Driving forces

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 August, 2006, 12:00am

Bobbing on an evening breeze, dozens of red lanterns flicker to life within minutes of each other in the streets of the Sakae district. It is the kind of uncanny synchronisation one witnesses often in time-conscious Japan, a country in which delays of more than a minute evoke grumbles of irritation among train commuters, and where restaurant diners expect nothing less than light-speed table service.

'Mukashiya' reads the name on one lantern that has seen better days. It means 'Long Ago Shop', and if the faded kanji characters for 'yaki-tori' scrawled beneath don't indicate the speciality within, then the delicious aromas wafting from its entrance are a strong hint. Mukashiya's kochin yaki-tori - or free-range chicken grilled to an old-fashioned recipe - has been luring peckish passers-by for more decades than the elderly mama-san says she cares to remember. Delivering plates piled high with seasoned chicken wings, she shuttles between the tables of tipsy, tie-loosened businessmen, pouring more hot sake than the customers, too, will care to remember.

Preserving tradition is no simple feat in a place that seems always to be in a mad rush towards the future. Whether it be Mukashiya's mama-san faithfully adhering to her age-old recipes or a flurry of kimono-clad women attending Coming of Age Day ceremonies outside a 600-year-old city shrine, Nagoya, Japan's third-largest metropolis, somehow manages it brilliantly.

It may be home to the world's second-biggest motor manufacturer, Toyota, and renowned for its sleek urban design, vast underground shopping malls and a bouffant hairstyle, the Nagoya Curl, now popular with young women, but the city of 2.2 million people has never inspired much enthusiasm among foreign sightseers. Lonely Planet's Japan guidebook describes it as a 'scaled-down version of Tokyo' and most travellers tend to give its grey urban sprawl no more than a cursory glance as they cruise through on their way to Kyoto or Osaka aboard the Shinkansen (bullet train).

Aichi Expo 2005 certainly loosened up the 'Motor City' image and touted Nagoya as more than just a place where rice paddies meet panel-pressing plants. Yet, while more than 15 million tourists oohed and aahed at the futuristic i-unit vehicles and trumpet-playing robots inside the Toyota Group Pavilion, Nagoyans simply carried on with life as they always have: with an eagerness for making money and a commitment to family tradition.

'Nagoyans are famous for their cautious ways with money. They are expert savers,' says Akiyoshi Uchida, a son of the city. It is a commonly held belief that no other city in Japan spends more on cars and weddings than Nagoya; the rush-hour streams of gleaming Nissan family wagons and Toyota recreation vehicles that purr along Otsu-dori, the city's central boulevard, seem to confirm this.

But slipping below Otsu-dori and into the Sakaechika underground shopping complex, it is obvious demand for traditional goods remains just as healthy. Seeking their dream kimono for a wedding ceremony or New Year celebration, young women with their mothers in tow drift between boutiques filled with lavish designs. Price tags look to be just as lavish - up to 2 million yen (HK$135,550) for a long-sleeved silk furisode kimono.

South of the city centre, in a leafy park crossed by pebbled avenues and lined by 1,000-year-old camphor trees, lies the third-century shrine of Atsuta Jingu. On auspicious days one can witness all the regalia of a traditional Nagoya wedding here, as the groom in his hakama gown and his bride, attired in snow-white kimono, face powdered and lips painted red, are formally wed by

a Shinto priest. Atsuta Jingu's simple moss-covered pavilion may lack the grandeur of its Kyoto counterparts, but when the shrine's woodwind orchestra strikes up with its haunting melodies, and the guests pay their respects to the newlyweds under a veil of incense smoke, the atmosphere is magical.

Outside the realms of the Atsuta shrine, Nagoya would be unrecognisable to the city's founding father, Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, who established his castle outpost here in 1612. Before construction began, he ordered his town planners to study designs in the two former capitals of Kyoto and Nara, both of which borrowed heavily from Chinese urban-planning concepts. These dictated that neighbourhoods be laid out in a grid according to the dictates of fung shui. The fact that Nagoya slopes gently to the sea is still considered lucky; and it is almost impossible to lose oneself in its clearly aligned streets - even after a few hot sakes.

The beacon for sightseers remains Nagoya Castle, from where the shogun sent his samurai out to fend off rivals along the road to Edo, the old name for Tokyo, though it is not the majestic citadel it once was. Deer now graze in the waterless moats, canned-coffee vending machines have infiltrated the stone battlements and only three of the original wall towers remain - a result of heavy Allied bombing during the second world war.

Nagoya has produced many notable warriors down the ages, whose exploits helped build a modern nation, but none made the economic impact of industrial warrior Kiichiro Toyoda (1894-1952), founder of the Toyota Corporation. The Toyota Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology leaves little doubt as to how his company rose from its humble beginnings as a textile manufacturer in the 1920s to become an international automobile giant. Visitors can follow the development of Toyota's first commercial car, the Model AA, which consisted of a wooden framework and hand-moulded panels, and make the acquaintance of welding robots they can activate.

Nagoya is a city that requires determined footwork to explore and while one can revive flagging energies at the countless street eateries and cafes along the way, sustaining one's spiritual energies is an entirely different matter. At Osu Kannon Tera, a stroll south of Sakae and the busiest Buddhist temple in town, the problem is solved: step up to the altar, toss a coin into the box and pray for good health and fortune. Osu Kannon dates back to the Kamakura era (1192-1333) and although it has been ravaged by fire and flood, the colourful hall, guarded by two Deva kings, remains the spiritual centre of the Osu shopping street precinct. The temple is dedicated to the Buddhist saint Kannon-sama and if you peer hard enough into the purple clouds of incense, you might see the statue of Kannon carved by Japan's first Buddhist priest, Kobo-daishi.

To add hustle to bustle, an antiques market is held in front of the temple gates on the 18th or 28th of each month, and while prices can be stiff, no stall holder will turn down a reasonable bid. Crowds and noise are part and parcel of any Japanese metropolis, but while Osaka and Tokyo resound to the solemn footsteps of their salaried millions, the pavements of Nagoya hustle to a more cheerful beat. Recent years have seen its drab concrete spaces taken over at weekends by concerts and amateur band competitions, during which groups test their new tunes on curious passers-by. The music can be hit and miss, but anyone who finds themselves 'museumed-out' might find the wayward guitar riffs and rambling vocals of these energetic young Nagoyans intriguing.

Getting there: Cathay Pacific ( flies from Hong Kong to Nagoya.