JR Nagoya Station: Almost a town within a city

by Stephen Carr

Special To The Japan Times

Of the 193,000 people who pass daily through the main station of Japan’s third city, Nagoya, most are probably unaware they are in a building with no rival in the entire world. The station complex, known as the Twin Towers, is a Guinness World Records holder complete with a plaque proclaiming, “The JR Central Towers is the world’s largest station building, with: 410,000 sq. meters (4,413,000 sq. feet) of floor space and a height of 245 meters (803.8 feet).”

The cylindrical skyscrapers which soar over the city consist of the 53-story Hotel Tower and the 51-floor Office Tower, which share a common base 15 floors high — with another six floors below ground. The station towers contain gardens, spas, cafes, bars, restaurants, department stores and an international hotel.

Ascending to the upper floors on certain days can be an astonishing experience, as you get to gaze at clouds at the same height, adding a surreal touch to the dramatic vastness of the city spread out below. But atop both towers, the brilliant views can be enjoyed at the same time as indulging in some serious creature comforts. On the 51st and top floor of the Office Tower, the old observation deck has been converted into cafe, wine bar and a beauty spa. The Hotel Tower has a lounge, restaurant and banqueting room on its 51st and 52nd floors.

The Twin Towers replaced the old station built in 1886 by Japan Rail’s forerunner, Japanese National Railways. JNR, crippled by mismanagement and burdened with debt, was privatized in 1987. The Towers started rising in 1994, and took five years to build. The gleaming, futuristic complex was completed in December 1999 — just in time for the new millennium.

Nagoya was heavily bombed during World War II, along with most of the other cities in Aichi Prefecture, an aircraft-manufacturing hub. As a result, there are not many historic districts left, and the only distinctive old landmark visible from the station is Nagoya Castle, distinguished by golden whales decorating its roofs.

The mass of skyscrapers and office blocks, which replaced the old town destroyed by U.S. bombs, are much the same as those found in any other modern city around the world. So Nagoya is a place not many tourists go out of their way to see, and it has something of a reputation for soullessness. In fact the lack of foreign faces on its streets gives it a distinctly local character — though it is, if you get to know it, a vibrant and most interesting city. New, boldly executed — even to some eyes beautiful — architecture such as the station towers, very well designed for myriad functions, just adds to its appeal.

The three main commercial activities of the skyscrapers — the hotel, department stores and offices for rent — are run in partnership with JR Nagoya Station. The three companies created for the purpose had a combined turnover of ¥151.8 billion last year.

The Office Tower has 60,000 sq. meters of space for rent and the company running it showed its commercial acumen last year by achieving close to full occupancy.

The Hotel Tower is dominated by the Nagoya Marriott Associa Hotel, which takes up 4,100 sq. meters, or 10 percent, of the station complex. On its ground floor is a quiet, softly lit cafe, seemingly a world away from the tumult of the station though the two are in fact separated only by a 30-second walkway.

Check-in is on the 15th floor, where there is a more spacious cafe and also a restaurant with a huge wall of windows. Its reasonably priced dinner buffets, usually themed on different countries or regions of the world, are popular with Nagoya residents — as are its striking night-time views of the city. From here to floor 53 there are banqueting and wedding facilities, bars, restaurants, 774 guest rooms and a swimming pool.

One of the station’s unique features is Sky Street, a huge airy concourse that spans both towers on the 15th floor. It looks out on a dramatic vista of Nagoya through a massive bank of plate-glass picture windows. This panoramic cityscape, which is constantly photographed by visitors, can be freely accessed by anyone from a row of elevators just inside the left-front entrance to the station.

Department stores ply their wares on 13 floors, and the biggest, Takashimaya, had a turnover of ¥110.3 billion last year. Below that are two underground sales levels offering great varieties of food and drink on sale and aromatic gusts of green tea wafting through them.

Aromas of a different sort permeate the third floor, a glittering array of mirrors, counters and stools attended by glamorous, elegantly coiffed female representatives of the world’s best-known cosmetic and perfume companies. Appreciative customers are pampered, dabbed and sprayed while their other halves lounge in a large area in the middle of the floor, set aside for sofas and easy chairs, waiting for the cosseting to finish.

On the 11th floor is the Sansei-Do bookshop, one of Nagoya’s biggest, which has an extensive English section. Seats by the windows overlooking a big metal spiral sculpture on a roundabout in front of the station can be used for a thorough perusal of any book before deciding whether to buy it or not.

Eating options in the Twin Towers offer more choices than those of a small town. The food of Nagoya is delicious and distinctive. Special to the city are dishes such as tebasaki (fried spicy chicken wing) and miso nikomi udon (very chewy noodles with red miso). Most eel dishes around Japan serve just a couple of slices of the fish, but the Nagoya version, unagi hitsumabushi, features lots of finely chopped cuts of on rice — and there are three versions, which usually impress diners trying them for the first time.

Meanwhile, ethnic eating alternatives include Chinese, Korean, Indian, French and Italian styles among the many restaurants that occupy 8,400 sq. meters of the station complex. Underneath the main concourse is a dark, atmospheric warren of eateries and stalls named Ramendori (Noodle Street). This underground alley specializes in noodle dishes from all over Japan. Cooks and waiters in head bands and aprons, shrouded in steam, ladel noodles, yell orders, chop ingredients and hustle customers.

Like any great station, Nagoya’s has a constant stream of traffic in and around it, with cars dropping off passengers, trucks delivering and unloading their wares, buses disgorging and collecting tour groups. To cope with the volume of vehicles, the station has two parking areas that can hold a total of 1,500 cars. Two hundred of these can fit into the hotel car park.

But JR Nagoya Station is not all concrete, asphalt and glass. There is a large enclosed area on the front-left approach to the main entrance called the Towers Garden. This has plants and flowers, a large swath of decking and tiers of very long, curving benches. It is open to anyone, whether using the station or not, and it’s a popular place, particularly in the summer, to relax, sealed off from the traffic, and to perhaps partake of a packed lunch, tote along a drink or meet friends.

Another rendezvous spot which everyone in Nagoya knows about is the Golden Clock in the middle of the main floor of the station. Ringed by a bed of brightly hued flowers, the magnificent timepiece is ornate, rests on a lamp-post-size stand and is surrounded by people at all hours waiting to meet friends, relatives or business colleagues off trains.

Its counterpart on the other side of the station, where shinkansen bullet trains stop from Kyoto, Osaka, Tokyo and beyond, is the Silver Clock. On the floor around it, you’ll often find big groups of school children on trips from other parts of the country.

The two sides of the station are very different in character. Across from the main entrance, Sakuradori (Cherry Blossom Street) plunges down into the city’s main business district. Opposite the shinkansen side of the tracks, though, it’s all rather more seedy, with garish blinking neon signs fronting love hotels, nightclubs, massage joints and hostess bars.

Those who run these dodgy locales can sometimes be spotted outside that side of the station, usually getting into or out of big black cars with dark windows. Their bullet heads, sharp suits and sheer attitude mark them as certain demi-monde as clearly as if they were shirtless and showing off whole-body tattoos.

Fortunately, though, refreshingly living flora is on display an escalator ride one floor above the Golden Clock. This connects the station with Nagoya’s bus terminal and also has a large outside terrace. This is another spot where people stroll around in warm weather and meet friends.

JR Nagoya Station, a world-beater certified by Guinness, is almost a self-contained town within a city of some 2.25 million folk. Although it does not make any list of the most renowned tourist sites of Japan, it is spectacular, beautiful, has something for everyone — and is worth much more time for exploration than a brief walk across the concourse to buy a ticket and catch a train.