by Brian – JAPANiCAN.com Staff
I recently had the chance to go check out Sendai, a city with several nicknames including the City of Trees, Gateway to the North, and Capital of Delicious Beef Tongue (OK, I made that last one up, but it’s true!). As you may know, Sendai is located in Miyagi Prefecture, which itself is located on the Pacific Ocean side of the northern area of Japan’s main island. This area, called Tohoku, is where the epicenter of the devastating March 11th earthquake was located. With this solemn bit of information in mind, I was not quite sure what to expect on my first trip to Sendai.
Sendai is located in Northeastern Japan. (View larger map)
Back on Track
Sendai can be reached in about an hour and 50 minutes from Tokyo by bullet train on the Tohoku Shinkansen Line. Shinkansen service to Sendai actually resumed much quicker than many may have thought, with reduced runs restarting within about a month of the disaster. By the time my colleague and I were headed up there, the bullet train was firing pretty much as usual, and it is now operating on a normal schedule with regular departures all day long. My Shinkansen was the Hayate service, but if you want to really ride in style, there’s always the brand new Hayabusa service which started service just this year (with shiny new trains!). Other options for getting to the City of Trees include airplane, highway bus (and night bus), and of course rental car if you’re the do-it-yourself type. Shinkansen is the easiest option, though, so I recommend that.
At any rate, after a smooth ride (and a quick snooze) we arrived at Sendai Station.
Looking back at Sendai Station from the raised sidewalk on a sunny day.
Business as Usual
What awaited us was the bright, bustling city that I had heard so much about. All things considered, I have to admit that I was a bit surprised. While the coastal areas of Sendai and Miyagi Prefecture as a whole may remain in varying degrees of disarray and damage (as of late summer 2011), the central portions of Sendai, with its bustling shopping arcade and constantly running sightseeing bus, have all but returned to normal. If you somehow managed to miss the news about the earthquake and tsunami, you really would never be able to tell. We arrived in the mid-morning to find Sendai Station abuzz with commuters, shoppers, and travelers like ourselves. I had a mind to get my tourist on, so we headed down to check out the status of the Sendai Loople Bus, a special sightseeing loop bus that hits all the major sites around the city in one big — you guessed it — loop.
The bus pool outside of Sendai’s West Exit is home to the Loople’s first stop and a ticket window where you can buy your day pass.
We headed out the West Exit of the station (on the second floor) and walked along the elevated sidewalk and took the stairs down to the bus pool at street level. Once you hit the little bus stop island, it’s easy to find the Loople stop (or starting point really) at number 15-3, and you can buy your day pass at the window right next to the stop. They also have pamphlets at the window explaining the bus’s route, timetable, the points of interest at each stop, and the like. Super helpful, so don’t forget to grab one of these.
Quick helpful hint: Sendai Station is rather large, so if you need a hand finding the bus pool/Loople stop, hit up the sightseeing information center inside the station (near the West Exit, second floor). They can also give you more info about sightseeing in Sendai, of course.
My Loople one-day pass and trusty map. Notice the wrinkles from frequent use.
So, with day pass in hand, it was time to begin our Loople adventure! The bus itself is quaint or cute, even, having been designed with a kind of old timey feel. The seats were nice and comfy, though, and after snagging a seat towards the back, my Loople chariot carried me out to discover Sendai.
For more info on the Loople, check out our Sendai feature.
Highlights from the Loop
Zuihoden (Stop #4)
Those of you that know a bit about Sendai already will probably know the name Date Masamune. He was the first feudal lord of this region back in the 16th – 17 century and is a very famous historical figure known for his smooth governance and prowess in battle. Zuihoden is where we found his mausoleum on a slightly overcast, drizzling day. After you get off the Loople, it’s a short walk up a hill lined with towering cedars and — when we were there — beautiful flowering bushes. Upon entering the welcome building, we perused some artifacts from Masamune’s time including his very own set of armor, which is said to be the influence for Darth Vader’s, incidentally. The mausoleum itself is gorgeous. Reminescent of Nikko’s Toshogu Shrine, Zuihoden is ornamented with intricately crafted, brightly painted decorations.
