Although a good number of travellers visiting Japan will calculatedly play it safe and visit famous cities such as Tokyo and Kyoto, it is safe to say that those people miss out on quite a lot if they choose to go by that standard itinerary. To experience the entirety of the country’s finest attractions, one must head north to the city of Sendai. Positioned in the northern prefecture of Miyagi, it is the largest city in the Tohoku region.
Sendai is a city that takes a seat at the doorsill of Japan’s more wild side. While it is best known for rugged coastlines and sheltered mountain retreats, this city awes us by being one of the country’s state-of-the-art and uptown cities. With a culinary scene that surprises as well as challenges, a brimming culture, and top attractions, it would not be an overstatement to say this city has everything you will ever need. If you are curious to know what to do here, take a look at our top picks of the best things to do in Sendai.
Explore the history of Sendai at Zuihoden
It would be rather impossible to visit Sendai without hearing of the mighty Edo Warlord who is believed to have founded this city. That being said, a visit to this extravagant tomb becomes quite inevitable. Fringed by cedar trees, Zuihoden (also known as the Mausoleum of Date Masamune) is remarkable for its great architecture and a riot of stunning wood chisels and panels. The amazing artworks housed here are a sight to behold. In addition to these, the ornate tombs of Masamune’s son and grandson are worth visiting. The lush grounds of the mausoleum provide for a space to have a peaceful stroll in the evening.
Marvel at the modern arts at Miyagi Museum of Art
If you want to experience the brilliance of modern art in Sendai, The Miyagi Museum of Art is a great place to come to. With collections of paintings by Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee, this museum is very well worth stopping by. Other hotspots in the museum include the gallery that features works of local artist and the section of sculptures by Churyo Sato. After you’re done to touring the museum, a stroll through the picturesque grounds located next to the river is also very much recommended.
Take in the aerial view of the city from SS30 Observation Lounge
SS 30 Observation Lounge is the place you must be if you want to have an aerial view of the whole city. This construction is originally an office block and as a result, there is not much of a scope to see and do around. However, there are two observation decks that are completely free to visit on the 29th and 30th floors. From here, you can see the panoramic view of the very beautiful Sendai. For ensuring the best photo opportunities, it would be best if you can visit in the morning or late afternoons.
Go back in time at the Aoba Castle
Constructed in 1600 by the mighty feudal lord Date Masamune, this castle has endured recurring fires, intense dismantling following the World War and deadly earthquakes. All that is now left of the original construction is its outer stone fortifications and a watchtower. This site’s lookout onto the city below currently provides only an aesthetic rather than a military role.
The Aoba Castle Exhibition Hall, a restructured turret helps the visitors have a faint idea of what the castle would have looked like in its heyday. You will also find here souvenir shops from which you can grab hold of some memorable keepsakes. The castle grounds also quarters a Gokoku Shrine that honours Japanese military history. The museum that commemorates the castle’s history, artefacts from the Edo period, and a theatre that plays a short Japanese movie on the castle are also worth a visit.
Check out Sendai Port
Since the capital city centre is to be found several kilometres inland, it is quite common to overlook that it is originally a major port city. The seaport area serves as a vital shipping hub with its numerous warehouses, factories, and shipping sites, particularly for the Tohoku region. Above and beyond all the mercantile hustle and bustle, the waterside setting has of late, advanced into a recreational area that largely draws locals as well as tourists. With a large aquarium, a beer factory, an outlet mall that houses some of the finest shopping complexes, you will never fall short of things to see and do here.
Explore Downtown Sendai
With a packed-in downtown, it is safe to say that a good number of the major attractions are centred to the west of JR Sendai Station. With wide, expansive streets and generous greenery, the downtown of Sendai is a sight to behold. To have an aerial vision of the whole city, hop on to the observation deck at the AER Building. The largest arcade in the Tohoku region- the Ichibancho Arcade is also to be found in the Sendai’s downtown. In addition to that, there is an extensive array of shops- from department stores to high-end fashion boutiques, gift shops, and chains of restaurants.
Stop by the Sendai Mediatheque
Sendai Mediatheque stands uniquely as a transparent cultural media centre that is revolutionary for its aesthetics. In short, this building is an absolute work of art and is a sight all of its own. It is housed inside a stunning structure constructed by Ito Tokyo, a famed architect and designer. It has a massive library and a range of galleries, and performance spaces where concerts and recitals are conducted. It would be a great opportunity to catch these performances while visiting. If you’re interested, make sure to check out the local listings when in town.
