Rising Monkey 2010d: Minshuku Kuwataniya, Takayama
Spank Gold Volume 3: Spank's Edinburgh Diaries 1989-1999

Rising Monkey 2010e: b, Nagoya

Spiral Towers, Nagoya: the building that answers the question 'what would the London Gherkin look like if Picasso had circumcised it?' May 9-11 [previously: 1-4, 4-6, 6-7, 7-9]

It's a painless two-and-a-bit hour high speed train journey from Takayama to Nagoya. Is it wrong to admit that I get all the three-syllable Japanese cities starting with N mixed up - Nagoya, Narita, Nagano, Niigata? Hopefully I'll get through the next two days without some sort of appalling faux pas.

Anyway: Nagoya. As soon as we pull into the station, it's obvious we've left cosy smalltown life behind and are in the big city - the fourth biggest in Japan, no less. The station is alone is gigantic, a mall that stretches over a couple of blocks if you count the underground and overground portions. For The Belated Birthday Girl, the biggest sign that we're not in Takayama anymore comes when she discovers that Peck - owners of The Best Restaurant In Milan - have opened a branch inside the station. You don't get that sort of thing at Euston, I can tell you.

It's a two-stop hop from there on the subway, admittedly between two major interchange stations: but it's astonishing to see just how rammed the stations and trains are at 5 on a Sunday afternoon. (It's just as crowded at 11pm when we're making our way back from our first night out.) We manage to make it through the crowds and check into our Nagoya hotel, the b. Despite its modish name and designer pretensions, it's really just a classier version of a Western business hotel. But everything works the way it should, the bed's big and comfy, and as it's a business hotel they offer us a discount for staying on a Sunday night. We get there just in time to catch the tail end of the first day of the sumo tournament on telly. Yes, we've got sumo for a week while we're over here. Yes, this is foreshadowing.

After freshening up, we head back to the main station and the Midland Square complex above it, to take a walk along the 46th floor Sky Promenade viewing area. You get a glorious view across the entire city in all directions, particularly at night: so it's strange that the people involved seem determined to fuck that view up at every possible opportunity. There's an intermittent light show inside the complex, which reflects in the windows and makes it hard to take decent pictures. And then once every half hour, the entire area is filled with 'atmospheric mist' which makes it even harder to see out while not really generating any atmosphere other than one of damp coldness.

We wander round the streets for a while looking for the Tarafuku restaurant. Lonely Planet says it's in between the two Nagoya branches of Toyoko Inn, and as these are clearly visible from Sky Promenade, we assume we'll be able to find them at ground level in no time. To cut a long story short, we can't: so we tramp back to Midland Square, grumpily picking a place to eat from their collection on the fourth floor. And Bishoku Maimon turns out to be terrific: here's The Belated Birthday Girl to tell you about it.

"Finding Bishoku Maimon was one of those very happy accidents that happen from time to time. It's a kind of stylish, modern update on an izakaya, and turns out to be part of a small chain, most branches in Tokyo. And the food was terrific and substantial. Stung a bit by our experience in Takayama, I decided to order 2 dishes, expecting neither to be large enough to satisfy alone: some fried fish, and some mixed satsuma age (deep-fried fish-paste cakes), and Spank ordered the salmon and vegetable, fisherman's style. When the dishes arrived, we were surprised by the size of the portions - probably sharing just 2 of the 3 would have been more than enough - and the flavours were fabulous, particularly Spank's choice, which arrived sizzling in a pot and the waiter hashed up the fish, veg and tasty sauce in front of us. The rice was also top quality. And possibly even better than the food for me was how friendly the waiter was, chatting to me in Japanese. Although the bill was more than we'd have hoped to pay at Tarafuku, it was less than at Sakana in Takayama, and this time we were definitely sated. Great food, decent value and a really nice place."

Amusing street lighting at Nagoya Port The b marks a return to in-room internet access, giving us the opportunity to visit the BBC News website and yell 'oh, you rotten blue bastards' at it not once, but twice. Meanwhile, on local telly we have Ge Ge Ge Woman, NHK's 15 minute daily soap opera that we've been waking up to each morning (and hearing its terrifyingly pervasive theme song all through the rest of the day). It sounded fun when we first heard about it: the true story of the partner of the artist behind popular manga Ge Ge Ge No Kitaro. However, from what we've seen so far she had a pretty rotten time of it. The lead actress has obviously just been hired because of her ability to look miserable on cue, especially at 8.14am when the daily cliffhanger's set up. Curiously, it's only today - after a week or so of watching this show - that we've noticed that her artist boyfriend only has one arm.