After walking about the peaceful grounds of Zuihoden a bit more, we decided to push on to the Sendai Castle ruins. After a somewhat precarious walk down some slippery, steep stairs (thanks a lot, rain!), we made our way back to the Loople and were off.
Sendai Castle (Stop #6)
The Loople bus wound its way up a hill, and we arrived at the top of plateau overlooking the city. This is where Sendai Castle once proudly stood, though all that remains now are some ruins and a replica. We also found the famous Date Masamune statue — featuring the warlord atop his horse — looking out over his (former) domain. We walked around a bit, visited the shrine near the castle ruins, and checked out an exhibit about the former castle. After that, it was back to the Loople!
Osaki Hachimangu Shrine (Stop #11)
Finding Osaki Hachimangu Shrine is not exactly tough considering its massive, red tori gate. A short trek up the stairs through the gate leads to a long promenade that leads to the serene, four centuries old shrine itself. We visited around the Tanabata Festival, so there some bamboo poles where people could submit their wishes on strips of paper.
Downtown Sendai (Stop #13, 14)
This time we decided to get off at the Mediatheque, a library/art gallery combo and also just a really cool-looking building. This also put us right in the heart of Sendai along perhaps the city’s most famous street, Jozenji. This wide Sendai boulevard is famous for its zelkova tree-lined promenade which also features a number of statues along its foliage-shaded path. After walking down the path a bit, we made a turn back toward the station and our hotel through a large shopping arcade. We popped into a ramen shop on the way for some hiyashi chuka, a chilled Chinese noodle dish.
After lunch, we headed to our hotel to check in and relax a bit.
Grilled Beef Tongue Heaven
Fully rested and stomachs growling, we decided it was time to partake of one of Sendai’s most famous culinary treats: gyutan, or beef tongue. Gyutan is a popular dish throughout Japan and is easy to find at barbecue restaurants nationwide, but in Sendai you will find entire shops dedicated only to beef tongue. One such restaurant is Rikyu; it has several locations in Sendai itself and even some locations in Tokyo and other large cities in Japan. We decided to make a visit to the Sendai Station East Exit location.
As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, so here’s a whole bunch of words:
Our bellies still full from the previous night’s gyutan feast, we had a light breakfast and decided to head to nearby Matsushima. This picturesque coastline is famous for its numerous tiny islands which dot the bay and are in turn dotted by pines, hence the name (matsu meaning “pine” and shima meaning “island(s)”). Matsushima is one of the so-called Three Views of Japan, an exclusive list of beautiful landscapes named by a 17th century Japanese scholar, somewhat akin to the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. These days you can catch a sightseeing boat from a dock not far from Matsushima Station.
There is also a beautiful garden at Entsu-in, a Buddhist temple close to the Matsushima sightseeing boat docks. When we were there in late summer, it was as green as can be, and the moss-covered ground reminded me much of Kyoto’s Ginkaku-ji.
Before boarding our bullet train back to Tokyo, we knew we had to get our hands of another Sendai specialty: zunda. Zunda is a snack/dessert consisting of soy beans mashed into a kind of coarse, sweetened paste. The more traditional method of enjoying zunda is zunda mochi, which is simply zunda on top of sticky rice cakes (mochi). More contemporary interpretations include concoctions like the zunda shake, a vanilla milkshake with zunda mixed in. Of course, I just got both.
With our Sendai adventure at an end, I was left wanting at least one more day to visit all the museums, check out some of the other surrounding areas, and of course…eat at least a few more plates of gyutan!
Need more? Ready to make your own trip up north? Check out our Sendai Feature here.
Ready to jump right in and book a hotel? Browse hotels in downtown Sendai here OR browse all hotels and ryokan in the greater Sendai area here.