After a bountiful stay in Aomori, the next leg of our Tohoku travels is Sendai. Despite not being one of the ‘big name’ cities like Tokyo and Osaka, Sendai definitely isn’t a city to sleep on. Boasting a population of over one million, it holds an important position as the economic centre of the Tohoku region. For those looking for tertiary education options, Sendai also houses many universities with world-renown research institutes.
A big first impressions upon disembarking off our train is the abundance of green that laces through the concrete jungle. It’s not uncommon to see tree-lined streets and little oasis-like parks even in the busy business district. Sendai also reminded me of a low-key Shinjuku. There was your high rise and all of your favourite and well known brands but without too much of a bustle and definitely without the labyrinth of exits at the station itself.
Some of Sendai’s best dishes – sushi and beef tongue – can be found right within the train station itself. For the former, Sushi dori will be your best bet. But for the latter, let your feet take you towards Gyutan dori the aptly named beef tongue street located on the third floor. There, you’ll find most of the city’s big chains pushing out plates of unctuous meat.
To the uninitiated, beef tongue might seem like a strange cut of meat to be consuming but it is found in many cuisines around the world, is very tasty and has a balanced protein to fat ratio.
Once you’re all fuelled up, it’s time to check out Sendai’s key attractions. Aoba Castle or Aobajo built by feudal lord Date Masamune, is one such spot. The lack of an actual physical castle might surprise you but it was actually due to the anti-feudal sentiment during the Meiji period coupled with periodic fires and bombing that have rendered this space into nothing more than stone walls and a guard tower. Nevertheless, history resonates throughout this space and its vantage point of over 100 meters over the city, makes for a pretty view. To learn more about Aoba Castle’s history, visit the on-site museum which features models of the castle as it stood during the Edo era as well as period-old artefacts.
Sendai’s nightlife wasn’t as vibrant as one might expect from Tokyo haunts like Roppongi or Shibuya. However two enclaves I absolutely loved were Iroha Yokocho and Bunka Yokocho about 15 minutes away from Sendai station. Both alleyways are mini mazes of bars and bistros that peddle deliciously affordable dishes with a style that’s almost frozen in time from Showa days. The name of the bistro that we patroned escapes me but I do remember the homely service we had, the delicious sashimi plate and a real sense of warmth in the atmosphere. Unfortunately, many other places we wanted to try were closed as we had gone just before the long new year’s break. I don’t have many photos from this area but it’s the one attraction in Sendai that I would specifically come back for, just to explore.
Should the weather permit, a trip to Matsushima is also a must. Just 30 minutes away from Sendai city, Matsushima is well-known for its bay which has earned it a rank amongst Japan’s most scenic views. Once here, make sure to stop by Zuiganji an important Zen temple within the Tohoku region. The age-old architecture is as breath-taking as the gardens are, even in winter! At the time of our visit, we faced incredible snow and freezing temperatures which felt tough at times, but we made the most of with lots of ‘trying to look happy’ snow shots and pockets full of kairo.
For one last sushi fix, make a detour to Shiogama before heading back to the city. Shiogama is an important port for Japan’s tuna and swordfish industry and also supplies fresh seafood to all the nearby areas, plus Tokyo. The town is said to have the highest number of sushi restaurants per capita in Japan so make sure to have your Google Maps or restaurant rating app of your choice to navigate through the options.
Some last little bits and piece I adored about Sendai are the abundance of “zunda” snacks like zunda mochi and zunda shake as well as gyutan flavoured snacks like this luxurious-looking box of Happy Turn I purchased. Truly one of the best parts of travelling within Japan that will never get old are the regional flavours that you can’t purchase anywhere else except where it’s from. All in all, I loved Tohoku so much and can’t believe it’s taken me this long to make a trip here. It’s really unfortunate that the name ‘Tohoku’ is often negatively associated with the 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster which undoubtedly ravaged many places, but truly the region is on the mend. When overseas travel eventually resumes, I hope we’ll be able to spread it out more equally so that places like Kyoto don’t suffer from over tourism while places within the Tohoku region get a bit more love.
Lastly, I don’t often embed YouTube videos into my guides but I really wanted to share this video by Abroad in Japan which I watched on the Shinkansen from Aomori to Sendai. It was super helpful and really helped shape my trip!