Offer your prayers at Rinnoji Temple
Lying to the north of Sendai's downtown, the Rinnoji Temple was founded in 1441 by Date Mochimune and continues to be the family temple of the Date clan. The temple’s main building is known by the name ‘Sanbutsudo’ and has several gold-glazed, wooden sculptures of the three mountain deities which are enshrined in the temple.
The entrance to this temple gives way to a beautiful Japanese garden which is an admired autumn leaf spot. The pagoda that stands opposite Sanbutsudo is also worth visiting for its Buddhist and Tokugawa displays. Once inside, the tourists can walk along the striking trails, be in awe of the carps, and admire the well-maintained flora. If you are tired, you can rest at the benches while taking in the stunning backdrop.
Pay your respects at Osaki Hachimangu Shrine
A true National Treasure, this shrine is a work of art. Built in 1607, this shrine was newly renovated of late. The restored construction mimics the remarkable style of Date architecture and is a spectacle in itself. The main hall and the offering hall are joined underneath by a common roof and are enclosed in black lacquer. The deity honoured in the shrine is Hachiman- the Shinto God of war. He is believed to be the general guardian and defender of the city. When you are visiting, don’t forget to grab a fragrant green tea at the shrine’s cafe.
Visit the Sendai City Tomizawa Site Museum
If you’re a culture vulture, a visit to the Sendai City Tomizawa Site Museum is a must. With a staggering number of galleries, this is the place to come. This museum is devoted to drawing your attention to the Stone Age in Japan. On your visit here, you can learn about the excavation of the Tomizawa Ruins.
Be a part of the popular Tanabata
This is one of the most popular festivals that happen in Sendai. With a striking display of fireworks, this commences on August 5 of every year and continues till August 8. If you are in town at that time of the month, make sure to attend this festivity which is nothing short of an ode to two stars called Vega and Altair. During this time, the whole of the city will be embellished with magnificent streamers called ‘kusudama’.
Tour the Sendai City Museum
Echoing the extraordinary artistic and cultural legacy left behind by Masamune and his descendants, Sendai City Museum is part of an art museum and part history museum. f you want to learn more about the life and family of the famous samurai warrior Masamune then you need to head to the Sendai City Museum. You will find here a large collection of family heirlooms and antiques of Date family. With more than 13,000 pieces at display, the top attractions include Masamune’s Date’s original jet-black suit of armour and the monument to Lu Xun, a Chinese literary highbrow who came to Sendai to learn. In addition to permanent collections, the museum occasionally hosts temporary themed exhibitions throughout the year.
Attend the dreamlike Sendai Tanabata Matsuri
This festival along with Akita's ‘Kanto Matsuri’ and Aomori's ‘Nebuta Matsuri’ make up the Three Great Festivals of the Tohoku Region. The former is celebrated every year on August 6th to 8th. A striking characteristic of this summer tradition includes bright, multi-coloured streamers made out of washi paper and bamboo that embellish the city front. Smaller paper decorations, kimono, paper strips, trash bags are all symbolic components that are hung from bamboo poles as part of the celebration. A night prior to the festival is noted for its lively stage performances, live music and fireworks.
Stand in awe at Sendai Pageant of Starlight
Sendai Pageant of Starlight is often always mistakenly thought of as a ‘festival’ when in reality; it is far mellower than that. The pageant can be described as a spectacular grandeur of coloured lights fastened across Aoba-dori and Jozenji-dori. These illuminated lights create an aura of a magical world that gives the feel of good cheer. The pageant takes place throughout December.
Attend Jozenji Street Jazz Festival
If you are visiting in September, consider heading to the Jozenji Street Jazz Festival. This outdoor music event is a very famous Japanese festival in which over 700 brands perform along the city's main streets. With several stages lined up for the show, the performances go throughout the day and into the night. A word of caution though, since Sendai is flocked by tourists at this time of the year if you’re planning to visit, be sure to plan in advance.
Spend a fun day at Yagiyama Benyland
This amusement park is located close to the city centre and is the largest amusement park in the Tohoku region. With over thirty rides, the park is simply a must-visit for people visiting with children. Furthermore, events such as character shows and cosplay costume parties are sure to quite an experience.
