As seen on We Are Sole Sisters
Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka: the first stops any traveller makes in the land of the rising sun. Sole Sister Julienne gets off the beaten track this autumn and discovers a side of Japan most tourists miss…
When Sole Sister Lois got in touch with an opportunity to return to Japan, I was over the moon. Firstly, it would be my first time travelling as a “travel blogger” with big names in the local blogosphere. Secondly, anyone who’s been knows: no other country in the world is like Japan as a destination.
The trip was scheduled for five days in October, exploring the Chūbu region. That is, the area of central Japan, smack in between the Kantō (Capital: Tokyo) and the Kansai (Capital: Osaka) regions.
Via shinkansen (bullet train), Nagoya to Tokyo is under two hours; to southern Osaka, it’s little over an hour
I had been to Nagoya previously, but instead of exploring Chūbu, I went for the expensive option and headed to Tokyo, where I spent most of my time. The one way (!!) trip costs almost 100 USD (11,090 JPY) on the shinkansen. But if you have more time, you can lower the cost by taking a direct bus, which starts at 20 USD (2,400 JPY) for a 5-6 hour trip.
On my first trip to Nagoya, Sakura (cherry blossom) season, March 2015
I’m glad I got the chance to return, because this time around I realised many things I had overlooked the last time: mainly, that the underrated Chūbu region is actually a hidden gem. Aside from being home to Mount Fuji and the Japan alps, “the central part of Japan” has retained much of its historical heritage and cultural authenticity. It’s also far more affordable than the cities on Japan’s standard tourist route. And being on the less-trodden path, you’ll find a less commercialised atmosphere and more earnestness from the locals. Throughout the trip, most of the travellers we met were either Japanese, or Westerners who live in Japan.
Nagoya: From Samurai to Toyota
Our first and last stop was Nagoya. The city serves as the gateway from the regional hub of Chūbu Centrair International Airport. It’s around 50 minutes from the airport (perched on an outlying, reclaimed island) to downtown Nagoya.
If you ever find yourself with time to kill in that airport, it might just be the best layover you’ll ever have. Chūbu Centrair has a mini village full of shops and restaurants on the fourth floor, complete with even a Japanese style bathhouse where you can soak your weary bones while watching airplanes flying in and out over Ise Bay.
Nagoya Castle and the handsome samurai show
During the Warring States period of Japanese history, the Aichi prefecture in Chūbu was the birthplace of the most important Samurai heroes who formed the nation. Here you will find thousands upon thousands of castle sites where samurai and ninja used to roam.
Built in 1610, Nagoya Castle was the first of its kind to be designated as a national treasure in 1930. During its heyday, it flourished as the home of the Tokugawa shogun’s family. Unfortunately, it was destroyed during World War II and painstakingly rebuilt in 1959.
For me, the highlights were simply exploring the grounds, soaking in the atmosphere (especially during cherry blossom and autumn seasons!), and seeing the view from the top as I imagined great battles taking place around the stone walls.
And of course, how can I forget the Nagoya Omotenashi Busho-tai – the “handsome samurai show”? That’s personally what I would call the local samurai acting group that walks around entertaining people. We were lucky enough to catch a performance, which they hold on weekends and holidays. There were fan girls following them around after the show, and a long queue for photo ops – apparently they’re a hit as far as Taiwan!
There’s no Universal Studios or Disneyland in Nagoya, but that’s perfect for me, because I’m more into cultural sights than theme parks. So I took note of another castle for my next visit: Inuyama Castle, 25 kilometres north of Nagoya. Perched on a hill by the river, it is arguably Japan’s oldest, completed in 1440.
Toyota city: Industrial Japan
Everybody loves freebies, and so do we! This probably isn’t for everyone, though, but if you’re a nerd you would wholly enjoy Toyota city. This is also for parents who want to add an educational twist to their travels, and kids who like to know how things work.
Film Recommendation: The Wind Rises (2013) by Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli – an animated historical biopic and love story set in the backdrop of tumultuous Japan in the days leading up to World War II. The film follows the life of Jiro Horikoshi, designer of the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, used by the Empire of Japan during its quest for Asian dominance
During the tour (it’s a weird thing to remember, but our pretty guide had this perplexing Southwestern US accent), there were a few interactive stations that challenged participants. Apparently, some of the exercises were tests given to job applicants at Toyota. That day, I proved to the world that I have the potential to become a superlative assembly line worker. If you’re interested, you can book your tour at this link.
Osu Kannon Temple: thrift shopping heaven
We came to this Buddhist temple in central Nagoya for two reasons: to sightsee, and to shop. The temple area was packed with people, as they were holding a children’s festival, muay thai competition, and street food market right in front of the Osu Kannon.
The temple gives way to streets lined with thousands of shops, the best place to stock up on souvenirs to take home – which I did. The handmade samurai style pajamas I got for my dad? He wears them everyday.
To be honest I’m not a huge travel shopper but it would be difficult not to enjoy the Osu Kannon markets. They have 100-yen shops, crazy costume boutiques (the Japanese love their fancy dress), international cafes, discounted sports apparel, antiques, thrift items (secondhand kimonos for cheaps!), electronics, and more. I much preferred the experience here compared to the shopping malls we visited – as much as Don Quixote and Oasis 21 offered great value and variety. You can find the latter at Sakae, Nagoya’s shopping district… (where we also did midnight karaoke…)
But what I would recommend for shopaholics – although a bit out of the way – is this one amazing outdoor outlet zone we checked out: Toki Premium Outlets. I really wasn’t on that trip to shop but the prices were so good, and the styles all updated and with the right sizes. I bought my sister the latest Nike Flyknits at half price – from US$140 to US$75. Not bad at all.
Get there: You can hit Toki Premium Outlets on your way to Gifu Prefecture from Nagoya. Gifu, in the heartland of Japan, is a countryside that transports you back in time with its beautifully preserved castle towns, hot spring villages, and gorgeous natural landscapes… So stay tuned for part 2 of this article, when I venture further inland to experience rural Japan.
Signing off for now,
Cebu Pacific Air, the leading airline in the Philippines, flies between Manila and Nagoya (Chubu Centrair International Airport) every Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. Ongoing all-in seat sale fares start from P6,388, for travel from December 17, 2015 to March 31, 2016. Book your flights through Cebu Pacific Air. For updates and seat sale announcements, check out their facebook page.