Sometimes secrets are hiding in plain sight, and sometimes you have to hunt them down.
In my first Sendai Motions article, I challenge you to examine a place most of us pass through without a second thought. Here are 10 secrets about Sendai Station.
1. What’s Up?
Stuck waiting in front of the second floor stained glass for your friend? Look up from your phone to the ceiling. You’ll swear you have seen this grid pattern in Japan somewhere before. Maybe that is because the station ceiling is laid out like tatami rice mats!
Actually, this is a nod to Ohiroba, the giant “thousand tatami rice mat palace” constructed by Sendai founder Date Masamune at Sendai Castle. You can view the ruins and learn more about the building at the castle site.
2. All Aboard! Nope, VIPs only.
When VIPs come to Sendai, rumor says they don’t use the same crowded ticket gates we do.
Instead, after exiting the luxurious first class shinkansen bullet train, they are ushered from the train platform to a private elevator. It descends into a basement garage where the chauffeur is waiting with the car door open. The star treatment continues when re-boarding.
3. What’s That Sound?
Listen to the ringing chimes when trains signal to depart. All the melodies are connected to Sendai. Since March 2018, the Sendai Airport Access Line has played “Around the World” by Sendai band MONKEY MAJIK. Another train plays the Sparrow Dance song which is popular as a traditional tune during festivals. And the bullet train has the background melody from a song by local singer, actor and television personality Muneyuki Sato. All chimes are beautifully created by the Sendai Philharmonic Orchestra.
4. Art and Culture Everywhere
Most stations are decked out in art and local cultural references everywhere you look. See if you can find references to Matsuo Basho and Matsushima, feudal lord Date Masamune, and action hero Kamen Rider. One easily missed and charming example is this kokeshi display in one of the shinkansen waiting rooms. Kokeshi wooden dolls are famous in the Tohoku region. You’ll find a sample of each of the 11 traditional types here.
5. A Secret Escape
On the 5th floor of SPAL II (restaurant and gift shop side) on the east side of Sendai Station is the “Sky Garden.” It is hard to find, but that makes it an excellent escape from the crowds or a relaxing place to bring your coffee or a good book. Enjoy the few plants and flowers, your bento, snack, or coffee, plus the occasional outside yoga session.
Admission is free
Hours: Oct-Feb 10:00-17:00, Mar-Apr 10:00-18:00, May-Sep 10:00-19:00.
6. Double Duty
This one is not so much a secret as clever design and business sense. Anytime you see a store or restaurant near a ticket gate, take a look inside. Places like a soba restaurant and a gift shop are actually two stores in one. A wall separates train riders who entered the ticket gates and no ticket customers looking for some shopping or eats from the outside. Kitchens and cash registers are shared between both the inside and outside portions of a staff only enclosure.
7. Wish For Good Luck
On the first floor of the station outside the JR Station Master's office is a miniature Sendai Shiro Statue. Sendai Shiro was a real man that lived in Sendai in the mid to late 1800s. It was said he brought good luck to any restaurants and merchants he visited. Maybe he’ll pass some on to you, too. This version features Shiro in a JR staff uniform.
8. The "Shinkansen Kiss"?
Several times a day you can see some very public affection at the station, a true rarity in conservative Japan. The green Hayabusa and red Komachi are a kissing couple that stay lip-locked from Tokyo to Morioka.
9. Oh (my) hagi!
(Picture left to right) Shoji-san, Saito-san, and Yamagata-san from the Sendai Information Center couldn’t help but spill the sweet red beans on their Sendai Station Secret: “You must try Ohagi from Akiu!”
I make it a personal habit to pick up one of the local sticky rice balls covered in sweet red beans every time I visit the hot spring resort on the outskirts of Sendai. Little did I know that the "Food Kingdom Miyagi" shop on the first floor sold them three days a week.
“You can get them here, but only if you are really, really fast!”, the trio warned. Ohagi are sold from 11 in the morning on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. The line could be up to 10 minutes long, but don’t try to come back later. The Ohagi have been known to sell out in just 30 minutes.
I got ohagi once and felt like I won the lottery. Even waiting in the long line, I was worried it would run out as I tried twice before and missed it.
10. Built in the Wrong Location
Most major train stations are purposefully built in the center of the city, or at least the center of downtown. In 1887, Sendai Station was supposed to open where the central rail cargo distribution center was and still is, but the plan was vehemently blocked by town merchants. The cargo terminal is behind the current Rakuten baseball stadium, meaning the merchants centered around the shopping arcade and Omachi area would have lost a tremendous amount of pedestrian traffic and business. The governor at the time gave in to their demands.
A legacy from the decision is the huge, time-consuming curve the shinkansen train must make to enter and leave Sendai Station. It is best viewed from the observatory on the 31st floor of the AER building. On the other hand, the trains using the distribution center still have their straight north-south line running through the city
About the Author
Justin Velgus is a certified sake expert, amateur local historian and constant explorer of the "City of Trees", Sendai. He holds a deep passion for the Tohoku region and proudly shares it as much as possible. In addition to working with recovery projects and community organizations, Justin has created over 300 travel and culture articles, promotes sake overseas, and regularly advises the local volunteer tour guide group about the many charms of this city and how to better welcome visitors from overseas.
Having experienced Japan as a volunteer on a military base near Hiroshima, student in Akita, English teacher in Sendai, and government worker in Fukushima, he hopes his experience and insight will help travelers AND locals seeking a true adventure in the city he now calls his second home. Excited to take a larger role in regional promotion, Justin plans to open his own small business "Just in Sendai" in spring 2019 to offer unique tours and sake experiences