Sendai is title holder of the largest city in the entirety of Miyagi prefecture, as well as the entirety of Tohoku, which is the northeastern region of Japan consisting of six prefectures: Aomori, Akita, Iwate, Yamagata, Fukushima, and of course, Miyagi.
Because of Sendai’s accessible location on Honshu, traveling there is super easy and is often quite cheap. It’s also in the prime position to be lumped together with other points of interest in the Tohoku region to be explored all at once (as it sits somewhat in the middle of the six prefectures).
However, we understand that whilst we’re listing off all these cool facts about Sendai, you might actually be wondering, ‘What is it that Sendai offers?’. For those who have never heard of Sendai, or thought about visiting this uber cool city, imagine a distinctly smaller version of Tokyo, with just as much (if not more) traditionally significant monuments to visit, culture to enlighten yourself through the forms of food and festivities, and unique natural landscapes to explore.
Being only an hour away from Tokyo is also a massive perk. It’s a city often overlooked as people look onwards towards more northern-based destinations such as Hokkaido, or out west towards Osaka and Kyoto, but for those second or third-timers, or those who are simply looking for a less beaten road in Japan, give Sendai a fair go.
How To Get To Sendai?
Sendai is extraordinarily close to Tokyo that all forms of transports are available here, so which option you go for depends on your budget and time constraints. The Shinkansen ride from Tokyo direct to Sendai is roughly 1.5-2 hours (tops), and should cost at most around 12,000 yen for one person on either the Hayabusa and Komachi trains (you can also use the Yamabiko trains however they’re slightly slower).
There are a few trains leaving by the hour so you should have plenty of choices. This is the most efficient method. Please also note that the trip is Shinkansen is covered by your JR pass or by your JR East Pass.
You can also catch a flight from Tokyo’s Narita Airport to Sendai Airport with ANA, which will cost from 7,000 yen for one person for a 75-minute flight, but take into consideration the cost and time you will need to get from your accommodation to Narita, plus getting from Sendai Airport to Sendai city will be an additional 25-minutes.
Lastly, for the cheapest method to get to and from, consider the highway buses, such as Kosokus Bus or Japan Bus Online; whilst tickets are normally around the 4,000 yen mark for one person, one-way for a 5-6 hour drive, you can sometimes score them for as little as 2,000 yen.
For those who want to make the most of their time, many of the buses leave at midnight and arrive at Sendai in the early hours of the morning, so you can try and catch some shut-eye on the ride there and be up nice and early for the next day.
Where To Stay In Sendai?
Sendai Japan Guesthouse – Keyaki Guest House
For the price that you pay, this guesthouse offers absolute exceptional value for money. Located just 15-minutes away from the major transport hub of JR Sendai Station, and only a 10-minute walk from Kotodai Koen Train Station, you’ll find all that you need for a comfortable stay here without having too pay too hefty of a price tag.
There are dormitory rooms as well as twin-rooms to be reserved, with the former being the cheaper option. All rooms, however, come with air-conditioning, bathrooms and toilets. Amenities such as toothbrushes and towels are available at an extra cost.
There is a shared lounge area featuring a large flat-screen TV and PCs that can be used by anyone. For a quick and easy breakfast before heading out, simply grab a complimentary slice of toast and cup of coffee or tea on your way out.
Why Guests Love It: “I ended up extending my stay here because I felt really comfortable there, the owners and staff are super friendly and I felt like coming home everyday. The dinner was always delicious, and having breakfast included is also pretty nice. The house is really nice and not far from a subway station”, “The facilities are clean and the guesthouse experience was excellent”.
Book It Here: Keyaki Guest House
Sendai Hotel – Hotel Vista Sendai
If you’re after a no-fuss accommodation where you can arrive in Sendai and almost immediately be at your accommodation, then look no further than Hotel Vista Sendai. Located smack bang in the middle of the city (literally a few minutes away from JR Sendai Station), this hotel offers everything that a moderately priced hotel can offer, and more. Honestly, for the price you pay, you’d say this is almost a steal.
This hotel boasts an on-site restaurant for your belly’s needs at any hour of the day (although you’d be surrounded by enough quality restaurants to want to drag yourself out even if you’re feeling super lazy), private parking for those with a car, free Wi-Fi throughout, air-conditioning in all rooms with a 32-inch flat-screen to boot, and all rooms feature private bathrooms for your comfort and convenience.
