PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 March, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 March, 2004, 12:00am

Japan's fourth-largest city, Nagoya, has a population of more than 2 million - and a reputation problem. Sure, it's a bustling hub on the south-central coast of the main island of Honshu. The city brims with skyscrapers, highways and busy shopping areas. It's even the home of Toyota Motors. But it has never shaken its reputation as a rather crude provincial backwater.

Many Japanese think of the capital of Aichi prefecture as drab and slow-paced compared to Osaka and Tokyo, the two mega-cities that sandwich it. After all, they say, it is the home of pachinko, a notoriously mindless pinball game.

The cognoscenti sniff at Nagoya's dialect, with its offensively rural sentence endings such as dagaya and ja-nya. And it is a national cliche that nothing tops a Nagoya wedding for lavish, tasteless spending.

But Nagoya is working hard at remaking itself along exciting lines. Aichi will host next year's World Exposition from March to September, on Nagoya's eastern hills. With a focus on development and environmental protection, the fair is expected to have exhibits from 122 countries and attract 15 million visitors.

It will be the first such expo of this kind and size since the l970 Osaka World Fair, which had a tremendous impact on the economy and national ego. Expectations are mounting that Nagoya's expo will have a similar effect on the region.

One of Nagoya's biggest boosters is Shoichiro Toyoda, Toyota's honorary chairman and the expo chief. He and other Aichi-based business leaders have energetically promoted the prefecture's cluster of 24 industry-related museums. Under the unpromising banner 'industrial tourism', they have breathed new life into these long-established, but little-known, institutions. Visitor numbers have grown 10 per cent a year over the past three years.

Last year, 150,000 people visited Toyota's Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology, the flagship among the industrial museums.

What's more, Nagoya may soon be known for having the most competitive international airport in Japan. The Central Japan International Airport will open in one year in Tokoname, near Nagoya, offering highly competitive landing fees to airlines. Its 700,000 yen (HK$49,200) landing fee for a Boeing 757, for example, is significantly lower than the 950,000 yen required at Tokyo's Narita airport, and Osaka's 830,000 yen fee.

If Nagoya's fees are approved by the International Air Transport Association, it may carve into its rivals' markets, seeding new businesses.

In future, if you miss the new, revived Nagoya, you may be missing the hottest spot in Japan.