This post is now a two-parter. I don’t exactly know how it ended up being so long, but it is what it is. Enjoy!
TL:DR Cycling in the Japanese summer is killer, but fun, and I explored Nagoya castle, downtown area, ate the world’s best pizza, and visited the zoo. Turns out there is a lot to do in Nagoya.
Nagoya is a fantastic place to cycle. Wide footpaths, fewer people than Tokyo, and quieter streets generally. Cyclists also get away with a lot more here than at home. Many people are reckless, zooming along and weaving between pedestrians without thinking what would happen if someone just stepped a little into their path. It isn’t helped by people refusing to use bells. A little bit of warning makes a few difference. And I’m not talking about the ridiculous people who try to get through a crowd of pedestrians at rush hour by ringing their bell over and over again. Just get off your bike, people! Most parts of the city allow you to ride on the footpath unless it is very narrow, which is great most of the time. It keeps you away from the dangers of traffic, and throws you into the dangers of other cyclists. And almost nobody wears helmets here – it’s not the done thing. I have fallen into that trap, mainly because I am only here for a limited time and don’t have any room in my luggage for a helmet. Knowing what I know now about Japan, if I was coming again I would bring my bike tools and a helmet.
Riding the bike pays off quickly compared to the steep cost of the subway, and you get to see a lot more as well. I find the subway disorienting. You walk in one underground entrance and come out another far away, without having to know how you got there. With the bike you can stop at anything that looks remotely interesting. If you stopped at every stop on the subway and got back on a few minutes later, you’d be bankrupt in no time at all. If you can get hold of one, get a cheap bike and you will have much more fun. There are some disadvantages though. The main negative for me is not to do with cycling itself or the bike, but rather the Japanese summer. To put it simply, it’s terrible cycling weather. The heat and humidity make you sweat endlessly, but because the humidity means the air is saturated with water, your sweat doesn’t evaporate and is almost pointless. It pours off you instead of cooling your skin. If you can deal with that, and if you’re well prepared and drink lots of water, you can get through the conditions. Get some good sunscreen too – the sun seems particularly strong here.
Saturday was my big sightseeing day. I cycled in to the city centre then made my way into the hills and back roads, stopping at a temple along the way. It looked like an interesting place so I decided to spend a few minutes exploring. On the road again and following my trusty Google Maps directions, I proceeded to weave through the narrow back streets, up and down steep hills and round tight corners, heading vaguely in the direction of Nagoya Castle. Getting to the castle was my main aim for the day, but it was further than I had expected. The straight line distance wasn’t massive, but when you are stopping and starting and checking maps to make sure you’re on the right road, things tend to take a lot longer. I was enjoying seeing more of Nagoya though, which is a huge city. I didn’t quite realise that until cycling through it. It was a joy though, as the streets were remarkably quiet for a weekend. Things are just a lot better spaced out here than Tokyo, and it is not as claustrophobic.
After cycling through many similar looking streets, the surroundings suddenly changed. Gone were big buildings and businesses. Grassy verges and old stonework took their place. I was closing in on the castle. Soon after that, I came across the vast moat surrounding the grounds of the castle, and the imposing stone walls. Stopping to refresh myself at a fountain, I started to take in my surroundings. It was impressive, maybe even more so than the Imperial Palace grounds. Not nearly as big, but there were a lot of nice trees and interesting plants that were missing from the Imperial Palace. Most importantly, it meant that there was shade and that helps a lot. I found the bike parking and locked up my bike, then was greeted by an unexpected guest. A giant moth landed on me, which would’ve been a great photo opportunity but it looked terrifying – staring at me, as if planning my doom. I bought a combined ticket for the castle and some gardens elsewhere in the city which I had no real intention of visiting (they were 15 minutes drive away, so hardly convenient), then made my way through the gates. The castle is an impressive sight, and looks authentic despite its relatively recent history. Nagoya suffered badly in WW2, but they rebuilt and the castle became a museum of the history of Nagoya.
The recently restored Hommaru palace near the entrance to the castle was originally used to receive important guests, and had many beautiful panel paintings. Weird, but beautiful. Maybe the artists enjoyed milk of the poppy at tad too much. It was an interesting place to see, and the restoration effort was going well. Onwards! But not for long.
I was further distracted by an ice cream vendor outside the entrance to the main castle. Matcha ice cream! Matcha is the powdered green tea I talked about before, and is popular as a flavour for bread, cakes, ice cream, and even pasta. I couldn’t resist, and went for a cone of matcha ice cream, which rather strangely came with a savoury cracker. It was great ice cream, and helped me cool down a bit. What better to accompany my matcha ice cream than a screaming child. After a few minutes I could take no more, and I made my way into the castle. The castle consisted of a number of floors of objects related to Nagoya, and a history museum, and the top floor was an observatory overlooking the city. It was nice to see the sprawling metropolis laid out in front of me, and reaffirmed how big this place actually is. When I first arrived in the quiet residential area I am staying in, it seemed like a backwater town with a small city centre. The reality is quite different.
I spent a little while exploring the gardens around the castle, battling through the heat of the day. I wanted to get in somewhere shaded where I could relax for a little while. I was making my way to the exit when I came across a sign for the garden tea room house. That was exactly what I was looking for! These tea houses serve traditional Japanese sweets along with matcha, in an authentic setting. I had been to one in Hama-Rikyu gardens in Tokyo with my Japanese host, so I knew what I was getting myself into, and the rules of the game. Eat the sweet first, place the matcha bowl in your left palm with your right hand, rotate the bowl twice clockwise, and drink. I’m a sucker for specials, and this particular tea room had matcha with gold leaf. It didn’t add anything to the taste, but it was a nice touch. I forgot to ask for iced matcha though, and received a cup of hot tea on an even hotter day. It was still good though, and I had the tea room to myself for most of the time.
Part 2 coming soon…same bat time, same bat channel (The suspense is killing me too) If you need something else to read, check out my Japan category and you can catch up with the trip so far. Fair warning, I have written quite a lot.