Nagoya, Japan: Leonardo San(s) Sushi


DaVinci Warrior


I managed to spend a week in Japan without experiencing a single tea ceremony: only a single taiko drummer and one platter of sushi. Instead, I got a daily glimpse at the anatomically-correct rear end of horse designed by Leonardo DaVinci, a European-style symphony orchestra and the dancing Toyota cherubs.

Lord Ludovico of Milan commissioned DaVinci to build the biggest statue in the world, of General Francisco Storza. He never finished it but a Japanese scholar and a computer did. The computer figured out that it could never have been cast in bronze, because such a weight would not be supported by the steed’s well-turned ankles. So, it was completed in plaster and now faces the courtyard of the Nagoya Convention Center. The view from the front of the center is of the horse’s back-end.





I was in Nagoya for a tourism conference, which should have been a showcase of the culture of the host nation, the unique qualities that make it different from every other place on earth, the reasons a traveler might want to go there.

Instead I found a large industrial city with only two tourist attractions, a temple and a castle that was rebuilt after being bombed out during World War II, unless you count the Noritake china factory and a few really cool old radio towers on top of buildings.

This is not Kyoto.

The last time I was in Japan I spent a glorious week in Kyoto.  That was 1987.

It was there that I experienced my first (and only) meal of Kobe Beef which, next to pufferfish, is Japan’s best-known delicacy.

I joined three comrades at one of Kyoto’s most revered restaurants for a single piece of perfect, beer-fed, hand massaged meat. We agreed beforehand to dine silently, to savor each bite with Zen-like contemplation.  Part of it was aesthetic, the other part was that we did not want to waste a single Yen of what is still, 12 years later, the most expensive restaurant entre’ I have ever consumed.  The tab was US$135 each for just the morsel of meat plus a bottle of beer.

But it was good.

The time I spent alone, wandering contemplatively among Kyoto’s temples and dining in inexpensive noodle shops, was easily one of my life’s peak experiences.

But Japan is trying to develop the Nagoya region as a tourist center. I have trouble with places that think travelers really care about their industrial accomplishments and who exhalt the culture they have assimilated from the West. I don’t know if it is an official lack of self-esteem or some mistaken notion that travelers find some comfort in flying for a dozen hours to experience a place practically indistinguishable from home. Yearly I get a calendar from the chamber of commerce of another north Asian city that features its TV tower, its smokestack district and other landmarks that remind me of Detroit.

I am not saying that the quality of the attractions is poor. The Nagoya Philharmonic was excellent. Its European-style arrangements have some nice touches of Japanese folk music. The little kids dressed as airplanes, buses and Toyotas were cute. The DaVinci statue is exquisitely crafted. But a big, macho Italian charging on a horse seems a bit out of place as the centerpiece of the Nagoya Convention Center.

While some may find this quirky and charming now, it will soon cease to be so as the globalization of culture threatens the world’s rich tapestry of differences. The tourism industry is threatened, too. Its very product is the promise of exotic places and the differences that make those exotic.

I wouldn’t discourage anyone from going to Japan, to experience the excitement of Tokyo or the beauty of Kyoto or Nara. I have sailed the Inland Sea, and there are beautiful villages that line it. The Japan National Tourist Office has some good tips on how to save money in Japan. Avoid major hotels and the $18 a slice of pizza.

But I wold give Nagoya a pass