From here, make plans to watch a baseball game at Miyagi Baseball Stadium, or explore Osaki Hachimangu Shrine only 20-minutes by car away – your possibilities are endless.
Why Guests Love It: “Clean and comfortable. Nice design. Separate bath, toilet, and sink”, “The room was very clean and the view from the room was nice. I really loved the light in the hotel”, “The bonus of the hot spring is such a treat”, “Super nice staff, great location, convenience store close-by, breakfast was a mix of western and Japanese style, both were good!”.
Book It Here: Hotel Vista Sendai
Sendai Ryokan – Sakan
Located slightly outside of the main city sits Sakan, a ryokan that epitomizes class, tradition, and elegance all in one stunningly build structure. For those who are after a quintessential Japanese experience away from the hustle bustle of the city, this ryokan can’t be more perfect of an option. There is even a courtesy bus provided by the hotel to pick guests up from Sendai Station to be transported back to the ryokan (a rough 50-minute ride).
Each traditionally decorated room here offers air-conditioning, a private bathroom with a bath, and some select family rooms also feature a traditional tatami mat area. Take advantage of the free communal sauna available onsite, as well as the multiple restaurants, wine bar, and tea lounge. Make sure you make plans to visit Akui Great Falls, the Sendai Kaleidoscopes Art Museum, Sakunami Hot Spring, and Rairaikyo Gorge, all located relatively close-by.
Each of the rooms offer stunning views of the Sendai natural landscape, and the peace and quiet amongst the trees that you’ll experience is quite unlike anything you’ll ever experience. For those who are interested in hot springs, natural, and untouched scenery, this is the top choice for you.
Why Guests Love It: “The staff who helped us check-in and orient us to our room was exceptional. He spoke fluent English and so was able to explain everything to us with extra care and detail, including showing us how to properly tie our Sachiko”, “The baths were all top-class, and the small rotenburo close to the river was simply wonderful, close enough to feel surrounded by the sounds of the waterfalls and the local frogs whilst watching the water”.
Price: from 34,560 yen for 2 people/night
Book It here: Sakan
After these few tips, let’s find out what you are the activities you should not miss in Sendai!
The 7 Best Things To Do In Sendai, Japan
1. Capture Beautiful Views at the AER Building
Surprisingly for most, Sendai is a beautiful city, and to really appreciate it, you’re going to need the aerial view. Fortunately for you, the AER building, located literally right next door to the station, is the perfect way to capture it. During the day, you’ll be able to see past the mismatched low-rise and high-rise buildings of the city, all the way out to the mountains in the distance in the horizon – it’s a lovely sight!
Looking down, you’ll be able to see sidewalks lined with an abundance of greenery, and you’ll be able to see why Sendai has been given the nicknamed ‘the city of trees’. As the tallest building in all of Sendai, there will hardly be anything for you to miss all the way up there.
Plus, it’s free, so whilst you’re taking a break from exploring the city, this is a great way to sit down for a bit and appreciate high-rise observation decks for what they’re worth.
When you’re done, slowly make your way down the floors, because from the 4th floor all the way down to the 1st floor, there are plenty of shops, cafes and restaurants for you to check out (make sure you stop by the 3rd floor, which houses the Tohoku Pokemon Centre!).
- Address: 1-3-1 Central, Aoba Ward, Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture 980-0021
- Access: It is located just outside of the west exit of Sendai Station. When you arrive, take the elevator from the 1st floor to the 20th floor. There, you will need to exit and change elevators to get to the 31st floor.
- Hours: 10:00AM – 8:00PM
2. Soak in an Onsen
Sendai is almost the perfect amalgamation of Japan’s urban scene and wildlife. Whilst you can spend hours and hours just simply walking around the city exploring shopping centres and restaurants and funky museums and random cafes, just a short train or bus ride out (not even an hour) could mean you’re completely cut off from the technology-reliant cityscape and literally amongst nature at its finest.
True to our word above, that’s exactly the case if you’re looking for an onsen experience in Sendai. There is a massive concentration of different onsens that you can visit on a day trip whilst in Sendai, but if we could recommend one, it would be the onsen at Sendai Akiu hot Spring HOTEL SAKAN (yes, the very same Sakan ryokan that we recommended above!).
Sakan is not only a stunning traditional ryokan, but it offers guests as well as those who are visiting on a day trip a chance to soak in a variety of different springs that overlook the gorgeous Natori River. Less than an hour away from Sendai City, with an onsen experience and included bento lunch at around 2,500 yen per person, it’s an experience you absolutely have to try.
