JAPAN - Nagoya may not be as popular a tourist destination as Tokyo, Kyoto or Osaka but the city is well-known among car enthusiasts as the birth city of Toyota.
After having survived tragedies like bombings and earthquakes, this fourth largest city in Japan boasts a long list of industrial heavyweights. A chance to rebuild itself has given Nagoya more room to set itself apart from other Japanese cities.
For a start, its roads - streets, lanes and even sidewalks - seem a tad wider than those in bigger cities such as Tokyo or Yokohama.
Lots of kei-cars (small cars) move carefully - never hurriedly - around the city. Some models, yet to be seen in Malaysia, get my camera clicking.
Tour guide Asakura Setsuko says: "When Nagoya was rebuilt, we wanted it to be better than before. The roof of Aichi Prefecture Government Building, for example, was designed to match that of Nagoya Castle located on the opposite side, but the lower levels were quite modern by the standards then."
It'll be a shame if tourists don't visit Nagoya Castle, a well-guarded fortress where shoguns used to rule. My first visit to the castle was nearly a decade ago. Luckily, this tourist attraction still offers a new experience despite being a familiar spot to me.
This time around I find Honmaru Palace, a reconstructed part of the castle a joy to visit.
Rebuilding work did not start until 2009 and is expected to be completed in a few more years.
Though the smell of freshly cut wood lingers, the luxurious traditional artworks, each gleaming with gold trimmings, distract me from the on-going construction work in other parts of the building.
Cruising through Nagoya's downtown area, Sakae, another impressive structure catches my eye.
"Is that a spaceship?" asks a fellow traveller at the sight of the city landmark called Oasis 21. "It's the mother ship!" quips another mate.
Words such as infinity glass swimming pool and airborne stadium also come to mind when describing the structure, but suffice to say that you have to see it for yourself to appreciate it as words don't do it justice.
Oasis 21 is more than just an eco-friendly park with water features. Underneath its massive water-flowing roof are a bus terminal, shops and skating rink. At night, it transforms into another picturesque landscape.
Nearby is another important landmark, Nagoya TV Tower, the oldest TV tower in Japan, built in 1954. It was featured in Ishiro Honda's classic film, Godzilla.
Shoppers will love Nagoya. Apart from Sakae, the Osu shopping district is another colourful street, busy from 11am to 8pm daily.
As I scrutinise the price tags of goods in Komehyo store, the words "used" and "new" pop up intermittently.
Split into three buildings, Kamehyo offers new and used items such as jewellery, watches, cameras, designer clothes and bags, leather items, kimonos and yukatas as well as musical instruments.
My eyes light up at the sight of Yamaha keyboards and Tokai guitars - a part of me is happy to be in such a heated room filled with nice products. Another part is sad because I can't afford to buy anything.
For those with pockets deeper than a journalist's, Komehyo offers new and used percussion and wind instruments, DJ machines and other related equipment.
Apart from antiques, Osu Shopping Arcade offers electronics and goods related to cosplay and anime. As for me, I buy a set of eight perfumed candle lights for ¥500 (S$6.20) at Osu.
TEMPLE, MOSQUE AND MUSEUMS
The Osu district is adjacent to Osu Kannon temple, where Buddhists flock to daily. The temple houses over 15,000 classic Japanese and Chinese texts which chronicle Japanese history and origins.
The Osu Kannon station is 20 paces away and connects to the Tsurumai Subway Line. A single-line journey takes you to Nagoya City Science Museum which is one of the world's largest planetariums.
Car buffs should head for the Toyota Commemorative Museum Of Industry And Technology.
Minutes away from Nagoya Station, the museum offers an insight into Toyota, a company that started as a producer of textile machinery before moving to car production. Enter and gawk at the sight of Toyota A1, the company's first car model.
Not too far away, Muslims can make their way to Honjindori, Nakamura-ku, where the Nagoya Mosque is located 15 minutes' from Nagoya Station. It's also accessible from Sakou Station.
SHORT TRIPS NABANA NO SATO
In winter, this theme park offers an ethereal excursion. Located on the island of Nagashima in Kuwana, Mie prefecture, the theme park offers illumination so pretty and traditional music so calming that you don't want to leave.
There are rides, restaurants and an indoor begonia garden inside the park itself. At the time of our visit, the highlight was Mount Fuji in the four seasons. LED lights were used to paint the landscape in spring hues, before gradually changing into summer, autumn and winter tones.
Tickets to the light show are priced at ¥2000. From Nagoya, one of the easier ways to get to Nabana No Sato is via bus from the Meitetsu bus centre.
Located a few hours by road outside Nagoya, Gamagori is known for its onsen (Japanese natural hot springs) and oranges.
One of the city hotels offering a great therapeutic escape is Takeshima Hotel, with its hot spring facility overlooking the sea and Takeshima Island, one of Japan's natural treasures.
On this tiny island, up several dozen stairs and across a route of fresh greenery is Yaotomi Shinto shrine, dedicated to a female deity or benzai-ten called Ichikishimahime-no-mikoto. Opposite the island on Gamagori mainland is another shrine, home to a male deity Kobodaishi-zo.
"As this place has both male and female deity shrines, people say that Gamagori is where your prayer for a love-knot will be answered," says a hotel worker.
Pick and sample strawberries at Gamagori Orange Park. We enjoy our fruit with a a plate of condensed milk each. Open till 5pm daily throughout the year, the park offers strawberry picking from January to the beginning of May, melons (June to September), grapes (end of June to mid-September) and its signature mandarin oranges (October to December). A note of caution: It is recommended to book ahead.
RUNWAY BY THE SEA
It is easy to find your way at Central Japan International Airport (Centrair) as the tourist-friendly layout has lots of signages in English.
Designed to serve the Chubu region and the whole of Japan, the multiple award-winning Centrair is only 30 minutes' away from Nagoya by rail.
Centrair serves as a strategic transportation hub to those looking to explore the central part of Honshu island. Built on reclaimed land, it is easy to go to various destinations around Chubu via air, land and even sea. Yes, you can take high-speed boats to go to either Tsu for a feel of Japanese eco-tourism or Matsusaka, home of the famous Matsusaka beef.
Those who prefer to transit to other parts of Japan such as Hokkaido and Sapporo via air will also find Centrair convenient as its compact size eliminates long walks from one terminal to another.
Meanwhile, train rides from the building begin at the Meitetsu line and transfers to JR Line and Shinkansen can be done at Nagoya Station. Buses, private coaches, taxis and car for rent are just as accessible at the Access Plaza.
Though excited with all the options, I make it a point to enjoy the view of the bay from Centrair's Sky Deck before going further. Braving the strong winter wind, I realise that hardly any other airport offers such a magnificent view of the ocean from a point that is so close to the runway.
At the arrivals lobby, the Shoryudo Hall Of Tourist Information awaits. Here various brochures on nine prefectures that make up the Chubu region (read story on page 4) are available in English, Mandarin and Japanese. With a show of my Malaysian passport, the Shoryudo welcome card becomes a prized possession, giving me access to entrance deals and discounts at various places.
How to get there
From March 17, AirAsia X will start four direct weekly flights to Nagoya. Book your tickets at www.airasia.com. For details, visit the Japan National Tourist Organisation website at www.jnto.go.jp/eng/ or zoom in on Nagoya and Chubu at http://go-centraljapan.jp/