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Planes, Trains and Automobiles in Nagoya, Japan

| Words by Zoe Crane |

Despite being one of the country’s largest cities, Nagoya is often overlooked on traveler’s itineraries to Japan. A major manufacturing center, Nagoya also offers a number of museums, temples, shops and restaurants.

Time published Five Reasons to Visit Nagoya highlighting the top things to do in the area, including the Toyota Factory, the International Design Center and a trendy arts and music scene. For those interested in transport new and old, it offers an interest not many other cities in Japan can. Located on the route between Tokyo and Kyoto, the industrial revolution saw the city grow into a manufacturing hub famous for planes, trains and automobiles.


With the availability of land and connectivity to major cities, Mitsubishi decided to use Nagoya as the location for its internal combustion company. Within 8 years the demand for military aircraft caused the company to change its name to the Mitsubishi Aircraft Company (Mitsubishi Kokuki) as it had now become one of the largest aircraft manufacturers in the country. This would impact the whole city in the years to follow.

Mitsubishi A6M

The Mitsubishi A6M Zero was one of the most capable fighters used in World War II

In 1931 around 400 aircraft were produced in Japan. This started to grow when in 1932, the Japanese Navy developed a program to have manufacturers develop specific aircraft types, and during this time Mitsubishi developed the attack bomber Mitsubishi A5M, followed by the A6M and the carrier fighter Mitsubishi G3M. The fastest was the reconnaissance plane Mitsubishi Ki-46 with a top speed of 540km/h. By 1941, Japan was producing nearly 5,000 aircraft a year and in 1944 this peaked at 24,000.

Of the 1.5 million people living in Nagoya during World War II, around a quarter were involved in manufacturing aircraft, producing nearly half the combat aircraft in Japan. In 1942 air strikes began to target Nagoya and continued through to 1945, including some of the largest-scale firebombing seen at the time. Incendiary attacks devastated around a quarter of the city. As Nagoya Castle was being used as military barracks, this was also a target and was destroyed. After the war the city was rebuilt and completed in 1959, including a reproduction of the original castle.

You can visit the Mitsubishi Aircraft Factory Museum in Toyoyama next to Nagoya airfield, but you’ll need to make a reservation first. Make a day of it and head further north to the Kakamigahara Aerospace Science Museum has over 25 aircraft on display, some of which can be boarded.


Nagoya Power Company started in 1889, the same year Nagoya became a city. An early adopter of the technology, Nagoya started operating an electric streetcar in 1898, the second city in Japan to do so after Kyoto. Electric street cars continued to operate in the area until 1974, and a streetcar from 1936 is on display the Nagoya City Science museum. In 1937 the streetcar station was moved and the new site was dubbed the number one railway station of the East. Nagoya’s main station remains on the same site and is the largest railway station in the world by area, covering 41 Hectares.

The ancient Tokaido road from Tokyo to Kyoto was originally traveled mainly by foot. In 1889, the same year Nagoya became a city, the first rail route was completed between Tokyo and Kobe, following the original Tokaido route past Nagoya, with a journey time of around 20 hours. The line was privatised in 1906 and the introduction of automatic couplers and the “swallow” express saw travel time reduced to just 9 hours.

Shinkansen in countryside

The tokaido Shinkansen line travels from Tokyo to Osaka via Nagoya and other cities as well as through the countryside

With the capacity of the Tokaido line stretched, work began in 1940 on a high-speed rail line. In 1964 the Shinkansen line was opened between Tokyo and Osaka, stopping at Nagoya. This was the first high-speed railway line in Japan and is today the busiest in the world. In 1987 it was privatised and has been run by the Central Japan Railway company ever since.

In 2011 they opened their own railway museum in Nagoya, highlighting both the history and technological advances of rail in Japan. There are 39 train cars on display including steam locomotives, world record breaking Shinkansen and magnetic levitating (mag-lev) trains, many of which can be entered or seen from below. The train driver and conductor simulators are so popular that reservations are determined by a lottery system and there are also highly detailed miniature train recreations of Osaka, Nagoya and Tokyo.


The automobile industry in Nagoya began around 1920 and by 1932 they had produced their first passenger car. The following year Toyota branched out from textiles and began manufacturing automobiles in Nagoya, releasing its first car and truck in 1935 and its first Model AA passenger vehicle in 1936, with Toyota Motor Co. becoming an independent company the following year. Passenger car production was halted due to World War II and despite production resuming in 1947, the economic difficulties experienced in Japan after the war meant the company was on the brink of collapse by 1949. A bank loan followed by construction of military vehicles for the US during the Korean War brought it back to life and by the 1960s, the company was expanding globally, with Australia the biggest export market between 1963 and 1965. Global growth continued throughout Europe and the USA, and during the 1980s, Toyota led the way in achieving manufacturing efficiency. Today, Toyota is Japan’s leading car manufacturer.

Toyota still has its headquarters and many of its manufacturing plants in or near Nagoya and have created a selection of tourist activities in the city. Next to the company’s headquarters is the Toyota Kaikan Museum, where they display the newest models and up-to-the-minute technologies as well as running tours of the plant. In central Nagoya they have built the Toyota Techno museum, covering the history of the company from textile looms right through to high-tech robots. In Nagakute, around 45 minutes from Nagoya, is the Toyota Automobile Museum, showcasing cars from the late 1800s to the 1960s built by Toyota as well as other manufacturers from Japan, Europe and America.

Whether your interest is in planes, trains and automobiles, or you just want to experience the culture of Japan’s fourth most populated city, Nagoya is a city often overlooked, yet with plenty to offer travelers that stop here.