The breakfast arrangements at the b are curiously secretive. As it stands, we've spent a little extra time in bed this morning, so we decide to look elsewhere. We visit the much-touted Oasis 21 bus station, and end up spending the entire morning there. It's interesting to see that despite its space-age construction, it still has a similar proportion of dossers sleeping in it to any other big city bus station. Still, there's plenty to keep you occupied, and the station cafe offers the traditional breakfast set of toast, boiled egg and coffee for a measly ¥230, which solves one of our problems.

Once we've eaten, we head up to the roof terrace with water pool that they've decided to call Spaceship Aqua. From there, we can look down at the ground level sculptures of dinosaurs and stone fish, and are horrified to discover that we've left breakfast so late that people are already sitting on the latter having lunch. Also inside the station is a fabulous pop-up gallery of album cover art (the highlight being a full-size plastic replica Big Mac with a CD replacing the meat), and an NHK character shop with lots of Studio Ghibli merchandise (the Totoro toilet seat cover is my favourite).

Oasis 21 also has a tourist office with lots of advice for visitors to Nagoya. But curiously, they omit to give you the most important advice we've learned on our trip, which is this: DON'T GO TO NAGOYA ON A MONDAY. IT'S CLOSED. This isn't as much of an exaggeration as you may think. As we go through the leaflets in the tourist office, we start to realise just how many of the local attractions are taking the day off today - which is irritating, given that we're moving on tomorrow.

Still, we find a couple of things that should be open, and finally escape the comforting environment of Oasis 21 to investigate them. The first one is the newly regenerated port area, because, well, it's a port - that won't be closed on Mondays, surely? Well, yes, it will. There's virtually nothing out on the water, and nobody else there apart from a small clump of artists painting that virtually nothing. There are some interesting little design touches worth seeing, including the pavement lights that look like stylised penguins. But the lack of human activity isn't just dull, it becomes frankly creepy after a bit. We knew that the aquarium would be shut for the day, but we didn't realise that the Jetty complex of shops and restaurants would take the opportunity to shut too. It's lunchtime by now, and our options are severely limited.

They're not completely doomed, though, thanks to Cats Cafe, which appears to be the only diner in the port area that opens on Mondays. A riot of cat paintings and cheesy inspirational slogans ('ALL MUST BE HAPPY NOW!'), it offers a selection of value lunch options and wicked parfait puddings. In a particularly nice touch, they're happy to whip up a vegetarian version of the omurice (an omelette filled with rice and bits of meat) for The BBG, which very few Japanese restaurants would be willing to do.

Our faith in human (and feline) nature restored, we get the subway back into town and spend ages walking trying to find the Design Museum, one of the few Nagoya attractions whose closing day is Tuesday. Except, it transpires, for this week only, when they're closed on Monday and Tuesday for refurbishment. Which we don't find out until we're literally at the ticket desk, of course. We spend an extended period of time sulking in the Loft design store next door, a bizarre mixture of everything from classy stationery products to fake turds attached to headbands.

Things per up a bit after that, you'll be glad to hear. The Nagoya TV Tower really is open every day, and you can even save ¥100 on the entry fee with a voucher you can pick up from the tourist information offices. It may not have as spectacular a view as the one from the Sky Promenade, but at least they don't try to mess about with it, and if you get up there in time for sundown then Nagoya looks very pretty indeed. They're trying to play it up as a place for lovers - in fact, one wall is filled with hand-drawn plaques commemorating the many weddings that have taken place in the tower. Then it's time for dinner, and we've planned this one better that last night's, using the tourist information map to track down a restaurant serving miso-katsu (pork or shrimp in breadcrumbs and miso sauce), a local delicacy of the region. It's still not that straightforward a process, as The BBG reports.

