Unless you’ve visited Japan or are planning a cross-country tour, you might not have come across this mid-sized Japanese city. Sendai is the second-largest city north of Tokyo, with a population of about one million inhabitants, making it pretty massive by Canadian standards, but nothing all that impressive for Japan. The city is nicknamed The City of Trees (Mori no Miyako), and if it’s not already on your radar, I hope to change your mind!
Sendai is relatively easy to access by train – the city is about two hours north of Tokyo by Shinkansen (make sure to get that JR Pass!!). It’s modern, easily navigated, clean, friendly and definitely worth adding to your Japan itinerary. Here are just a few reasons why!
One of our days in Sendai was spent exploring the coastal area of Matsushima, a small town who’s bay has been listed as one of Japan’s three most scenic views for centuries. The region escaped major damage in the 2011 earthquake due to its sheltered location.
Winter isn’t exactly the best time to visit Matsushima – it didn’t snow while we were there, but it was very, very cold, so be sure to bundle up! Still, there was plenty to see and admire in this picturesque seaside town.
We explored the historic Zuiganji Temple (I would recommend visiting Sendai before Kyoto, to avoid being influenced by temple fatigue), a famous and carefully maintained zen temple. The wooded grounds are beautiful, and thankfully escaped serious earthquake damage as well. Within the temple grounds, and included with your admission, is the Zuiganji Seiryuden Art Museum, which houses centuries-old paintings, sculptures, swords, helmets, armour and other historical artefacts. English signage is limited, but the museum is still worthy of a visit should you be visiting the temple, as it has some pretty fascinating works on display, especially the dramatic samurai armour, which looks like something straight out of a film.
We had tea and sweets in Kanrantei, a tea house that belonged to that legendary historical figure Date Masumune himself, curled up with a heater and looking out over the scenic bay. The tea house was entirely empty, which meant we could enjoy the stunning views in complete peace.
We also discovered one of the most adorable independent coffee shop we’d ever seen, which celebrates the proprietor’s love of Albert Einstein and extensive jazz record collection. Thank you for a wonderful cup of coffee, Cafe Albert!
If you visit in the spring or summer, definitely consider visiting one of the incredibly scenic islands that dot the bay around Matsushima, and absorb some of that world-renowned view.
Like many coastal towns, Matsushima comes alive in the summer, and was pretty empty when we visited, which did give the area a bit of a melancholic feel, but which also meant we had the place to ourselves!
Downtown Sendai is compact and centered around the JR station, making it easy to explore and navigate on foot. The city is beautifully green, even in the dead of winter, with trees and parks dotted everywhere.
While strolling through the city you can spot many places to enjoy Sendai’s signature dish, beef tongue! Born out of necessity (beef tongues were often thrown away by the occupying Americans in the years following the Second World War, making them a cheap ingredient for local residents), gyutan has become a treasured local delicacy. It can be a bit chewy if overcooked, but is otherwise pretty tasty! The city is also home to plenty of fantastic eateries representing a variety of different cuisines, should beef tongue not be quite your fancy.
The downtown public library, the Sendai Mediateque, is absolutely worth a visit, especially if you’re a library or architecture aficionado. Opened in 2001, the library is architecturally stunning, a modern celebration of glass and steel. According to the architect,
“Sendai Mediatheque embodies our proposal for a completely new concept of architecture. …The complex includes a Mediatheque, an art gallery, a library, an information service center for people with visual and hearing impairments and a visual image media center. During the open competition and subsequent phase of basic designing, our primary effort was on demolishing the archetypal ideas of an art museum or library to reconstruct a new idea of architecture called “mediatheque” utilizing the state-of-the-art media.”
In winter, Sendai offers its own illumination, which is theatrically called the Sendai Pageant of Starlight. A grand title, yes, but the light display more than lives up to its name! The trees along the Jozenjidori avenue are filled with about 600,000 twinkly lights, creating a beautiful, romantic wintery stroll, and a photographer’s heaven. When we visited, the street ended in a beautifully lit and colourfully decorated park that included a tiny outdoor skating rink, a tiny Christmas market, and two beer tents, which served yet more gyutan. A lovely little winter moment!
Sendai is a charming, modern, mid-sized city filled with parks and trees to enjoy, and plenty of sights to see and activities to do. We only scratched the surface, with only two days to explore this delightful city. Why not add Sendai to your next itinerary?