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City of trees

Words: Mick Shippen
Photographs: Mick Shippen & Shutterstock.com
Oct 02, 2019

City of trees

Word: Mick Shippen
Photographs: Mick Shippen & Shutterstock.com
Oct 02, 2019

On 29 October, Thai Airways resumes a direct service between Bangkok and Sendai, the largest city in Miyagi Prefecture, northeast Japan. Here in the modern city known for its tree-lined avenues, visitors can explore the beautiful countryside and coastline, bathe in hot springs, and enjoy a feast of local flavours.

On a hilltop crowned by the ruins of Aoba Castle stands a statue of a Samurai warrior, Date Masamune, the founder and ruler of the Tohoku region during the Edo period. Better known as ‘The One-Eyed Dragon’ (he lost an eye to smallpox as a child), he cuts an imposing figure sat astride a horse in his full amour and trademark crescent moon helmet as he surveys the city below. Yet despite his undisputed historical significance (visitors will see his image and hear his name often throughout their travels), it is fitting for distinctly modern Sendai that ‘The One-Eyed Dragon’ has travelled time with ease, reinventing himself as one of the most popular characters in the anime and videogame series, Sengoku Basara.

An excellent place to get a perspective on Sendai is from the AER Building. Located in the heart of the compact downtown area, this 31-storey tower features two observation decks. The deck on the western side overlooks the commercial zone with Mount Izumigatake and Mount Taihaku visible on the horizon; the other on the eastern side looks out over sleek Shinkansen bullet trains which can be seen pulling into the station, and the Pacific Ocean which can be glimpsed in the distance. The AER Building is open daily from 10 a.m. – 8 p.m. and admission is free.  

Back at ground level, the covered Ichibancho Shopping Arcade, which stretches for more than a kilometre, provides opportunities for all-weather shopping, from popular 100 yen budget outlets to high-end brands. It’s a good area to shop for gifts ranging from chopstick to kimonos.

Watch out for shops selling delicious local delicacies such as sasa kamaboko (fish paste patties in the shaped of a bamboo leaf grilled until golden brown), and sweet treats including zunda (edamame green soya beans made into thick shakes and ice cream) and taiyaki (fish-shaped waffles filled with sweet red bean paste). While wandering along Ichibancho, keep an eye out for 100 Markets, as known as Iroha Yokocho, and make plans to return in the evening. These two parallel alleyways are lined with tiny restaurants and sake bars.

 

Nearby along Jozenji-dori Avenue, it’s easy to understand why Sendai has earned the moniker, the ‘City of Trees’. This beautiful street lined with native zelkova trees is the focal point for festivals and events throughout the year. Art lovers can also see bronze sculptures by Emilio Greco here. Throughout December, the towering trees are draped with hundreds of thousands of LED lights, creating a visual spectacle that draws visitors from all over Japan. 

Another excellent shopping area is around Sendai Central Station, home to department stores, boutiques, restaurants and cafes. Just around the corner is Asaichi morning market, a colourful side street lined with fishmongers and fruit and vegetable stalls. Don’t miss the small shop here selling tasty potato croquettes or korokke and cutlets of chicken, prawn, pork or squid. Bread-crumbed and deep fried and priced from just 65 yen, they are totally irresistible.

Beyond the city

Visitors to Sendai don’t have to venture far beyond the city limits before they are in an area of outstanding natural beauty. Popular excursions include Matsushima Bay, where the shallow waters are scattered with 260 pine tree covered islands. In 1689, the bay was visited by one of Japan’s most celebrated haiku poets, Matsuo Basho. After visiting the bay, he is said to have been so overwhelmed that he was unable to write a haiku in its honour, although others have, including Date Masamune, ‘The One-Eyed Dragon’.

Today, cruise boat tours regularly sail around the islands and oyster farms. From December to March the cruises and local restaurants also serve seasonal oyster hotpots. Seafood lovers can also visit the nearby Shiogama wholesale fish market which has a grill section cooking up the morning’s catch.

Another local favourite available at restaurants close Matsushima harbor is gyutan or grilled beef tongue. Cooked to order over charcoal to seal in the juices, the thick slices of meat are succulent and rich in umami flavours. Beef tongue often comes accompanied by an oxtail soup, mugimeshi, a mix of rice and barley, and lightly pickled vegetables. After lunch, take a stroll around Entsuin temple. Dating from 1646, this Zen temple is considered auspicious for love and it includes a peaceful Japanese rock garden, an area dedicated to roses, stone carvings, and an exquisite image of Shokanzeon-Bosatsu-Zazo, the Goddess of Mercy.

Miyagi Prefecture is also renowned for the healing properties of its hot springs. Akiu Hot Spring at the Sakan Hotel is one of the three oldest in Japan. www.sakan-net.co.jp  Day guests and those staying overnight can immerse themselves in the curative waters of private or public baths. Refreshed but in need of sustenance, it’s worth a making detour to Akiu-sha, a restaurant set in a 160-year-old restored house serving its own modern take on Japanese food with the focus on locally sourced ingredients. Dishes are playfully presented and the flavours fresh and enticing. There’s also cycle hire next door for those wishing to work off lunch in the lovely countryside.  www.akiusha.jp  

Akiu Kogei no Sato craft village is nearby where you can see artisans at work making traditional toys such as wooden kokeshi dolls.

Time for a tipple

In recent years, Japanese whisky has grown in popularity around the world. One of the most popular tours is to the Nikka Whisky Miyagikyo Distillery. It was founded by Masataka Taketsuru who traveled to Scotland in 1918 where he learned he secrets of whisky making at Longmorn Distillery in Speyside (and married a Scott, Jessie Cowan). Masataka chose the site at for the Miyagikyo Distillery because the mountainous scenery, misty mornings and two clean fast flowing rivers reminded him of Scotland. Visitors can take a guided tour and enjoy whisky tasting of the famous brand. www.nikka.com


Those interested in local tipples can also visit Urakssumi  Saura, a 13th generation family sake brewery dating from 1724. A tour and a tasting of several different sakes is available.

Getting around:

Getting from Sendai Airport to the centre of the city is  a breeze. Simply hop on the train opposite the arrivals area and it whisk you to the central station in under 30 minutes for just 650 yen. From here, you can pick up a taxi to your hotel. You can also navigate the city on the subway with the Namboku line running north to south and the Tozai line, east to west.



 

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