For those few intrepid individuals who opt to traverse the many wonders of northern Japan, the city of Sendai can be said to be the final bastion of metropolitan life before an endless bucolic countryside expanse. While there are certainly a handful of cool cities like Hachinohe further to the north in Aomori Prefecture, things get rural really quickly past Sendai. Alas, though northern Japan is already an area often neglected by overseas visitors, the city of Sendai suffers doubly so. You see, for the majority of the brave souls who venture north off the beaten path, urban environments are the furthest thoughts on their mind. As such, many wayward tourists simply end up skipping Sendai all together without ever knowing what they’re missing.
As a stalwart supporter and fan of northern Japan myself, I view it as my mission to better educate would-be travelers about the charms of this region. In doing so, I hope that visitors to Japan will be able to muster the courage to explore the many hidden gems up north. While attractions like Yamadera are popping up more and more on the digital radar, many locations on the northern landscape barely register. In this regard, the city of Sendai is a perfect example. Despite being nothing short of a dream come true for Japanese history buffs, Sendai rarely ranks high on must-visit lists. Indeed, this is a real shame given that the area surrounding the city has much to offer as both a half-day and overnight destination.
So, what makes Sendai worth visiting? Well, for starters, the main draw of this northern city is none other than the infamous Date clan (pronounced Dah-tay by the way). Though this clan did not gain worldwide renown like the warlords Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi, this samurai family managed to resist invasions into their northern territories during Japan’s bloody Warring States period (1467–1603). Of this long line of ferocious warriors, perhaps none is more celebrated that Date Masamune. By pledging his allegiance to the soon-to-be Tokugawa shogunate, Masamune was able to gain control of much of the north; thereafter, he soon went on to establish the city of Sendai.
Oh, and before we dive into things, I have a little bit of trivia for my fellow Star Wars fans out there. Did you know that the design of everyone’s favorite Dark Lord of the Sith, Darth Vader, is actually based on the aforementioned Date Masamune? Don’t believe me? Just take a look at this comparison. While it’s well documented that George Lucas was heavily influenced by Japanese culture, few people are aware of the extent to which he liberally appropriated its motifs. Now if only I could see an epic duel between Date Masamune, the so-called “One-Eyed Dragon of Oshu” (mind out of the gutter folks) and the fallen Anakin Skywalker, I think that I could die a happy man…
How to Get There
OK, let’s pause for a moment and address some logistics. Compared to some of the other remote places that I’ve covered in my area guides, the journey to Sendai is nothing short of child’s play. All you need to do is hop on any of the bullet trains bound for northern Japan and get off at the JR Sendai Station. As always, refer to the likes of a service such as Hyperdia to calculate the most convenient route for you. Note that those with a JR rail pass should not opt to take the time efficient Hayabusa trains as these require one to purchase a separate ticket. Instead, just hop on one of the other trains bound for either Yamagata or Aomori.
Once you’re in Sendai, things get a little bit more complicated. Most of the city’s attractions are spread across huge swaths of urban sprawl. Though by no means as large as a place like Tokyo, Sendai is still quite vast so be prepared for a bit of hopping around as you tour the city’s various attractions. Luckily, there’s an easy way to do this. Enter the Loople Sendai. As you might surmise from the name, this handy service is a bus loop line that circles the major attractions within the city. For the mere price of a gourmet coffee, you can hop on and off the Loople Sendai buses to your heart’s desire. It’s honestly quite the deal if you ask me!
Lastly, while I wish I had known this from the get-go, you can also get around Sendai by bicycle if you so desire thanks to the handy Docomo Bike Share service. I’ve written at length about how to navigate the registration process before so rather than reinvent the wheel, I’ll just instead direct you to this post. Somehow I only managed to come across a Docomo Bike Share station in the latter half of my trip despite there being a number of them spread across the city. That said, Sendai is totally bikeable making this an easy and convenient way to explore.
Sendai's Many Attractions
One of the best things about Sendai is that you can pick and choose how much of the city you want to explore. Only have a few hours to explore? No problem. Select one or two attractions from the list below and continue on to enjoy the rest of northern Japan. Rather dig in deep? Why not get the most out of Sendai and see everything that the city has to offer as I did. Though in no particular order, these are the sites that I found to have the most appeal. I’ve included links to Google Maps to make them easier to find.
Originally built high upon a centrally located hill in the year 1600 by Date Masamune, little remains of this former fortress today. Over the years, wars and bombings during World War II have claimed all but the castle’s stone wall foundations. Still, those who visit will have the chance to view a statue of Date Masamune as well as roam about a small museum dedicated to Aoba Castle.
Sendai City Museum
Situated at the base of the hill upon which Aoba castle sits, this wonderful museum curates a host of artifacts related to Sendai’s history. Entry will run you a couple hundred yen but I’m of the mindset that it’s well worth the price of entry. If you plan on visiting, be sure to visit after first checking out the Aoba castle remains.
This ornately designed complex is the mausoleum of Date Masamune and is quite a sight to behold with its brilliant hues and intricate patterns. While the original buildings were tragically lost to a fire during World War II, local artisans have faithfully recreated the structures. Nearby, you’ll also find the final resting places of Date Masamune’s son and grandson. Entry to Zuihoden will cost you around 500 yen.
