The very first city I visited in Japan (way back in December 2007) was Nagoya. While I always make fun of the city when I meet people from Nagoya, it does have its own unique feeling. In Japan, it’s somewhat like being from Chicago or somewhere in the Midwest, it’s not the hyper-energetic capital like Tokyo, the cultural gem that is Kyoto, or the second city rival that is Osaka. It’s a massive city along the Tokaido Shinkansen line with lots of people that makes cars. That doesn’t mean it’s without charm or interesting sites.
Waking up in Nagoya, I immediately headed for Nagoya Castle. My plan was to see what I could see in Nagoya before departing for Osaka and seeing as much as I could of that city as well—luckily, Japan makes this easy. I took the much less crowded, much more simple Nagoya metro (compared with Tokyo’s bizarre mix of dozens of train companies) and a few stations and one line switch later, I was standing across the street from the Nagoya City Hall and at the edge of Nagoya Castle’s complex. Nagoya Castle is impressive if you’ve never seen a Japanese castle before—and I’m glad that I saw it before Himeji Castle rather than after. Sadly, the original was lost in the war: victim of the Japanese Army using the complex and the castle for military activities and the American Air Force targeting basically anything that moved during the war.
What makes Nagoya Castle most unique in my opinion was not the castle, but the newly restored Hommaru Palace next to it. In general, the palaces one sees in Japan are old and the wood is worn. They may be beautiful, but seeing a palace in new condition is marvelous. The paintings are all fresh, the detail exquisite, the colors bright and new. After walking through Hommaru Palace (which reminded me of Ninomaru Palace at Nijo Castle in Kyoto), I visited Nagoya Castle itself.
The modern Nagoya Castle is a steel and concrete structure which was re-built after World War II. Inside, there is an elevator, stairs leading to the top, and exhibits lining the hallways. But inside, it doesn’t retain any feeling of being inside a castle, other than maybe the very top floor where one can look out over the city. Interestingly, there are plans to re-build the main keep using traditional methods, requiring a full deconstruction and re-construction. If completed properly, it will be a marvelous site to visit. After taking a look out across the city and snapping a few pictures, I headed down and out of the castle, past City Hall, and back towards the Shinkansen station, I had a train to catch!
Los Angeles and Nagoya, both near the Pacific ocean, lots of people, but not much else!
The great thing about traveling Japan is the immediate gratification of taking a Shinkansen from any major city to any other major city. I arrived at Nagoya Shinkansen station and within 8 minutes, I was on a Nozomi Shinkansen bound for Osaka making a single stop in Kyoto (for 2 minutes). Before long, I arrived at Shin-Osaka station and took the local JR service to Osaka station (the more central non-Shinkansen station). I dumped my bag in a locker at the train station and headed out into the city. Walking south from the station, I found food in an area between the station and the river.
I asked the friend I’d been traveling with—she’s from Osaka—what’s interesting there and she mentioned a shrine. So, after lunch, I headed south to see the shrine. Whenever I travel, I like to wander through random neighborhoods and see a bit of daily life. So, instead of minimizing my walk from train station to shrine, I took the Osaka Subway line to Tamade Station and walked the roughly one mile to the shrine. The neighborhood I happened to walk through was a network of very small streets and was largely residential. I eventually emerged into a covered market which ran block after block after block. I only saw a lot of these covered areas a bit further South in Japan and much more infrequently in Tokyo. I assume that it was because of the heat.
Sumiyoshi Taisha (住吉大社)
I entered the shrine—bowing at the gate and washing my hands and mouth as expected—and wandered the complex. At the front, there is a large arched bridge that leads further into the complex. Again, just as with other religions’ religious architecture, there’s an ever-present layering and organization which leads one from the regular world to the spiritual. Gates and bridges and more gates and structures and paths. And generally, somewhere in the center, a place so holy that only religious authorities are allowed to enter. On one level, it’s all very interesting and adds to the mysticism, but on another level, one wonders if the spiritual centers of temples, shrines, churches, or mosques really feel and different to those who enter them daily.
The shrine is interesting and peaceful and the grounds are relatively large. This particular shrine is the main Sumiyoshi shrine in Japan, paying homage to three Gods who are related to the ocean and sailing. Japanese religion is very complex and non-linear compared to the religions with which I’m more familiar (Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity, Islam). At the back of Sumiyoshi Taisha was a small structure with small statues of guardian cats. I wandered around a bit more and saw a young Japanese couple with a very young infant (probably a month old), grandparents, and other family members. They had obviously brought the child for some sort of blessing ritual. After that, I headed back towards the main part of Osaka.
Namba (難波) and Ōsaka City Center
I took the train back North, got off at Namba station, and stopped for a coffee at Starbucks. I hadn’t eaten lunch yet, so coffee and a pastry seemed like a good idea (I lost 26 pounds while I was in Japan this year). After that, I set off in search of the famous Dotonbori (道頓堀) area where it seems it’s famous for being famous and having large brightly-lit signs like Times Square, NYC or Piccadilly Circus, London. The “symbol” of Osaka,the Glico Man, is there selling his Pocky and whatever else Glico makes. The sign has apparently been there since 1935 and is now one amongst many, but is clearly the inter-generational favorite.
After wandering around a bit more and watching at the throngs of people shopping and selfie-ing and making noise, I took a train to Yodoyabashi near Osaka City Hall and walked around the small island in the river. Because it was nearly sunset, I was able to take some nice pictures of the city center and various random parts of the city. Eventually, I went back to Osaka Station to retrieve my bag and head to Universal Studios, my destination that evening and the next day.
I checked into my hotel, Keihan Universal City, and went out to look for a proper dinner. Because Osaka is known for Takoyaki (fried Octopus balls), I got a small order of Takoyaki then went to eat some ramen for dinner. Walking around Universal City Walk, it was clear that the guests at Universal are a very different target than the guests at Disney. This may change over time, as I’ll discuss in my next post, but parents and children were replaced by groups of teenagers and early-20’s out to have a fun day. As one of my co-workers told me, Universal Studios Japan is seen as focusing on doing what Disney cannot do in Japan. Eventually, I found my way back to my room and quickly fell asleep.