Back in December 2016, I once again found myself stepping off a plane at Narita International Airport in Chiba Prefecture, Japan. Winter in Japan does not really get into full swing until January or so. But the air was damp and biting.
It may come as a surprise, but Japan was ensnared by Christmas illuminations, Christmas carols, and elegantly ornamented trees. More so than the usually lit metropolitan streets, the country had taken on a new kind of shimmer.
Of course, the cold did not stop me from seeking out historical attractions scattered throughout the countryside. Wherever a samurai or ninja once stood, I too hope to be in that place someday. Unfortunately, a week in Japan rarely does Tokyo justice, let alone the three major historical cities on my to-do list:
Also, several outdoor attractions I wanted to visit were closed due to inclement winter weather, it being the weekend, or a combination of both.
Travelling Around Nagoya with Valerie
Heading Towards Nagoya
I took the Shinkansen (the bullet train) from Tokyo to Nagoya. The total trip was a little under 2 hours; and the train zipped by Mount Fuji, giving me incredible views of the mountain’s glorious symmetry and snowy peak. When I had climbed Fuji-san in August 2016, hardly any snow had remained, save for the top.
If you ever find yourself in Japan, I recommend either climbing Mount Fuji or checking out Kofu (the capital of Yamaguchi Prefecture, which encompasses the mountain).
Kofu was the dwelling of Takeda Shingen, and his influence remains even today in a plethora of shrines and temples. There is even a Shingen Matsuri, where people don masks and dance around in his honour. But my focus was not Takeda Shingen this time around.
About Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture
The city of Nagoya has developed into a well-known international destination for its central location and pivotal historical roles. Nagoya is also famous for being the birthplace of three notable samurai.
Those men were Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu.
For more than 1900 years, archives and other records mentioned Nagoya. The region has existed since the establishment of Atsuta Jingu. However, the area wasn’t named Nagoya around the time of the Kojiki (Japan’s oldest historical text).
Yet, Nagoya become most prominent when Tokugawa Ieyasu came out victorious during the Battle of Sekigahara  in 1600. With that triumph, Tokugawa Ieyasu heralded in the Edo period, which was to last for 300 years, by constructing Nagoya Castle. An entire town named Kiyosu was uprooted from its original location. It then resettled around the castle in 1614. This exodus was called “Kiyosu-goe.”
Though Tokugawa Ieyasu moved on from Nagoya Castle, the first true lord, Tokugawa Yoshinao and other members of the Owari Tokugawa family worked tirelessly to promote growth in Nagoya. Arts like tea ceremony, Noh, and Kyogen, and traditional handicrafts flourished during the family’s reign.
But if I ended the history there, I would be doing Kiyosu, Nagoya, and the three famous retainers a huge disservice.
Yes, if I merely pointed to the exploits of the Owari Tokugawa hegemony, you’d overlook a gigantic portion of what makes Nagoya so fascinating.
History of Nagoya – Oda Nobunaga & The Battle of Okehazama
Oda Nobunaga & his oddities
Oda Nobunaga (織田 信長), you see, was born in Kiyosu on June 23rd, 1534, long before Tokugawa Ieyasu relocated the town. However, there is an ongoing myth—despite evidence and all notions of time—about Oda Nobunaga being born in Nagoya Castle.
The other interesting facet of Oda Nobunaga’s life is the years prior to those most people know about. Before Oda ever became the ruthless, tactical mastermind that conquered many throughout the Sengoku period, people knew him by another name. Despite his prowess on the battlefield, the people of his hometown called him Owari no Outsuke (尾張の大うつけ), which translates into the “The Big Fool of Owari.”
Strange Things about Oda Nobunaga
In case you are wondering just how weird he was, let me put it this way…
Oda Nobunaga did not behave according to customs, which is the exact opposite of your typical samurai. When his father died in 1551, Oda Nobunaga reportedly attended the funeral ceremony late, threw incense the altar, then stalked off. One of his mentors was so ashamed he committed seppuku.
There is actually an anime, Nobunaga the Fool, that outlines some of this behaviour. The anime itself is far from being historically accurate though. A strategy game called “Nobunaga’s Ambition: Sphere of Influence” also goes into detail about his father’s death and the events thereafter.