Pictured above, Osaki Hachimangu was erected by none other than Date Masamune himself in the year 1607. It is the local branch shrine of Oita Prefecture’s Usa Jingu and enshrines the war god, Hachiman. Imposingly impressive, Osaki Hachimangu is designated as a National Treasure and is a prime example of Date clan architecture.
This complex is the family temple of the Date clan and dates back to the 1400’s. Though appearing somewhat unexceptional on first glance, the outward facade belies a jaw dropping traditional garden with a pagoda. Entry into this part of Rinno-ji will cost you 300 yen.
Oh, and lastly before moving on, know that you just can’t visit Sendai without sampling the local gyutan specialty. While those of you who aren’t accustomed to eating nose to tail may object at first, here you’re just going to need to trust me. It’s just THAT good!
Day Trips to Matsushima
The majority of Sendai’s central attractions can be completed in an aggressive half-day trip however a lot more remains within this region of Japan. While it will depend on how packed your itinerary is, readers with a bit of wiggle room are strongly urged to check out Matsushima. Located only thirty minutes north of Sendai this area, along with Kyoto’s Amanohashidate and the ever-popular island of Miyajima, has been hailed as one of Japan’s most scenic locations for hundreds of years. Each of these three feature their own unique charm but what makes Matsushima so beautiful is its isle-dotted bay as can be seen above.
In addition to its many stunning vistas, Matsushima is also home to a number of solemn temple compounds. Because of this, you can easily spend the better part of a day leisurely exploring this charming slice of heaven. To make things simple, I’ll just opt to provide a “choose your own adventure” style list of attractions. Like with Sendai, I’ll also provide Google Map links to help you get your bearings.
Honestly, out of all of the attractions in Matsushima that I’ll introduce, this is the only one that I am going to say you absolutely must not skip. Though there are many ways to enjoy the area’s pine tree covered islets, I’ll suggest here that you take the train up from Sendai to Hon-Shiogama Station and then travel to Matsushima via a relaxing cruise. Assuming you’re in the area, I cannot think of a better way to spend 1,000 yen.
This small hall sits on an island just off the coast. Due to its proximity, it has become a symbol of Matsushima. The structure contains five sacred statues that are displayed to the public only once every 33 years. If you swing by, be sure to look up as Godaido’s exterior is decorated with carvings of the twelve animals of the lunar calendar with three on each side of the building.
This tea house overlooks Matsushima Bay and originally hails from Kyoto. The building was presented as a gift to Date Masamune for his services by none other than Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Previously used to house the wives of feudal lords and other important emissaries, these days visitors to Kanratei can enjoy a cup of tea while admiring the structure’s beauty.
Originally founded in the early 800’s, this temple is one of northern Japan’s most famous and prominent centers of Zen Buddhism, Though the enclave fell somewhat into decline during Japan’s many years of civil war, it was later restored to its former glory in 1609 by Date Masamune. While entry is a bit steep at 700 yen per person, you’ll have the opportunity to peruse the many artifacts on display at the adjacent Zuigan-ji Art Museum.
Situated directly next to Zuigan-ji, this temple houses the mausoleum of Date Mitsumune who tragically passed away at the tender age of 19 years. If you venture to the far back of the complex, you’ll find a hall containing a statue of the young lord on a white horse. In addition to this, Entsu-in is also home to a rose garden. While this may seem strange, know that it’s a nod to the Date clan’s interest in Christianity and the west.
This little islet sits only a few minutes walk from Matsushima’s center yet the pine tree covered island feels worlds away. In days of yore, the island was often used as a retreat for the local Buddhist monks. If you take the time to visit Oshima today, you’ll encounter some exemplary evidence of the former syncretic union between Shinto and Buddhism. The island is home to a number of meditation caves as well as a few shrines.
By the way, if you’re going to visit Matsushima you absolutely HAVE to try the local oysters. Honestly, it’s a toss up whether or not they are better than the freshly caught ones I had on Miyajima but suffice to say, you really can’t go wrong ordering a few in Matsushima!
Other Nearby Attractions
To wrap up this guide, allow me to end by saying that Sendai and Matsushima alone are honestly probably not enough to warrant traveling all the way up to northern Japan. If you’re going to make the commitment to come this far off the beaten path, it would behoove you to plan to spend several days in the area. Trust me when I say there’s a hell of a lot to see. Still, with that said, if you’re clamoring for a few additional things to do near Sendai, I have two final suggestions for you to consider…
Though technically located in the neighboring prefecture of Yamagata, Yamadera is easily accessed from Sendai. Located atop a sheer vertical cliff face, this temple complex is one of the north’s most iconic draws. If you can find the time to visit, I highly suggest that you do so. Just be ready to ascend the 1,000 steps to the temple’s heights!
This enormous effigy of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, sits on the outskirts of Sendai. Though it no longer holds the title for the largest statue in the world, the peculiar structure still ranks among the top five. At 100 meters tall, the Dai-Kannon is clearly visible from the Aoba castle ruins far away. In all honestly though, it looks more like it’s going to kick Godzilla’s ass or something than dole out the mercy.
Until next time travelers…