Boston collaboration that there would be some attempt to make the Japanese exhibit accessible to non-Japanese speakers. Right? Wrong. Not a word of the Japanese exhibit was in English. We learned at the very end that the exhibit was some wood-block art, and Mark even figured out that one section kind of showed you how the wood blocks created this art but by then I was so annoyed by something that advertises itself as a Boston Museum of Fine Arts collaboration that 1) had nothing from Boston and 2) had nothing in English that I just left.
The other big highlight was a beautiful five-mile Magome-Tsumago hike a bit outside of Nagoya. The day trip consisted of a bus to a town outside of Magome, a hike of maybe a mile to the start of the official hike, a gorgeous walk through tiny towns and waterfall and forests and farmland, and then another two miles to a train station to take us back to Nagoya. To our surprise and delight the two-mile addition at the end of the “official” hike was the prettiest part of the whole trail with more flowering trees and cute buildings than on the rest of the trail. So that was a delight. And since we got an early start on the day we were still back in Nagoya in time for a late lunch!
Now, as we complete our first two weeks in Japan (we’ve been here before, but the first two weeks on this adventure), some observations about Japan.
• They work really hard here. When I would leave the hotel at 6:00 AM to go for a run, there were lots and lots of suit-clad Japanese already hustling into and out of the train station for their to get to their jobs. And when we’d come back to the hotel at 10:15 PM, there were lots and lots of suit-clad Japanese finally heading home after work. Obviously they were not necessarily the same people, but still, people are starting early and working late here.• The whole surgical mask thing here is bizarre. Lots of Japanese – not a majority, but a lot of them – wear surgical masks. Enough that if you Google “Why do Japanese w” the first item that pops up is “Why do Japanese wear surgical masks”. There is a tiny and in truth insignificant legitimate justification: if you’re sick and don’t want to spread your germs (but still want to work) you wear it to protect others. In fact, there are not that many sick Japanese. They may believe the surgical masks protect them from the germs of others (they don’t really), but really it’s almost a fashion thing. They wear them because others wear them. The most amusing thing is to see people – and you see it a lot – wearing the surgical mask pulled down so they can smoke. Yeah, that’s the road to health!
• Speaking of smoking, we saw it in Nagoya, Tokyo, and other places in Japan. Smoking is banned on the sidewalks; big signs saying no smoking. In restaurants, though, you can find yourself right next to a whole bunch of smokers. My assumption is that the sidewalk bans aren’t about health or second-hand smoke or anything like that: it’s just that they don’t want cigarette butts. You can smoke all you want in a restaurant, but God forbid you would toss a cigarette butt on the street.
• And what’s with the challenges in finding deodorant here? Again, apparently it’s a thing; if you Google it, you’ll find we’re not the only ones who can’t figure out where to buy deodorant. I’m not sure what’s going on, but all the international brands that we find all over the world just don’t exist here. Maybe they bathe so much in the onsens and so on that they just don’t need to use it. Strange.
And finally, one last observation from our time in Japan. Some day we’re probably going to have a home again. Don’t know when, but some day. And when that day comes we’re going to need a lot of storage space for Japanese dishes and sake sets. They’re all so cool and beautiful and we’ll need a lot of them. Some day.
From here it’s a quick train ride to Kyoto where we’re joining a Grasshopper Adventure group for a two-week bike trip, mostly on Shikoku Island, the smallest of the four major Japanese islands. There will be a lot of one-night stops and we’ll have a lot less free time than usual so I don’t know how much I’ll be writing here. We will be taking pictures though, so there will be some history of what we’ve done.