"If you understand Aichi, then you understand Japan". It's a simple proposition. No part of Japan is more representative of this fascinating country's past and present, or its strengths and weaknesses than the Chubu area, and Aichi Prefecture in particular. Images of Aichi, like the images of the region held by many of its own residents, at first appear to be a mass of contradictions. Compact, sprawled, rich, frugal, colorful, remote, delicious, bizarre, conservative, clever, modern, historic, futuristic, urban, increasingly cosmopolitan but often proudly & unapologetically inaka. Yet Aichi is the leading edge, whenever it changes, so does Japan.
Due in large part to Nagoya, the nation's 4th largest city, and the satellite cities such as Ichinomiya, Toyota, Okazaki and Toyohashi that together with Nagoya comprise Japan's third largest urban area, Aichi has a very metro image. In many ways, Aichi Prefecture is both more high tech and yet more liveable than Tokyo, more efficient and businesslike and yet a little "nonbiri" and relaxing compared to Osaka. Host of the 2005 World Expo, and home to a massive metropolitan area of nearly 7 million people, one of the mysteries of Aichi is that somehow much of it is still largely unspoilt and rustic. It takes time to cover, but Aichi includes everything - rugged alpine scenery in the national parks with excellent hiking opportunities, deep gorges, historic castles and battlefields, beautiful thatched roof houses in valleys that time appears to have forgotten, remote but fascinating senmaida, plus some of Japan's best surf beaches, as well as its bustling and rich cities.
Aichi has a conservative image, as a place where traditions are still strong, and where artists, designers and craftspeople remain as respected today as in the era of the Tokaido. The makers of traditional crafts and products including the master potters of Seto and Tokoname - 2 of Japan's 6 ancient kiln centuries are in Aichi, the makers of fireworks, arrows, stoneworks, washi paper, candlemaking, and buddhist altars etc continue to enjoy enormous respect (and market share) - and yet this is in the heartland of a region that with only 13% of Japan's population, produces more than 20% of its GDP, with bustling ports and cutting edge research institutes (new window).
Aichi is where Japan's economic miracle was really born. Local companies such as Toyota are global names. Even the traditional miso makers are celebrated. Its "mono-zukuri" culture places great emphasis on the ability to create - and they do it well. Aichi has always been home to brilliant inventors, and continues to produce a disproportionately high percentage of the inventions & patents registered in Japan. From soy sauce to electronics, carmaking & precision instruments to recycling technologies, and from biotech to services, Aichi is continually being reinvented. The world famous concepts of "just-in-time", "lean manufacturing", "zero defects" and other such cost & quality control methods, all originated from "oh-so-frugal" Aichi. Yet the same area has a reputation throughout Japan for outrageously expensive weddings, conspicuous consumption, pachinko parlors and an enviably wealthy economy. With sophisticated textile & clothing industries in Ichinomiya, and the high disposable incomes in the region, its no surprise that Nagoya has become a fashion center and a test market for ideas, products and trends.
It is not just modernity. Historically Aichi has been the stage of Japan's turning points. Many of the most important battles including Okehazama, Nagashino, Shitagahara, Komaki and Nagakute, and many of the most important figures including Oda Nobunaga and Tokugawa Ieyasu were born and raised in what is now Aichi. Old post towns, ancient temples, and heritage listed shrines dot the landscape. And yet as a general rule, foreign language guidebooks either ignore the entire prefecture, or give it a cursory brushoff as an "industrial center" or transport hub. Why? Perhaps because it is too big to cover in a few days - it is easy to quickly take snapshots of Kyoto or Mt. Fuji, but for Aichi you need to slowly soak it in like the waters of a Chita peninsula onsen.
Despite its famous Penis Shrine, massive fireworks, and intriguing cormorant fishing, Aichi is in general more subtle - you need to peel the layers away. Perhaps to enjoy and appreciate it's intricacies, you often need language skills - it is wishful thinking to expect the average miso maker or master potter to speak "gaijingo". And perhaps to cover the vast areas you really need a car, or more time and motivation than that of which the average corporate guidebook writer.