- Address: 〒982-0241 Miyagi Prefecture, Sendai, Taihaku Ward, 秋保町湯元
- Access: You can organize for a free shuttle from Sendai with the onsen once you make a booking.
- Cost: roughly 2,500 yen per person
- More info about Onsen Day Trip here: https://akiusato.jp
3. Explore Various Forms of Art at Sendai Mediatheque
This one is for both the art buffs and those who just want to appreciate great art at face value. Sendai Mediatheque is a place where anyone and everyone can visit to support different exhibitions showcasing various culture and art pieces. It’s a completely public space, meaning you don’t have to pay to get in and view all the current showcases.
All throughout the year, the space is open to different displays of work, so a visit in May one year will probably show a different exhibition to a show in January the year after. This isn’t an art gallery per se, but more of a movement to show support for those who wish to express their voices and skills in any shape, manner, or form.
It’s located right in the city, so is a great way to spend a few leisurely hours soaking in the beauty there. As a bonus, the building itself is an absolute masterpiece – built with the the goal of ‘no boundaries’, enclosed spaces here are a thing of the past.
Floor to ceiling glass windows make up majority of the front-facing side of the building, and lounges and chairs scattered throughout means you can hop on any level to try and find a nice spot for the sunset. People come here to study, they come here to relax, mull over art, and generally wind down, so expect to see a few nodding heads.
- Address: 2-1 Kasugamachi, Aoba-ku, Sendai-shi, Miyagi-ken 980-0821
- Access: From Sendai Station, it takes approximately 20-minutes by foot. Otherwise, you can catch a train to Kotodai-Koen Station, and then walk 6-minutes along Jozenji-Dori.
- Hours: 9:00AM – 10:00PM
4. Tour Miyagikyo Distillery
For those who love beer o’clock as well as aged fine wine, there’s a new kid on the block in Sendai, and it’s in the form of the Nikka Whisky Miyagikyo Distillery. It’s similar to the Kirin guided tours whereby you arrive, are placed in small groups, and then taken around to various parts of the factory to learn more about the history as well as the processes of whisky distillation.
Whisky itself has strong roots and presence within the Japanese market, and the incredibly pronounced craftsmanship and high quality production of Nikka Whiskey means that it holds a fair share of said market. You’ll learn all about the humble beginnings of Nikka Whiskey in Yoichi, Hokkaido, before it found immense success and expanded to Miyagikyo in 1969.
These guided tours are completely free (we know, right?!), and will take you through various buildings onsite that let you explore their different purposes and processes. There are informative presentations to further provided more information (available in Japanese, English, Chinese, and Korean), and at the end of the tour, you will be able to participate in some whiskey sampling (again, this is all free!). We highly recommend you take your time with the ‘Date’ whiskey.
- Address: Miyagiken Sendaishi Aoba Nikka 1 Japan
- Access: From Sendai Station, take the JR Senzan Line until you reach Sakunami Station (40-minutes). From there, it is a 25-minute walk, or there should be shuttle buses to the factory nearby. Tours are conducted every 20-minutes or so. There are no English-guided tours, but there will be some English information available throughout the tour.
- Hours: 9:00AM – 11:30AM, 12:30PM – 3:30PM (closed during New Year’s and from Dec 24 – Jan 7)
5. Indulge on the Local Dish: Gyutan (Beef Tongue)
As with all major areas in Japan, there is definitely a specialty that you need to try whilst visiting this awesome city, and that is ‘gyutan’, otherwise known as beef tongue. Just like how Hokkaido has their soup curry, Fukuoka has their Hakata ramen, and Osaka has their takoyaki balls, gyutan is the dish of Sendai, and you will not be disappointed.
The Sendai specialty uses the soft part of a beef tongue, where it is sliced and then lightly grilled. The tongue is aged before it is put on the charcoal grill, so it is superbly soft and incredibly rich in flavor. It’s considered somewhat of a gourmet dish in Sendai, although you can get it at almost any restaurant or izakaya there. Expect standard menu items at a gyutan restaurant to consist of grilled beef tongue, beef tail soup full of umami flavours, and mugi-gohan (riced cooked with barley). The tongue itself is usually flavoured with salt, although some restaurants take the alternative route and offer miso flavouring amongst others. Other popular forms of the gyutan include as a donburi, or served in a curry with rice, or beef stew.
