It's easy to marvel at Toyota City's automotive history, but Shoba Pillai finds its culture and people are just as fascinating.
There will be no better time to visit Japan than when the country hosts next year's Rugby World Cup. Many will flock to the most famous of the 12 cities that are hosting games, but those who visit less well-known spots will be rewarded.
Toyota City, in central Japan, is known for advanced technologies — especially in the automotive industries. In 1959, Koromo, as it was previously known, took the name of its most famous corporate resident, Toyota Motor Corporation. The company set up the first of its many manufacturing plants here, which drove the prosperity of the city and country.
Father and son Sakichi and Kiichiro Toyoda led a radical transition from traditional industries into high-tech, modern engineering. Through their visionary creativity and efficiency, the automotive company has become one of the largest and most respected in the world.
Don't be too quick to dismiss Toyota as just an industrialised city though. There is more to this place than cars.
Delight in daily life
The city is big and quite spread out, however, the area between the sports stadium and train station is vibrant, with bars, restaurants, boutique shops and retail stores.
Exploring on foot will reward the inquisitive traveller with scenes of daily suburban life — delightful little eateries marked by hanging lanterns, encounters with friendly locals, and pretty green spaces to chill. Museums and art galleries will please culture vultures and those with an eye for design will appreciate the modernist beauty of the suspension bridge that crosses the Yahagigawa River. The bridge was designed by renowned Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa, also responsible for the adjacent stadium.
An excursion to Asuke
A step back in time from Toyota City is the village of Asuke. An hour's drive along winding roads through the mountains reveals slopes of stately cypress and cedar forests, river valleys, and fertile flatlands used for agriculture. Scenes of farmers tending to their lush, green rice fields are reminiscent of simpler times.
The picturesque Korankei valley showcases the season's changing colours. In autumn, the maple trees turn vibrant red, contrasting with evergreen cedars, yellow hues of gingkos, and vermillion bridges across the Tomoe River. The intensity of the colours peaks around November – which is perfect timing for next year's World Cup. At night, the dramatic autumnal colours are lit for an even more dramatic spectacle.
Stroll along the river to a quaint village with traditional thatched farmhouses and artisans creating centuries-old crafts (woodturning,
indigo-dyeing, and washi paper making). After marvelling at the craftsmanship and interacting with the makers, many will be tempted to pick up a souvenir. Hands-on experiences will keep young ones happily occupied.
Locals live across the river in preserved streets, connected by narrow laneways, and lined with rustic buildings of dark wood and white earthen walls. The township's humble shrines and temples are lovely to observe in such a peaceful setting, and worth a quick visit.
Small shops and eateries offer local specialities including grilled river fish, sticky rice with miso and locally roasted coffee. Pop in to Izukame restaurant for their wild boar croquettes, cold soba noodles and grilled eel.
An energetic hike to the top of Mt Mayumi leads to Asuke Castle — and its magnificent view of the valley. Originally the residence of reigning feudal samurais, this wooden castle is being rebuilt in the style of the Edo era, to better display its collection of artefacts.
On the way back to Toyota City, many visit the Sekiya Sake Brewery to learn about this ancient art form, and to sample and buy bottles of sake produced from the brewery's locally grown rice.
Witness the rituals
Toyota City is in a part of Japan known for religious processions of decorative floats. Traditionally dressed bearers lug wooden shrines through the streets, shouting and grunting as they go. The performance is believed to bring protection and good fortune.
As luck would have it, Asuke's autumn festival will be on October 13 next year, the day after the All Blacks game in Toyota City. A procession of four floats will be pulled through the township, with traditional musket-firing, martial art-dancing and street food adding to the atmosphere.
Paying homage to Toyota's success
The Toyota Automobile Museum is the place to admire cars from all over the world.
Covering old classics through to sleek, modern styles, from big cruisers to sexy sports cars. There are Chevrolets, Cadillacs, Peugeots, Bugattis, Porsches, Fords, Chryslers, Alfa Romeos, and of course, Toyotas. An audio guide tells the story of each car, and the era in which it was built. The collection has more than 140 cars — all in mint condition.
The Toyota Kaikan Museum offers an entertaining introduction to the world of modern carmaking. Toyota's innovation is on show here — from hybrid cars to advanced safety systems. The displays are bright, shiny and interactive, with robots engaged in high-tech manufacturing and in crowd-pleasing antics.
The Toyota Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology (Toyota Techno Museum for short) is well worth the day trip to Nagoya. It covers the evolution of the family's businesses within the broader historical context. The first of two pavilions focuses on the family's origins as manufacturers of textiles and looms. The second has well-designed exhibits and graphical posters describing Toyota's philosophy of kaizen, or constant improvement. It's an engaging walk-through from Toyota's first engine and wooden-framed cars, to post-war designs and modern-day robotics.
A feast at every turn
It's easy to find sushi, sashimi, ramen and tempura, but it's worth being adventurous.
Seek out more traditional restaurants where diners sit in private rooms on tatami mats.
Ask about the speciality dish in each place to try delicacies such as handmade soba noodles served either cold or warmed in a delicate broth, flame-grilled meats and seafood (yakitori), a savoury pancake of diced cabbage (okonomiyaki), battered octopus chunks topped with a soy-based sauce and mayonnaise (takoyaki), deep-fried pork cutlets (tonkatsu), and deep-fried chicken (karaage).
Kaiseki is a refined dining experience that's as much a feast for the palate as it is for the eyes. Small dishes of meticulously prepared and beautifully presented food are brought out one after the other, in the order of the chef's choosing. Each is a work of art, created with respect to the season and locality.
For something more casual, head to Japanese-style pubs (or izakaya) identified by red paper lanterns out front. Workers socialise at the end of each day, with beer, sake, plum wine or Japanese whiskey. Small tapas-style plates are shared, making this a fun way to sample a lot of deliciousness against the backdrop of lively conversations.
Rejuvenate at a ryokan
A trip to Japan wouldn't feel complete without staying at a traditional inn called a ryokan. Sanage Onsen Hotel Kinsenkaku is beside a tranquil river in the mountains. The hotel has its own communal hot-spring bath (onsen), and close by are public baths.
The pretty waterfall and shrine nearby create a contemplative mood, and after a soak in therapeutic thermal waters, a delicious kaiseki dinner, and a comfortable sleep on a futon, the body will be recharged and the soul soothed.
Those planning a trip to support the All Blacks in Japan next year should seriously consider adding Toyota City to their itinerary. Venturing beyond the known offers the chance to truly understand how Japan can exemplify both a proud and ancient culture and the most cutting-edge modernity, with plenty of local charm along the way. In the words of Kiichiro Toyoda, "Genchi Genbutsu" ... go and see it for yourself.
The 2019 Rugby World Cup runs from September 20 to November 2 in 12 cities across Japan. Toyota City will be hosting four of the matches, with the mighty All Blacks taking on Italy on October 12.
The iconic City of Toyota Stadium has a retractable roof, columnless construction, heated seats and steeply inclined stands to offer comfort and views for up to 45,000 fans.
The stadium is conveniently located by train, in a vibrant neighbourhood. Organisers plan to create a uniquely Japanese fanzone for the World Cup visitors, with cultural festivities, street food and entertainment.
Air New Zealand flies to Tokyo, with one-way Economy Class fares starting from $619. From there, Toyota is three hours by train.