City of doomed love and decadent tongues
The Tohoku region’s greatest metropolis offers mouthwatering local delicacies, striking feudal architecture and a vivid spirit of resilience.
Welcome to Sendai, the Tohoku region’s very own metropolis. With a population of about one million, Sendai ranks as one of Japan’s 15 largest urban centres. Established in 1600 by Date Masamune, the modern city is dotted with impressive memorials and tributes to the founder, including a statue of Masamune overlooking the city on horseback. Not far from the statue is a reconstruction of Aoba Castle, as well as the castle museum. To continue paying your respects to the big boss, head to the Zuihoden Mausoleum, where Masamune is entombed. Check out the nearby museum to see some family heirlooms, and even bits of feudal hair and bone. For a less morbid homage to the Date clan, be sure to enjoy one of the local specialty foods, the Sasa-kamaboko, a fish loaf made from puréed whitefish. The fish is baked into loaves shaped to look like bamboo leaves in honor of the Date family crest.
But of all the things you must see and do, the most exciting is the Tanabata festival. If you’re familiar with East Asian mythology, you may already know of Tanabata, literally “evening of the seventh,” though it’s usually called the Star Festival in English. Tanabata was adapted from China’s two-millennia-old Qixi Festival and has been celebrated in Japan since feudal times. The festival honours the only night of the year when two mythical lovers—Orihime, the celestial weaver girl, and Hikoboshi, the earthly cowherd—are allowed to meet. Tanabata is celebrated nationwide, but Sendai is home to the biggest, most colourful festivities.
Though the festival is held on July 7 throughout Japan, the Sendai Tanabata festival is held each year between August 6 and 8, in keeping with the original lunar calendar celebration. The wonderful spectacle of Sendai’s Tanabata began more than four centuries ago, but it only achieved its current style during the 1928 Tohoku Industrial Exposition. Visited by over two million tourists each year, the festival blooms colour throughout the entire city. Thousands of colourful streamers and gorgeous bamboo decorations stretch from Sendai Station and Chuo Avenue to Ichibancho Arcade. The streamers—which represent Orihime’s weaving threads—are handcrafted by local shops and community groups, and you can partake in the craftiness at local workshops. Traditionally, festival-goers also write their wishes on tanzaku, colourful strips of paper which are then hung on bamboo branches. The festival also features traditional dances, live music and performances, illuminations, and delicious cuisine. Those who arrive early are in for a brilliant fireworks display along the bank of the Hirose River, held on the evening of August 5.
His face is a big rice ball made from Miyagi rice. He wears traditional warrior’s armour, but he’s friendly and loveable, and he loves to eat sanma.
© Sendai Miyagi tourist campaign promotion Council 27084
In addition to summer spectacle, Sendai is a thriving city with many attractions year-round, including plenty of shopping options. For a fresh taste of everything the city has to offer, try delving into the Sendai Farmer’s Market. Visitors can also check out the Iroha Yokocho, a bustling set of alleyways lined with shops and vendors of all sorts. First established after air raids destroyed the centre of Sendai in 1945, this shopping arcade has since grown into a favoured spot of Sendai locals, offering a wide array of goods with a hint of nostalgia.
Travellers heading to Sendai from Tokyo can catch the JR Tohoku Shinkansen. The trip takes about 100 minutes on one of three trains (either the Hayabusa, Hayate or Komachi), all of which are covered by the Japan Rail Pass. Travellers on a tighter budget with a more flexible schedule can take a 6-hour highway bus for around ¥3,500. Upon arrival, purchase an all-day pass for ¥620 and take the Loople Sendai bus, which stops at all the city’s major sights.
A cityscape fringed by brilliant greenery
Sendai’s eats and treats
Tongue of the town
Sendai is the original home of gyutan, thinly sliced beef tongue perfectly cooked over a charcoal grill. You can find it everywhere from fast-food joints to upscale markets, and even in novelty foods like gyutan-flavoured ice cream and potato chips. In fact, the city boasts over 100 restaurants specializing in cow tongue.
Mabo yakisoba: Two-in-one comfort food
Mabo yakisoba: it’s the love child of two of Asia’s most delightful comfort foods. First,
mabo tofu is a Chinese dish of tofu simmered in a savoury beef sauce. Yakisoba, on the other hand, is a Japanese dish made up of fried noodles, veggies and a choice of meat, sometimes garnished with pickled ginger or topped with one perfectly fried egg. In the Sendai version, these two dishes are fused together: using local ingredients, the hot yakisoba noodles are slathered with spicy mabo goodness. It’s the cosiest belly bomb you’ll eat all week.
Sendai is also home to some signature sweets, like the zunda mochi. This sweet soybean paste tips its hat to Lord Date, who was rumoured to prep for battle by eating soybeans crushed with a battle sword.
Sendai’s most famous omiyage (souvenir) is gyutan, hands down, but there is a range of other goodies to choose from, including simple, bite-sized sweets and adorable wooden dolls. The spirit of Sendai omiyage is often homey and approachable, in part because many of the region’s distinctive gifts were first created centuries ago by common folk who toiled in the fields all day to feed their families and pay their taxes. While the Sendai warrior class could afford leisure and luxury, commoners had to get creative with the few resources at hand. These omiyage reflect that spirit of simple celebration.
Rural Tohoku is rumoured to be the birthplace of kokeshi dolls, charming wooden figurines with brightly painted garb. These kokeshi from Sunnyday Inc. are called “Tabi Koyomi” (travel calendar), representing the 12 trips you can take in and around Sendai.
A popular regional omiyage is Sendai dagashi, or “cheap sweets.” Originally made over four centuries ago by poor farmers’ wives in the dark, freezing winter months, these local goodies continue to be handmade and naturally sweetened.
All photos © Sendai Tourism, Convention and International Association unless otherwise noted