Greet animas at Sendai Yagiyama Zoo
Sendai Yagiyama Zoo is over a kilometre and half walk south-west from the Aoba castle. It is one of the largest zoological parks in the Tohoku area that features behaviour exhibits. With over 550 animals in about 130 species, the variety of animals here is simply remarkable. The tourists will definitely appreciate a special section that is dedicated for the local animals. In addition to these, a number of experience events are conducted from time to time. Such events help you to understand the animals better
Gorge on the local food
You cannot leave Sendai without tasting some of its local cuisines. Some of its famous local specialities include sasakamaboko(fish sausage) and zundamochi (a traditional Japanese dessert made of green soybean paste). You can also try crisp local produce from the many vegetarian restaurants.
Beer Tasting at Kirin Brewery
If you want to have a taste of Kirin beer in Japan, then it doesn’t get better than Kirin Brewery. When here, you ought not miss the popular drink-Ichibanshibori. There are a great number of English pamphlets that explains the process of preparation of beers in detail. The tour comes to an end with a brief tasting session in which you can sample the brews in person. An audio tour is also made available here.
Shop for the local produce at the Morning Market
The Morning Market in Sendai has over 40 stalls that have some of the best produces of the region. From fresh fruits and vegetables to toothsome sushi and slurpy noodles bowls, you will get it all here. It opens from Monday to Saturday.
Go shopping at Sendai Station. If you’re planning to head back by train, leave yourself some time to do a quick shopping at the Sendai Station. You will find here souvenir shops, food stalls and a few cafes.
Walk down the streets of Jozenji Dori
This drawn-out street is interlined with many stunning zelkova trees. Running through the heart of the city, a walk down this street is going to be something you will not regret. If you are in luck, you might find yourself a festival that is going on here.
Cool off at Tsutsujigaoka Park
If you are visiting during spring, this park is not to be missed. Hands down, one of the most beautiful places in Sendai, Tsutsujigaoka Park is filled with sakura trees whose pink petals are absolutely stunning.
Jogging and Trekking at the Dainohara Forest Park
If you want a respite from the happenings of the city, here is where you should come to. The Dainohara forest park will make you feel you are away from the world itself. When you’re here, do not forget to take advantage of the absolutely breathtaking trails and the forest. All of these make this park an ideal spot for biking or any other open-air activities in general.
Learn about the marine life at Uminomori Aquarium
With just about 100 water tanks, this place boasts of many mesmerizing attractions as well as shows. This place is not to be missed, especially if you’re visiting with children. This place not only allows visitors to witness the spectacular show on board, but also take exceptional care to ensure they are made aware of the deep connection shared between marine life and ocean life.
Have a fun time at the Owl Café
Finally, you can stop eyeing Osaka or Tokyo’s owl cafes. This owl cafe in Sendai is situated right on the well-known Clis Road. Here, you will find not just owls but some cute animals such as piglets and rabbits.
Explore the Tashirojima Cat Island
If you want to witness a true paradise for the furballs, Tashirojima Cat Island is where you should come. Although this isn’t exactly situated in Sendai, the island is pretty close and worth a visit.
Have a night out in the town
The city of Sendai boasts the largest entertainment district in the Tohoku region. If you want to enjoy a night out, you will be spoiled by the number of choices you have. The active nightlife has given way to some of the best clubs and bars you will ever be in. Some of the most sought-after ones include Chuo-dori and Kokubuncho. In addition, you will also find traditional Japanese pubs called izakaya.
Eat the very delectable Gyutan
When in Sendai, you should not miss out on their local gourmet. The capital city is the authentic home of gyutan, a traditional dish prepared out of thinly sliced beef tongue. This popular dish is cooked over a charcoal grill and seasoned with pickles or even served in the form of curry of beef stew. Oxtail soup, steamed rice with bareley are some of the popular side dishes. Restaurant chains such as Rikyu and Kisuke are famed for serving delicious gyutans.
Attend an art workshop at Akiu Craft Park
With over 9 types of crafts, this incredible place deserves a visit for its unwavering efforts to keep alive and enliven the tradition of craftsmanship. The visitors can take up workshops to learn some of these traditional crafts including making of Kokeshi dolls.