Due to his brash behaviour causing a schism through the Oda clan, many sided with Nobunaga’s younger and mild-mannered brother, Nobuyuki. Or even his father’s brother Nobutomo.
When Nobunaga learned there was a proposed overthrowing of his hereditary ascension, he slew Nobutomo and those involved. He then took control of Kiyosu Castle.
Uniting the Provinces around Kiyosu Castle
For several years, Nobunaga worked to unite provinces around Kiyosu Castle, including Owari Province. Things seemed to be going well until 1556, when Nobuyuki and trusted retainers, Shibata Katsuie and Hayashi Hidesada, planned to usurp control from Nobunaga. Though Nobunaga swiftly defeated them, he pardoned everyone after his birth mother Tsuchida Gozen stepped in.
A few months later, despite the pardon, Nobunaga killed his younger brother. By 1559, Oda united the Owari Province under his banners.
The Battle of Okehazama – Imagawa Yoshimoto & Toyotomi Hideyoshi
The Battle of Okehazama  unfolded in 1560 on the outskirts of what is now Nagoya and has been preserved for tourists to visit.
There is not much to see at the actual site in Toyoake ; and I unfortunately did not have the time to travel there to witness it for myself. One day, though, I hope to get there. This was where the tide of the Sengoku period in Japan changed forever.
It was the day forces realized that Oda Nobunaga was no fool. He was a military genius.
In 1560, Imagawa Yoshimoto (今川 義元), who as formerly under Oda banners, accrued an army of close to 25,000 men and began marching towards Kyoto. The Matsudaira clan (predecessors of the Tokugawa clan) of Mikawa province, which had also been allied to Oda, joined Imagawa. When Oda Nobunaga left Kiyosu Castle despite the advisors telling him to defend within the castle walls, he had a mere 200 soldiers following him.
More warriors came to aid him after stopping to pray for victory at Atsuta Jingu. Mori Ranmaru’s father, Mori Yoshinari, appeared with around 120 men. This added to the 80 men under Shibata Katsuie, the 300 riders under Sassa Narimasa, and the 30 men under Toyotomi Hideyoshi (豊臣 秀吉).
Despite the scouts reporting that Imagawa had amassed a force of 40,000 men, Oda Nobunaga refused to believe that amount. He rode out with his patchwork army to Okehazama, finding that Imagawa’s army had stopped for lunch. A storm broke out, and in the deluge, Nobunaga and his small troop ambushed Yoshimoto’s men. It took no longer than 2 hours for Oda Nobunaga to obtain Yoshimoto’s head (the typical trophy of that time ) and return to Kiyosu Castle.
1561 and beyond
As a result in 1561, the Matsudaira and Oda clan forged an alliance. Through the marriage of one of his daughters Oda also created an alliance with Takeda Shingen. This alliance broke in 1572 during the Battle of Anegawa.
His sister, Oichi, also created a bond with Azai Nagamasa of Omi Province. This signalled the beginning of a unified Japan. Although Oda Nobunaga would perish at Honnou-ji in 1582 during the betrayal of Akechi Mitsuhide, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu carried on his legacy.
Visiting Nagoya Castle
With all that in mind, I went to Nagoya to see some of the remnants of history for myself.
Upon arriving, Nagoya station – connected to the airport and several other waystations – was so packed with travellers that every single locker was taken. I had no choice but to lug my two heavy bags from the station all the way to the castle, which is approximately 2.8 km away. If it was not for nearly 30 kg (70 lbs) of luggage, the 30-40 minute walk would have been delightful.
Nagoya is beautiful, with an atmosphere similar to that of Tokyo.
Reaching the castle
When I got to the castle, I grabbed a freshly baked adzuki bean stuffed taiyaki (fish-shaped pastry) for 100 yen to eat outside of the entrance gate. I watched the endless stream of international tourists and Japanese visitors moving around the outer yard.
Someone mentioned a ninja show, and I perked right up. Did they just say what I think they did?
Scarfing down the last of my taiyaki, I purchased a ticket to the castle grounds then headed inside. Immediately, I went to the information building and stumbled inside with my luggage.
The staff greeted me with an enthusiastic “Hello” in English accompanied by “Do you need any help?” in Japanese.
