An affordable guide to Nagoya, Japan’s under-the-radar city.
Nagoya is Japan’s fourth-most populated city—after Tokyo, Yokohama and Osaka—but it’s still very much under the radar. First established as a castle town, it has since blossomed into a fascinating city that’ll win you over with not only its proud historical legacy but also its abundance of modern charm. If you’re craving creative city energy but also want mellow old-school vibes to relax, this underrated city offers the perfect balance.
Day 1: But first, coffee
There’s only one way to begin your adventure in Nagoya like a local, and that’s with a breakfast set at your local kissaten, or old-school café. These smoky and salaryman-filled joints were Japan’s original coffee shops—popping up decades before the trendy third-wave chains like Blue Bottle and Starbucks Reserve did, the kissaten was where locals would get caffeinated en route to work.
Many of these cafés still offer “morning sets” or “morning service”, a meal deal that typically consists of a cup of robust, bitter coffee, thick toast, eggs, ham and condiments. Keeping this tradition alive is the ubiquitous chain Komeda’s Coffee that first opened in Aichi Prefecture, an hour’s drive from central Nagoya. Seek out your nearest Komeda’s and get a classic morning set of thick toast, a boiled egg and coffee (US$3.90)
If you don’t have a car and your itinerary’s looking pretty full, invest in a one-day Nagoya travel card that offers unlimited rides for US$5.55. You can pick one up from the Kanayama Tourist Information Center or at most subway ticketing counters. These tickets can also be used for the Me-guru Nagoya Sightseeing Route Bus.
Hop on the subway and head to the iconic Nagoya Castle. Built in 1615, it was a prominent fortress in the Edo period (1603–1868), when the city was a station for merchants taking the Tokaido and Nakasendo trade routes. Admission into the castle grounds costs US$4.65, but there are free guided tours in English offered by local experts. These tours run from 1pm daily; simply meet the guides at the main or east gates of Nagoya Castle.
Lunchtime is the perfect opportunity to try one of the city’s most filling and famous culinary creations — miso katsu. It’s a heavy, tasty dish of deep-fried tonkatsu pork cutlet, lathered in a thick, sweet and salty miso sauce. It’s best sampled at chain restaurant Misokatsu Yabaton, a name that’s been synonymous with the dish for over seven decades. They’re at various locations in the city; try the popular Iron Plate Pork Cutlet (US$13).
Walk off the meal by heading toward central Naka Ward, to Lamp Light Books Hotel. The stylish space is at once a café, library and hotel. It doesn’t offer much group seating space in the café, but you can take one of the stools by the counter. And then order a black coffee (US$3.25) and watch all the action unfolding in the adjacent Shimozono Park.
The last stop of the day is Lokanta Ayhan restaurant, an offbeat local favorite that serves healthy, filling and delicious Turkish home-style food. Have the menemen vegetables with rich Turkish-style scrambled eggs (US$8.15) and Turkish tea (US$5.10) for a light and comfortable dinner.
Day 2: Market Crawl
When you’re ready to take on day two, grab another one-day Nagoya travel card (US$5.55) and make a beeline for Osu shopping street, one of the city’s most well-trafficked commercial districts. There’s plenty to browse through, and the morning lull is when you can take your time.
Long known as one of the central destinations for Nagoya’s traditional entertainment, culture and daily life, this pocket has served the city retail scene for over 400 years. Snap a photo with the iconic oversized maneki-neko fortune cat and head deeper into the shotengai, or traditional shopping streets. Wander around and you should come upon the quaint Osu Bakery.
Like many local bakeries, Osu is a self-service operation — just grab a tray and a pair of tongs and start choosing the little baked goods that catch your eye. A highlight is the classic Japanese melon pan, or melon bread, a sweet bun that’s crisp on the outside and fluffy on the inside. At just ¥80 a pop, it’s worth grabbing at least four (US$3).
With a bag full of goodies, take the train to Shirotori Garden for a picnic among nature. Entry into the garden is US$2.80 per person. The classic Japanese-style garden features a large pond that replicates the Kiso River, a notable waterway that runs through Nagano (from the Kiso Mountains in central Japan), Gifu, Aichi and Mie prefectures. Shirotori Garden also has a running path, a miniature replica of Mount Ontake and Seiu-tei, a tea ceremony cottage built by sukiya craftsmen from Kyoto.
When you’re ready for lunch, make the trek over to Yanagibashi Central Market, near Nagoya’s central train station. Although most people in Japan like to visit markets at the crack of dawn, noon to afternoon is the best time to check out Yanagibashi as it’s when the market is most lively — and also when Yanagibashi Kitaro’s sushi eatery is open for business. It’s popular, so get there around 11am when it opens — you should be seated quickly. For a little bit of everything, go for the nigiri lunch set (US$9.40).
Endoji Shotengai is the final market-style stop for the day. The commercial area came into being somewhat unintentionally, after merchants began setting up shop near the front gates of Endoji temple in the early 17th century. While modern structures have risen up around the shopping strip, the street has managed to retain its old-school charm. As you explore this symbol of the city’s history, pop by Poro Homemade Kitchen Endoji and grab a bowl of rice topped with salmon and ikura salmon eggs (US$8.35). Then wash it all down with a glass of Torino Ryu Asahi black sugar shochu (US$5.95).
Day 3: A walk to remember
Given that the city is a little kissaten-obsessed, it only makes sense to kick off your last day at the much-loved Mountain Kissaten. You’re not here for the coffee though — you’re here for the café’s famous pasta dishes. Mountain has made a name for itself with its banana-split-flavored spaghetti (US$8.35) — is it breakfast or dessert? No matter, it’s all just a bit of fun.
With another daily travel pass in hand (US$5.55), head to Yokiso, a stunning traditional Japanese villa and sprawling garden complex located in Chikusa Ward. This impressive piece of historical architecture was built in the early 20th century, by Japanese department store mogul Ito Jirozaemon Suketami the 15th, who was the first president of Matsuzakaya Company. Admission is US$2.80.
On this mini Nagoya history tour, Atsuta Jingu shrine, one of the country’s most significant Shinto structures, is up next. The shrine is home to the sacred sword Kusanagi, one of the Three Sacred Treasures of Japan. There, you’ll also find a restaurant serving Atsuta Jingu-style kishimen, or broad and flat noodles in soup. Try the comforting tempura kishimen (US$8.80).
Near sundown, Oasis 21 is where you want to be. The shopping complex is located in the lively, booze-loving neighborhood of Sakae. But before the sun sets, make your way to the top of the spaceship-like Oasis, stroll the sky-high walking path and take in the impressive view of this incredibly underrated city.
Dinner tonight is at Nagoya Niku Miso Curry Kenkyujo in Osu, a laid-back spot that serves thick, hearty bowls of miso-infused curry. The largest bowl here will set you back US$13.05, so no matter your choice, you’re in for a sweet deal. Finally, pop by Jigger Bar Silk Road, a retro shot bar — treat yourself to a cocktail (US$7.40) and bask in the satisfaction that you’ve done Nagoya right.
This article first appeared in the August 2019 issue of Smile magazine.