Immerse yourself in beautiful nature, try droolworthy foods, join dazzling festivals, admire samurai history and interact with friendly people in Sendai, an awesome destination to put on your Japan itinerary.
Sendai is the capital city of Miyagi Prefecture, northeast of Tokyo on Honshu Island. It is by far the largest city in the Tohoku Region, with a population of about one million. Sendai is a synonym with Date Masamune, the mighty warlord who found the modern city of Sendai around 1600. Many of Sendai’s tourist attractions are related to Masamune and his family. With good access to public transportation, the neighbourhood is an excellent base for a number of excursions into the surrounding areas.
Here are the carefully selected best 10 things you shouldn’t miss when visiting Sendai.
TAKE A HIKE TO THE AOBA CASTLE RUINS
Guarded by the statue of Lord Date Masamune, the founder of Sendai, Aoba Castle is a ruined castle stood atop the hill overlooking Sendai City across the Hirose River. Visitors can admire the castle wall and view an estimated restored model of Sendai Castle and items pertaining to the fortress in the museum inside the precinct. Besides its historic relevance, the landmark castle is best known for its scenic views of the city in the mountains. Taking a commemorative picture, with the bronze statue of Lord Date Masamune, is a popular activity.
Aoba Castle is also a home to a delectable mix of restaurants, cafes and coffee shops serving a range of local delicacies such as gyutan, harako meshi and zunda. It enables tourists to relax and re-energise before visiting nearby sightseeing attractions such as Gokoku Shrine, Yagiyama Zoological Park, and Yagiyama Benyland.
FEEL THE NOSTALGIC ALLURE OF THE VINTAGE AMUSEMENT PARK
A short walk from Aoba Castle is Sendai Yagiyama Benyland, a local favourite amusement park on Yagiyama Mountain. Located at the front of the park are a pirate ship, a carousel, other family–friendly attractions, and of course, teacups. To migrate to the more thrilling side of the park, you have to continue beyond the castle that serves as an entrance, over which a roller coaster passes. It is recommended for travellers who seek easy rides or those with small children. Unlike typical amusement parks, the food here is inexpensive and authentic. Though there are few choices, some such as miso ramen and curry rice taste delicious.
Annually, to celebrate New Year, the park offers free admission and free parking, January 1-3 and 7-9 for all visitors. On the first three days of the year, the park gives out free glasses of amazake, a traditional sweet, low- or non-alcoholic drink to the first 100 patrons. If you’re in Sendai during New Year, don’t miss it.
PRAY AT OSAKI HACHIMAN SHRINE
For a spiritual uplift, visit Osaki Hachiman Shrine, a national treasure known for its magnificent gilded black lacquered main hall. With easy access both by local bus and Sendai Loople Bus, the shrine attracts a steady stream of visitors throughout the year. It‘s especially crowded during the new year holiday when people perform their first shrine visit. During the time when locals celebrate the turn of the year, the shrine holds a festival where its main entrance is filled with temporary food stalls with colourful storefronts. This celebration will give you an initiation to many recognisable local foods such as yakisoba or okonomiyaki. The event also features all sort of extravagant foods on skewers such as gyutan and miso glazed rice sticks.
The shrine deity, Hachiman, is the Shinto god of war and considered to be a general guardian and protector of the city. Therefore locals are deeply attached to the holy site.
SHOP AT SENDAI STATION AND AROUND
Sendai Station is the largest rail hub in the city, where all Akita and Tohoku Shinkansen trains stop. It is a central sightseeing location in Tohoku that allows visitors to gain access to tourist attractions in the region. Inside this three-storey station, there’s a tourist information with a wide range of multi-language guides and maps.
Recently, the station has undergone a major renovation. Check out S-Pal, a new trendy shopping mall directly attached to the station, sample and taste local specialities and find unique souvenirs in over 300 stores and restaurants. Take a stroll in a warren of small alleys around the train station, visiting stalls selling anything imaginable but strong in fashion. Explore Ichibancho, a lively shopping street with a nice mix of mainstream Western goods and Japanese merchandise. Sendai’s busiest commercial district is also famed for Tanabata decoration. It is conveniently located on a corner lot, where the main road intersects with the shopping street next to Sendai Station, close to Aoba-Dori Ichibancho Station and Hirose-Dori Station. On New Year, there are special sales where you can purchase a “lucky bag” filled with random goods, for a lot less than what the items actually cost.
