Just an hour and a half ride from Tokyo on the Japan’s Shinkansen (the bullet train) you will find the city of Sendai. It is the capital city of the Miyagi Perfecture and a gem that sometimes gets overlooked. Of course there are plenty of things to do in Tokyo, but don’t miss a side trip to the largest city in the Tōhoku region of Japan. It is also full of cultural monuments, unique foods and vibrant city lights.
What to See + Do
1. Explore the Zuihōden Mausoleum
Visiting the mausoleum of the feudal lord Date Masamune is quite surreal. Known as Zuihōden, the dreamlike feeling of a visit could be from the giant cedar trees surrounding the walkways or the moss covered stone statues or the ornate buildings that depict the Momoyama cultural traditions. My favorite part of the buildings were the intricate woodwork and gold trimming.
Zuihōden is also a peaceful place where some come to just stroll through the lush grounds on the weekend. I don’t blame them! Plus, at the base of the hill there is a stunning temple that is a must visit before ascending to the mausoleum.
Zuihōden | 23-2 Otamayashita, Aoba Ward, Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture | MAP
2. Get Artsy at the Akiu Craft Park
Akiu Craft Park is an incredible place where they try to keep the tradition of craftsmanship alive. They have 9 types of crafts in the park including Edo spintops and Sendai tansu (wooden chests). I was fortunate to be able to take a workshop on how to make a traditional Kokeshi doll. The painting was done in a private room that was set up with sample dolls and four colors to choose from; green, black, yellow and red.
I love art projects!!
On the wall was written instructions, plus there was an instructor to make sure the class was headed in the right direction. My masterpiece was a collection of all the samples, taking my favorite painted aspects of each. When the doll was finished I was shown how to write the letter A in Japanese (for the initial of my first name) and the the shopkeeper was so kind to write the date in the most perfect lettering that would have taken me hours!
Akiu Craft Park | Address: 54 Uehara, Akiumachi Yumoto, Taihaku-ku, Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture | Map & Info
3. Take in the AER Building View
A quick stop in Sendai is the 140 meter skyscraper, the AER building. From the 31st floor you can reach the Panorama Terrace where you will get a million dollar view of both the east and west of the city. It’s the perfect place to get a perspective of the vast layout of the city.
AER Building | 1-3-1 Chuo, Aoba Ward, Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture, Japan | MAP
4. Relax in an Onsen
Japan is well known for its hot springs and the onsen (public baths) that surround them. The Sakan onsen is one of the most famous ones in all of Japan, because they have a variety of baths overlooking the Natori River and have been around for 34 generations. Known to be a source of good health and a healer of many different ailments, the natural warm water is also very relaxing.
Sakan not only has several warm baths to soak in, but it is also a traditional ryokan as well where you can sleep (see #15). It made for a perfect evening for me, a little soaking and then right up to my room for some shut eye!
5. Play Taiko no Tatsujin
While doing a little shopping at the covered streets of Sunmall Ichibancho there was a rhythmic sound coming from one of the shops and I immediately headed in that direction. The noise led me to a game center where teens were playing the very popular Taiko no Tatsujin. The drumming game, where you try to play two drums in tune with the music, is most similar to the popular American game Guitar Hero. Watching these kids expertly pound their sticks was like being at a concert! Of course I had to give it a try (you should too!)
It’s a lot harder then it sounds!
6. Marvel at the Sendai Mediatheque Architecture
If you are into architecture then make a stop at the Sendai Mediatheque, a place that is the home-base for a variety of cultural activities in the city. The visit can start with admiring the impressive exterior architecture — seven floors of clear glass windows! Make sure to get a glimpse of the buildings outside during the daylight, but also at night when the lights inside will be shining. The interior is just as architecturally beautiful, starting with the ground floor where there was a cafe and cute gift shop filled with unique items.
The 3rd & 4th floor is a library with over half a million books! And at the top there is an area for the locals to read, write or gather for meetings. If I lived in Sendai I would definitely come here on a regular basis to write articles for my blog!
7. Tour Miyagikyo Distillery (Home of Nikka Whisky)
I am not typically a whiskey drinker, but you don’t need to be to enjoy touring the Miyagikyo Distillery where they make what has been called the father of whiskey, Nikka Whisky. The tour of this refinery is fun and educational. When we got there, I was immediately impressed by the well kept grounds, including a pond with the distilleries logo on a barrel displayed in front of it. It is the perfect place to get that souvenir selfie!
The free tour walked a group of us through different stages and buildings of production. Even though it was only about 45 minutes long, it gave a good overview as to how and where they produce their product. My favorite part (besides the sampling at the end of course) was the barrel room where you could see rows and rows or whiskey being aged to perfection.
8. Visit the Tsunami Devastation
In 2011 a 9.0 earthquake hit the Pacific coast of Tōhoku which triggered a devastating tsunami and deaths of thousands of people. A tour outside of Sendai’s city center, to the areas of the most devastation, will be heartbreaking, informational and inspiring all rolled into one. Reading about it in a magazine or book can not compare to visiting the sites of the destroyed homes and seeing the ruins first hand.
We were shown the before photos, then walked on the sites where peoples homes and businesses used to be. Our tour driver was also so gracious to share his personal story about helping the victims and searching for his missing brother-in-law, which made you feel even closer to the devastation. There was an inspirational side to the ride too, it was in all the efforts made to rebuild the community that they loved.