Not going to lie here. After hauling my luggage through gravel, I looked like I had fallen down a mountainside. Giving a slight bow, I asked them for some aid then inquired about the special events.
The guides gave me several pamphlets on the samurai and ninja shows happening at the castle, both in English and Japanese once I told them I was a travel writer. My luck and timing could not have been any better.
Samurai & Ninja Performance Groups at the Castle
There were two ninja clans present at Nagoya castle that day: the Hattori Hanzo group and the Tokugawa group.
The Hanzo Group
The first ones I encountered was the trio calling themselves Hanzo.
Compared to other ninja displays, I found myself laughing at these three more than being intrigued. However, I did enjoy their “quiz time,” where they asked the audience about common ninja-related myths before stating factual information.
My favourite was the discussion on how ninja move silently.
Technique to Walk Silently
As you can see in the picture, ninja would sometimes put their hands beneath their shoes when creeping about to detract from the pressure on floor or ceiling boards. Though slow, it allowed them to sneak about undetected.
After doing some stunts to wow the crowd one more time, the ninja departed to make way for the samurai show.
Once everyone in the crowd was situated, the showed began.
Two infantrymen clamoured out into the open, stabbing at one another with their swords. Then two actors portraying Maeda Toshiie and Maeda Keiji took to the field to fight invisible opponents. In the past, the two served beneath Oda Nobunaga, long before the construction of Nagoya Castle. However, Maeda Keiji later went to serve amongst the ranks of Uesugi Kenshin’s army.
When the actor playing Nobunaga made his appearance, he was clad in a mix of Western and Eastern armour. To me, he channelled the composure of Oda Nobunaga perfectly. He commanded the attention of the audience as he spoke about his ambitions for unifying Japan. With the crows circling overhead and stark beauty of the castle in the background, the display was truly entertaining.
With the samurai show complete within 25 minutes, I made my way back through the eastern entrance towards the inner courtyard of the castle.
Tokugawa Ninja Group – Shuriken Facts
There, another ninja demonstration was taking place. These Tokugawa ninja were a bit more into the theatrics than the others. They took to popping balloons, climbing each other’s shoulders, and other acrobatics.
Still, like every other honest display I have seen, they too sought to deliver some information that dispels “ninja myth”. The leader went into detail about shuriken—the weight, the use, and the throwing technique.
Shuriken were actually only carried in pairs. since they were made of heavier metal. For that reason, ninja used shuriken as diversion and rarely as weaponry. And as this ninja group shows us, shuriken never got much bigger than the palm of your hand.
Sorry, Naruto fans. Those windmill-sized shuriken are bogus.
Nagoya Castle’s Outer Ring
After the show, I soon found myself walking the outer ring of the castle. Reading the plaques along the walkway, I learned that the walls of the moat slanted and smoothed for a reason. Climbing up those partitions would be impossible, especially with slick shoes.
Honestly, I cannot even begin to adequately describe the beauty of Nagoya Castle. There is something so stunning about the design, despite the simplicity of it all. The grounds are quite large.
Yet, due to the season, the staff closed off some of the areas, like the gardens.
Other Places in Nagoya
Leaving the castle, I worked my way down along the river with the hope of getting back to the station. Although I had no clue about the historical road, I somehow stumbled upon it. This is one of the reasons I love Japan—the desire to hold onto relics and valuable pieces of history is so strong within the culture. You can find evidence of the past, and a love of tradition, wherever you look.
I cannot give this advice enough: when in Japan, travel the back alleys as much as possible. Treasures are everywhere.
Experiencing Nagoya Castle and other sites for yourself
Want to tour Nagoya Castle with a helpful guide who speaks in English?
For half-day and full-day tours, check out the following:
- Half Day Cherry Blossom Viewing and Nagoya Castle Tour (4 hours)
- Cherry Blossom Viewing by Bicycle including a Picnic in Nagoya (4 hours)
- Private Full-day Nagoya City Tour (6 hours)
All of them include Nagoya Castle in the packages.
Getting to Nagoya Castle
Nagoya Castle (名古屋城)
1-1 Honmaru, Naka Ward, Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture 460-0031, Japan
Opens 9am to 4.30pm daily