“Tokugawa Day” and the Rebuilding of Nagoya

The Tokugawa Art Museum and Nagoya Castle

While my last two posts were based on destinations in Kyoto, the majority of my time in Japan was actually spent on the country’s eastern coast in Nagoya. Today I’m sharing a small part of this city’s big story.

Unlike Kyoto or Tokyo, which are well known tourist destinations, Nagoya is more of a manufacturing hub. Today it’s the capital of Aichi prefecture, but even in feudal and dynastic eras Nagoya has been known as an important city.


Nagoya’s position in the center of the country was, and still is, a key factor in its growth and success. Lying in the heart of Japan between Kyoto and Edo (now Tokyo), Nagoya became a key stop on the historic Tokaido Road. In the sixteenth century, three samurai – Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu – rose to fame and eventually succeeded in unifying Japan. It was the last of these, Tokugawa Ieyasu, who ushered in the Tokugawa shogunate. He moved the provincial capital to Nagoya, along with approximately 60,000 people. This shogunate lasted from 1603 to 1867, or 264 years.


One of Hiroshige Utagawa’s famous ukiyo-e depictions of the Tokaido Road. This one shows a scene from what is now Nagoya as it would have looked during the 1830s.

One of the days I spent in Nagoya became what I call “Tokugawa Day.” We went first to the Tokugawa Art Museum, which is in fact more of a history museum than a gallery. We weren’t allowed to take photos in the exhibits, but I did snap a couple around the front lobby.

The museum focused mainly on the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with special emphasis on courtly life and tradition. An exhibit showcasing items from the Hosa Library was especially interesting, partly because it showed Japanese impressions of foreigners (mostly the Dutch, but also Americans in later documents) but mainly because it contained some gorgeous and fascinating maps. I wish I could share them with you, but you’ll just have to book a trip and check them out yourself!

The Tokugawa Art Museum became the perfect precursor to our next destination, Nagoya Castle. With the artifacts of the previous museum fresh in my mind, I was able to better picture what life would look like inside the fort’s walls. (Plus we benefited from an enthusiastic tour guide who spoke excellent English.) They were also instances in which the two echoed one another. After all, the focus of Nagoya Castle was also the Tokugawa period. Tokugawa Ieyasu ordered the construction of Nagoya Castle after declaring it the new capital of Owari Province. The outer walls still bear the chiseled insignias of samurai who contributed to the construction project.

Although I enjoyed the exhibits on the early years of the shogunate, I was especially captivated by this photo taken during the Second World War which shows the original castle. In May 1945, only three months before the end of the war, Nagoya Castle was struck and almost completely destroyed. As a major manufacturing city and the center of Mitsubishi’s aircraft industry, Nagoya was a key target during the war’s bombing raids. It was during the attacks on Nagoya that America’s XXI Bomber Command set a record for the greatest tonnage of incendiaries ever released on a single target in one mission (3162). The devastation extended throughout large portions of the historic city.


It’s hard to imagine what it would have been like to live in Nagoya during those times, or for that matter, in any conflict zone where danger is so close to home. It really hasn’t been long since the war – not even 75 years. LEGO has been around longer than that!

Today, a visitor like me would never know this history just by looking at the city. In fact, I took these pictures from the top of the Midland Tower a few days before visiting Nagoya Castle, and you can clearly see the urban sprawl that now surrounds the area.

Nagoya has been completely rebuilt, and then some. Not only is the castle back (it was rebuilt over its original foundations in 1959), but the one- and two-storey houses surrounding it have grown into imposing skyscrapers. The city’s population is now nearly double what it was in 1945 – or nine times as large if you count the entire metropolitan area. I’m not even sure how to “tuple” that. (Just looked it up: it’s “nonuple.” So the population nonupled…? Haha, what a fun word!) The city is now home to Japan’s largest port and the world’s largest train station as well as several global companies, including Mitsubishi, Toyota (though headquarters are now located in the nearby Toyota city), Noritake ceramics, and – according to this site, anyway – Ibanez guitars. Who knew?

Now that I say that, I’m also starting to think about the train station a bit more. I was actually in the world’s largest train station. Me. The person who, despite working with maps for a living, has absolutely zero sense of direction. What was I thinking???


No, this isn’t Nagoya Station. (It’s the TV Tower from the roof of Oasis 21 in Sakae). Turns out I didn’t take any pictures inside the station, which is probably for the best since I would have gotten lost.

On that note, time to wrap this up. At least three times older than the Canadian nation, Nagoya grew from humble roots into one of feudal Japan’s most significant settlements, and conquered adversity in modern times to become the country’s central hub of industry and innovation. Nagoya was impressive even in the sixteenth century, and in the twenty-first it’s still difficult to imagine anything slowing this city down!


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