TRY GRILLED BEEF TONGUE
Despite not being a leading cattle-producing prefecture, Sendai gyutan or grilled beef tongue is highly regarded throughout the country and is also the pride of Sendai. Gyutan-specialised restaurants usually grill this thickly sliced beef tongue and season it with salt, soy sauce or miso, and serve with barley rice, oxtail soup, and pickles. However, there are several other ways to enjoy gyutan including in burger, stew, ramen or sausage. This local speciality is available in over 100 restaurants throughout the city, where customers are welcome to watch the chefs at work from counter seats. Also, there are plenty of packaged gyutan products to buy as souvenirs.
TAKE A DAY TRIP TO MATSUSHIMA
Located just 30 minutes outside Sendai, Matsushima is noted for its bay, dotted by around 260 pine-clad islets, and has been ranked one of Japan’s most scenic views. You can appreciate this view up close on board a Matsushima sightseeing cruise. The small fishing town is also rich in history and culture with several interesting sites including Zuiganji Temple, Oshima Island, and Godaido.
Thanks to its surrounding rich-nutrient ocean, Matsushima is also noted for fresh seafood, including some of the finest oysters, which are often eaten just as is or served with citrus ponzu sauce or lemon juice and grated daikon, spiced up with red chilli peppers.
Popular activities include fishing, nature walking, bird watching, and sasakama (a fish cake made into the shape of a bamboo leaf) making. Aside from Matsushima, popular side trips from Sendai include Yamadera, Zao, Sanriku Coast and Naruko Gorge.
VISIT SENDAI MORNING MARKET
Feel the spirit of the neighbourhood as you take a stroll through Sendai Morning Market, the liveliest open-air market in the city, located behind E-Beans Building near Sendai Station. It offers fresh fish, seafood, flowers and unique local specialities such as fu, a stick of fried wheat gluten that resembles a small baguette. Asaichi is the place where local restaurants source ingredients, so there’s quite a variety of produce for a small market featuring some 70 stalls. A visit to the market is best combined with a nice meal such as sushi, korokke with freshly steamed rice. Go in the early evening when many vendors offer end-of-day discounts. Plenty of smiles and gentle polite bargaining may win you an extra discount.
SAMPLE SALMON AND SALMON ROES RICE BOWL
Salmon has always played an important role in Tohoku cuisine, and harako meshi is the signature dish of the region. Harako meshi is an autumn delicacy from Watari, Miyagi Prefecture, which consists of moist cooked salmon and plenty of shinning salmon roes on steamed rice cooked in salmon broth. While generous amount of roes make the dish look luxurious, its taste will remind you of homecooked food.
While many people visit Watari for a bowl of authentic harako meshi, the dish is also widely available in Sendai from mid- September to November. This speciality is commonly served in local eateries and family restaurants. You can buy harako meshi ekiben from Sendai Station.
TAKE A STROLL THROUGH JOZENJI DORI
Even a short stay in Sendai should include Jozenji Avenue, a famous street lined with gigantic zelkova trees for about 700 metres, stretching between Nishi Park and Kotodai Park, at the end of the lively Ichibancho shopping arcades and next to Kokubuncho, the most exciting entertainment district in the Tohoku Region. Alongside this quiet promenade, there is an abundance of clothes shops, eateries and entertainment outlets. The bronze statues of Memories of Summer by Emilio Greco and A Bathing Woman by Venanzo Crocetti standing in the middle of the street are stunning sights.
A walk under the shade of large zelkova trees in summer and seeing a night come alive with winter illuminations will fill every heart with a romantic feeling. This clean board street is not only adding beautiful greenery to the capital of Miyagi prefecture, but it also serves as a venue for many special events and annual festivals, such as Jozenji Street Jazz Festival and Sendai Pageant of Starlight.
With its wonderful nature, samurai history, urban convenience, sumptuous foods, and numerous shopping areas, Sendai has a bit of everything travellers look for. Though the city itself is pretty compact and the main sights could be seen in a few days, it’s really best to give yourself a little longer to soak up the variety of experiences.