On Monday, I activated my JR Pass at Tokyo station and took the shinkansen up to Sendai. Sendai is the capital of Miyagi prefecture and the largest city of the Touhoku region.
Because the purpose of my journey this time is to see different facets of Japan I didn’t have the time or money to explore during my time as an exchange student, going up to Touhoku for the first time felt like a natural start to my trip around Japan. Although I had never been there before, it’s an area that evokes many kinds of preconceptions - rural areas with harsh winters, interesting traditional festivals and insular fishing villages, Aomori apples, ‘the Narrow Road to the Deep North’ (奥の細道, a very famous travel account by Matsuo Basho that formed the basis of stereotypes of Touhoku for a long time, and maybe still continues to do so), and more recently, the 3/11 triple disaster and the continuing reconstruction..
It’s clear that this is a large region with amazing natural beauty and interesting history, and I couldn’t possibly see that much of it during a short trip. Nevertheless, I’m very glad I decided to make Miyagi the first stop of my trip.
I still can’t quite believe the JR Pass allows you to just travel around on the shinkansen without limitations! When I was living in Japan, they felt prohibitively expensive - now I feel so privileged to be able to use them without second thought! The journey from Tokyo to Sendai only took about 90 minutes, which I spent standing in the corridor talking with my sister about the previous night’s Finnish election results on the phone (I think the end results can’t really be assessed until the government is formed).
I arrived in Sendai at about 2pm, heading to have lunch at a recommended place called Ohisamaya near the station. They had really nice vegan lunch sets with brown rice - when I was there, the menu included tempeh, gobou kinpira and stir-fried bok choy, among other things. In Japan, vegan food is still a rarity (I’m not a vegan, but prefer to eat vegan food whenever I can), but these kinds of ‘healthy’ restaurants serving brown rice and veggie dishes are a pretty well-established niche which also caters to people who don’t want to eat meat. Often they use terms like ‘organic’ and ‘macrobiotic’, and what you’re essentially getting is just a version of regular Japanese teishoku meals that has been rendered ‘healthier’ with brown rice instead of white & more vegetables. The basic structure of rice + miso soup + side dishes + maybe a small dessert is the same as in any teishoku restaurant. These places aren’t necessarily vegetarian, but practically they do tend to be either vegetarian or vegan.
After my lunch, I walked up to Zuihouden, the mausoleum of Date Masamune (a regional ruler who turned Sendai into a thriving city in the early 17th century). It was a relatively long but pleasant uphill walk from the station area. There is also a bus called ‘Loople’ that goes around the sightseeing spots, but I like walking.
The mausoleum was pretty, but the best thing about visiting Zuihouden was the nature around it. As I walked down the hill, I came across smaller monuments and shrines surrounded by forests and flowering trees. I saw a monument dedicated to the fifteen vassals who followed Date Masamune to death (some of them were sub-vassals forced to follow their masters’ decision); a quiet cemetery for heirs of the Date clan who died in their childhood; and a shrine with a very old, very twisted cherry tree and a smattering of snow adorning its grounds.
Back in the city, I went to visit the Sendai Mediatheque, a building primarily famous for its architecture. The building looked striking against the blue sky. Inside, there wasn’t much to see, as the multimedia library was closed on Mondays. Nevertheless, I spent an hour or so reading through some photo books displayed in the library shop (a collection of Masahisa Fukase’s photos and Kamaitachi, a book devoted to butou performer Tatsumi Hijikata).
On the way back to the hostel, I walked through the shopping streets of Sendai’s city centre. Sendai is known as a ‘city of trees’ because of it’s wide avenues lined with them, but I suspect it would look better in the summer (or maybe in the winter with some illuminations), because this time of year, it wasn’t that pretty - just an ordinary middle-sized town with the shops and sights you’d expect.
The next morning, I woke up early and decided to go on a day trip to Ishinomaki and Matsushima, both within Miyagi prefecture. It was very easy, because I could get JR trains without any extra cost. There was a big morning market on the way from the hostel to Sendai station, and I stopped by to buy some apples (250 yen for 5 apples, and they were delicious!). The next morning, I paid 300 yen for the same - still a pretty good deal!
A 50-minute train journey away was Ishinomaki, a small town that was amongst those the worst affected by the 2011 disaster. On the train, I was sitting one row behind two women who were talking about all the people they knew who had died in the years since the disaster and the problems they still had in their lives - a very heavy conversation to listen in on. There’s no question that the disaster will always be a big part of people’s lives here.
Ishinomaki is also known as the home of manga artist Shotaro Ishinomori, who pioneered the “superhero team” genre of anime with works like Cyborg 009, Power Rangers and Kamen Rider. There is a museum dedicated to him in the town, and the streets are decorated with statues and images of his characters.
I walked through the town centre to get to Hiyoriyama, a park famous for its cherry blossoms and views out to the ocean. It was also a refuge for Ishinomaki residents during the 2011 earthquake, as it is one of the highest points in the town. I read that people who had evacuated here had to wait overnight; without being able to contact their loved ones, they could only look down at the town where buildings had been washed away by the tsunami and then destroyed by fires that had broken off. While I was in the park, I felt happy in the glow of the warm sun, surrounded by local grannies and children, looking at the cherry blossoms. But after I was walking by myself a couple of hours later, it somehow hit me really hard and I started crying.
From Hiyoriyama, I walked back to Ishinomaki station to catch a train to Matsushima-kaigan, the bay famous for its island views. I had to change trains once, waiting in a tiny town with dilapidated shops by the station.
In Matsushima-kaigan, I had a quick iced coffee in a café near the station before heading to the Saigyou Modoshi no Matsu park, which is famous for having both pretty cherry blossoms and views out to the islands. It’s on a hillside overlooking the bay, but I didn’t mind the walk at all, as the weather was glorious.
After walking back from the park to the bay, I had a really nice lunch in a teishoku place (it included zunda mochi, a Sendai speciality of mashed sweetened edamame beans - it was my first time trying it, and I though it was delicious). Feeling really full and recharged, I walked across the long red bridge to Fukuura island, another famous island-viewing spot.
Walking under the shade of trees and close to the shore, listening to incoming waves and birdsong, I felt really happy. It reminded me why I love travelling and why it was so important to do this now. I had been feeling so stressed out, and taking the time to just see and feel things really helps me to recover so I can be ready for whatever comes next. (Of course, it’s not necessary to go far away to experience that).
From Fukuura, I walked over to Oshima, a smaller island that had interesting little sights. I was gazing at the sea on the edge of the island, as the 5pm bells started ringing at a nearby school, and everything felt perfectly calm.