It’s not any easy location to get to, but you can either rent a car to explore the tsunami devastated area or find a tour.
9. Shop at Sendai Station
If you are heading back to Tokyo by train, leave yourself a little shopping time at Sendai Station. We arrived about an hour and a half early, which gave us plenty of time. We stored our luggage in a conveniently placed locker and perused the souvenir shops, most of which were selling hundreds of different types of food, which is a common gift in Japan to bring to family and friends. It was fun just to look at the varieties of cookies, candies and noodles for sale!
Plus, the station is also located right next to a shopping mall and district, so it’s easy to spend several hours here! After buying a few gifts, we stopped for drinks at one of the many local cafes. When it was time to catch the train, we simply picked up our luggage, grabbed one last Zunda shake (see #13) and went to the platform. Super easy!
What to Eat + Drink
10. Eat the Local Dish — Gyutan (Beef Tongue)
One of my favorite things to do while traveling is to dine at a local restaurant to try the traditional cuisine of the area (like worm cakes in Vietnam!), and that is just what we did in Sendai. Gyutan (beef tongue) is Sendai’s most famous dish and there are dozens of restaurants in the city that sell this delicacy.
We popped into Riyku restaurant, which has several locations, where the specialty of the house was Gyutan. The eatery was a small, homey place where just about every dish featured this very unique ingredient. You could get it grilled, seared or even in a stew. I ordered a 3-piece plate of thinly sliced tongue that was served with cow tail soup, white rice and cabbage. I took just a little nibble for my first bite, because I wasn’t sure what to expect. But, it was really good. It tasted like steak!
11. Eat at a Local Izakaya
One of my favorite dining experiences in all of Japan was eating at a local izakaya, an informal gastropub, in Sendai. At Tsuda-Sengyoten the ambiance was just as good as the food. They get their fresh seafood straight from Ishinomaki fish port. When we arrived there was a tabletop BBQ already burning on our table. And as soon as we sat down an array of fish started to be delivered — squid, scallops in the shell and octopus. We were in charge of cooking them on our own. Fun! Then the largest and freshest sashimi platter I had ever seen was placed in front of us.
The best part was that at 7:30 a lively fish auction began. Customers wore hats with numbers on them and then bid on their fresh fish which can be served either raw, grilled, boiled or fried. Our table won a flat fish in the battle that the chefs quickly turned into sashimi!
12. Snack of Korokke (Croquettes) at Asaichi Market
A visit to Asaichi Market will make you wish you had a kitchen to cook all the fresh vegetables, fish and meats that is sold in a few dozen shops along the passageway. But, even without an oven you can get a hot and tasty snack without any work at all. The most delicious stop was to a korokke stand where they were frying croquettes right before your eyes. Though they can be filled with a variety of ingredients, it is mostly potato-based.
Better than any hash-brown!
I order one and they handed it to me hot and wrapped in paper. It was perfectly crunchy on the outside and like a soft mashed potato on the inside. It was one of my favorite things I ate in all of Sendai!
Asaichi Market | 4-3-1 Chuo, Aoba-ku, Sendai ,Miyagi Prefecture | MAP
13. Drink a Zunda (Edamame) Shake
In addition to Gyutan, Zunda is another famous specialty of Sendai. It is a sweet soybean paste made of edamame that is commonly used to cover mochi. You will see these odd green colored balls in shops all over the city, and definitely give one a try, but also venture beyond the mochi and find a Zunda Saryo shop (there’s one at Sendai Station) where they will make you a very unique Zunda shake.
It’s an edamame shake!
It actually tastes a lot better than it sounds, like a healthy vanilla shake.
14. Do a Wine Tasting at Akiu Winery
I am not afraid to admit that I absolutely adore wine, so it was thrilling to hear about Sendai’s Akiu Winery, a trendy tasting room that can compete with many in the Napa Valley. This winery was created because the architect-owner wanted to help rebuild Sendai after the earthquake and tsunami disaster in 2011. His idea was to create a place that paired wine with oysters.
Wine + Oysters = The Perfect Pair
They are still testing many different varietals and techniques for the future, but they are on a great path with the wine that they already have. We were even taken into the attic to see drying grapes hanging from the ceilings, an Italian technique that the winemaker had brought over.
Even if wine isn’t your jam, you should stop by to shop at their little gift shop that has some of the cutest products.
Where to Sleep
15. Sleep in a Traditional Ryokan
A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn where the floors are typically tatami mats and the rooms are separated with sliding shōji doors. When I opened the door to my room at the Hotel Sakan, I may have let out a squeal. For one night I would be enjoying this traditional ryokan, and its onsen (see #4) that was over 1,000 years old!
It was not what I expected from an old ryokan, it was so much more luxurious. A short table sat in the middle of the main room which was perfect for my morning cup of tea. I would have never left my room if they didn’t have a delicious restaurant and four onsen on premise, giving me a chance to relax in communal baths that are supplied by natural hot springs. This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that would be worth every penny.
16. Ride the Loople Sendai Bus
The Loople Sendai is a sightseeing bus that makes a loop around the center of the city, stopping at tourist hotspots along the way. If you make the entire loop in one shot it will take about an hour and fifteen minutes, but you can also buy a one-day pass that makes it easy to hop on and off at your leisure. It’s the easiest and the cheapest way to get around!
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My visit to Sendai was courtesy of Tohoku & Tokyo. All opinions are my own.