Sendai is one the biggest city in Tohoku (northern Honshu), and the capital of Miyagi-Ken. It’s historic – dating back to around 1600, and with the remains of a castle – but, from the moment you exit its enormous station, the whole place feels bustling and modern. If you want to explore the Tohoku region, it’s a great place to start. I visited in late 2012.
Getting there is easy: it’s a major stop on the Tohoku Shinkansen, running from Tokyo Station to Aomori. The Hayate services are best: you’ll need a reserved seat, but these fly past all but the biggest stations. Step out of Sendai JR station and you’re within walking distance of just about everything, although there’s also a subway system if you need it. The city centre seems almost entirely unscathed by the disaster of 2011, although out towards the coast whole communities were destroyed.
Staying in Sendai is also easy, as there are loads of business hotels. The one nearest to the station, though, is the JAL City Hotel – turn right out of the station, past Parco, through the next building (past Starbucks) and the stairs go right down in front of it.
The local specialty of barbequed cow tongue (gyutan) is really pretty good, and there are loads of cheap restaurants if you head away from the station and into the city, then right. Just about every kind of shop you might need can be found on the main covered shopping arcade that runs away from the station entrance.
There’s not a huge amount to see in Sendai’s city centre, although it is worth hiking up the hill to the castle – not for the castle itself (there’s nothing left of it) but for a good view out over the town and surroundings. Other than that, grab a hotel and some food and head out for Yama-dera, Matsushima and Hiraizumi.
Yamadera is exactly what the name says – a temple in the mountains. You get to it on a slow local train (Senzan line) from Sendai JR, and then hike up across the river and up to the temple. It’s a relatively modest temple by Japanese standards, but the setting and the view from near the top make it well worth the trip, especially in autumn as the leaves are turning. There are omiyage shops and a few simple restaurants in the town.
This cluster of islands off the Sendai coast is one of the famous views of Japan (along with the floating Torii at Miyajima, which I visited last year). Amazingly, it’s even more gobsmackingly beautiful.
Like Yamadera, it’s a 45-50 minute ride out on a local train from Sendai (Senseki line – there are some slightly quicker red express trains), this time to Matsushima-kaigan. Thanks to jetlag, I showed up around 7am – getting there early is good, as by the time I was thinking about leaving a horde of tour groups had descended. This was on a weekday in October; I wouldn’t even try on the weekend.
The view out to the islands is beautiful enough, but you can also cross a red bridge (200Y if the ticket office is open) to Fukuuru Jima of them and walk around its various viewpoints over the bay. Up into the town is the Zuigan-Ji, a large Zen Buddhist temple complex, with a beautifully restored shrine inside – as I wandered in, sutras were being chanted in one of the private halls.
Hiraizumi, whose temples are designated a UNESCO world heritage site, is between Sendai and Morioka – get the stopping Shinkansen (some carriages are non-reserved) to Ichinoseki and change to the Tohoku local line. It’s a pretty town with several amazing temple complexes, one of which (Chuson-Ji) is absolutely enormous and houses the biggest golden shrine I’ve seen outside of, well, the golden temple in Kyoto.
There’s a guy by the station who rents bikes for two hours (500Y) or the day (1000Y) – two hours might just about cover the Chuson Ji alone, but I’d stay for longer if possible. Renting bikes in Japan is generally easy (cheap, no deposit required, locks built into the back wheel), but if like me you stand on the tall side the frames will be far, far too small.