One of the most famous restaurants in Sendai to offer gyutan is Rikyu Gyutan, which fortunately has quite a number stores around the city area. If you’d like to find a store near you, have a look on their website on the ‘Store Information’ tab.
6. Join in the Festivities at Sendai Tanabata Matsuri
Tanabata festivals are the “star festivals” in Japan, held on the 7th day of the 7th month of the year, where, according to a Chinese legend, two stars named “Altair” and “Vega” cross paths. There are some slight differences between the lunar and solar calendar, so tanabata festivals across Japan can be celebrated across July and August, depending on the year.
Sendai’s Tanabata Matsuri is one of the biggest and most celebrated tanabata’s in all of Japan. It’s held every year on the same dates, between August 6th – 8th. Together with Akita’s Kanto Matsuri and Aomori’s Nebuta Matsuri, they make up the Tohoku Sandai Matsuri (‘Three Great Festivals of the Tohoku Region’).
The festival’s main feature are the thousands of colourful streams that are strung across the entire city: through shopping arcades, malls, stations, shops, walkways, etc. They’re around 3-5m long, and are handcrafted by local schools and community groups to resemble brightly coloured forests. There are events held all through Shimin Hiroda Square, Kotodai Park, and long Juzenji Dori street, including stage performances, live music entertainment, traditional dances, and rows and rows of food vendors. On August 5th, there is an incredible display of fireworks that gets better and better every year along the bank of the Hirosegawa River.
Date: August 6th – August 8th
7. Shop for Souvenirs at the main train station
It may come as a surprise for you, but Sendai Station is actually quite a hub, not just for transport, but for all sorts of food and shopping as well! It’s quite a large station, but unlike many other large stations, it isn’t as spread out, and so if you’re visiting Sendai but haven’t had a chance to do a bit of souvenir shopping yet and need to catch the next train home, head there a little early to have a browse, you’re bound to find gift items that perfectly represent your time in this lovely city. Below we’ve listed a few items that are quintessentially ‘Sendai’ that you may want to be on the lookout for!
1. Gyutan Gifts
Yep, Sendai’s very own specialty cuisine is available as all sorts of gifts. If you go on a little hunt, you’ll find them as cute little keyrings, packaged up as dried food, salted, and also frozen for you to take back home!
2. Kikufuku Daifuku
This is Sendai’s special version of wagashi (Japanese sweets); it is round and light-textured, with cream and solid sweet bean paste as the filling. These days, the crafters of this wagashi is becoming more adventurous, and you may come across kikufuku daifuku with fillings ranging from green tea, hojicha, and ‘zunda’ (light sweetened soybeans), as well as seasonal flavours.
3. Himezan Sake
A popular type of sake in the Sendai region is Himezen, which is produced by the Ichinokura Sake Brewery. It is made from Miyagi-grown rice and local groundwater, and offers a light and refreshing fruity taste. It’s alcohol content is a mere 8% (half of the usual 15% found in sake), so makes for a great gift for those who haven’t tried it before or are not heavy drinkers.
4. Kokeshi Dolls
These wooden dolls with cute round faces and long bodies sum up the childhood of the children of Sendai. They came about some 200 years ago, and today, are a popular décor item as a souvenir for their light weight and cute expressions. The craftsmanship that goes into creating these kokeshi’s are no joke; they’re highly skilled artisans who dedicate many years into perfecting these adorable and intricately designed dolls.
5. Musubimaru Gift Items
Musubimaru is the adorable mascot character for both Sendai city and Miyagi prefecture. It is shaped like an onigiri (rice ball), representing the rice production industry in the Miyagi prefecture. He is dressed in a samurai helmet with a crescent moon on top, which is the symbol of Date Masamune (past prominent ruler in Japan). These delightful goods come in all sorts of gift ideas, from miniature soft toys, to key rings, to pens and other stationary items, to handkerchiefs – if you’re in the market for one, you’re bound to find something!
All in all, Sendai, being only an hour away by train from Tokyo, is one of those places that requires the smallest of efforts to get to, and you’ll be rewarded with the biggest of surprises. Whilst it may not command a lot of time to explore the area, this may come as a blessing in disguise, as it means you can arrive in Japan and explore the bigger cities like Tokyo for what they’re worth, and when you’re feeling like a change of scenery, hop on a train and before you know it, you’ll be in the land of gyutan and onsens.