"It's not only the attractions which are closed on a Monday in Nagoya: many of the restaurants are as well. So we couldn't try the miso katsu specialist shop mentioned in our guide book. Luckily, the tourist map available at the Nagoya tourist information offices (in English or Japanese) had a list of restaurants, and happened to have two miso katsu specialist places: one being the one in the guide book, closed Mondays, and the other being Kano (or Aji Dokoro Kano 味処 叶 - "Taste place Kano" - to give it its full name), which was open on Mondays and conveniently located. So once I'd checked with the owner that they had something on the menu I could eat (the basic version is the tonkatsu - pork cutlet), we sat down for a lovely dinner. Very much a place for the locals, but obviously also on the tourist trail (hence the signs asking people not to take photos), it's run by a (presumably) husband and wife team: she helps in some of the preparation and serves, he cooks the perfect katsu. Spank had the usual pork version, I had enormous prawns, both came drenched in a rich and tasty miso-based sauce. And the accompanying miso soup was also extremely tasty, and as I always reckon that the quality of a restaurant's food is well exemplified by its miso soup, that was a good indication. Another friendly place, with the woman chatting to me in Japanese, so along with the previous night's experience I was left with the idea that Nagoya is a very friendly city. Nagoya has several food specialities, but if you happen to want to try the katsu - and particularly if you happen to be in Nagoya on a Monday - I'd definitely recommend Kano."

We go for a wander round the streets after that, finding that the bars are open (and will remain so till sun-up), but virtually all of the shops are shut. We end up sheltering from the rain in a branch of Tsutaya Records - luckily, our money's safe, as it's a rental outlet offering CDs, DVDs and comics for hire. As the UK doesn't really have DVD rental shops any more, it's fascinating to see what's on offer: the most jaw-dropping discovery is a series of sixty straight-to-video gangster films called The King Of Minami, all starring the wonderful Riki Takeuchi and made at the rate of approximately four full-length features a year. It's almost tempting to rent one out for our last night in Nagoya. But which one?

Krispy Kreme Kueue For a hotel that puts 'breakfast' as one of its key values (the others being 'bed' and 'balance' - see what they did there?), the b is curiously reluctant to tell you about it. There's no information about it on display, and the obvious venue - the hotel restaurant - is closed in the morning. When you ask at reception, they try to sell you a breakfast voucher for a whopping ¥1050, but you can't find out what's on offer until you head to the secret breakfast room two floors up.

So, sod it: we'll have breakfast at The Best Restaurant In Milan instead. We check out of the b (which has been perfectly lovely to us apart from the whole mystery breakfast affair), drop our bags off at the station, and call into the branch of Peck that we spotted on our arrival. For a bit less than what the hotel's charging, we get one savoury and one sweet pastry apiece, plus some lovely coffee. We feel a little guilty for going for such a Western breakfast, but our guilt vanishes when we see the enormous queue outside the station branch of Krispy Kreme - a queue that has to break twice to make room for the entrances to department stores.

Nagoya is a big manufacturing town, so it feels right that our last excursion there should reflect its proud heritage. Also, let's be honest, Toyota is going through a rough patch right now, so think of this as pity tourism if nothing else. Actually, a quick look at the floorplan of the Toyota Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology reveals that you don't know as much about the company as you think you do. (For one thing, it shares a building with something called the Genesis Research Institute: if this was a science fiction movie rather than real life, you'd stay the hell away from there, wouldn't you?)

The two central figures in the Toyoda family are father Sakichi and son Kiichiro: the former built up a vast loom-making empire in the early 20th century, the latter focussed its engineering expertise on the up-and-coming field of automobile design. Both of them worked with the joint aims of 'being studious and creative' and 'making things', showing that Matt Jones wasn't the first one to come up with the idea.

The dual history of the company means you get two separate museums for the price of one. Shamefully, the school parties visiting on the same day as us use this as an excuse for full-on gender stereotyping. The girls seem more interested in the Textile Machinery Pavilion, a display of looms of ever-increasing size, complexity and noise level. There appears to be just one guy in earplugs on demonstration duty in the whole pavilion, but you can tell he enjoys his work. Meanwhile, the boys gravitate naturally towards the Automobile Pavilion, where displays of the early prototype cars lead into a large-scale display of functioning assembly robots. Throughout both areas, there are loads of buttons to press and a reasonable amount of English text to read. And at the end of it all, if you time it right, you can watch Toyota's humanoid robot give a brief display of trumpet playing as he slowly bides his time waiting for Skynet to achieve self-awareness.

There are loads more interactive displays scattered around the complex, particularly in the Technoland area where all the kids are assembling, but we haven't got time. Instead, we grab an enjoyable lunch set at the museum's Brick Age cafe, then head back to Nagoya station for our onward journey. There's still a queue at Krispy Kreme: at the far end of it, there's now a security guard holding up a sign saying that you'll have to wait at least one hour to get served. Time to move on, I think.

Spank's Nagoya Photos
The BBG's Nagoya Photos

[next: May 11-12, 13-15]


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