SENDAI / YAMAGATA
Tohoku, a region of northern Japan, is full of energy and culture.
Three hundred years ago, a haiku poet walked through the region and his writings on the trip have become known around the world. That poet’s name was Matsuo Basho.
Basho’s life was full of travel and it is well known he longed to visit the Tohoku region irrespective of whether or not he would return alive to the city he called home – Edo (now Tokyo). When Basho left for the region he wouldn’t know it but he left his own footprints imprinted so squarely on the pages of Japanese history that we will now make our own trip to Sendai and Yamagata following the lead of Basho.
Both Sendai and Yamagata are located about 2 hours 30 minutes north of Tokyo by bullet train and together represent the southern part of the Tohoku region.
Access to areas featured:
From Tokyo to Sendai: taking from 1h 40mins to 2h 40mins by Tohoku Shinkansen, (bullet train) the time taken depends upon the ticket you purchase.
From Sendai to Matsushima: transfer to the JR Sengoku Line headed for Matsushima-kaigan Station.
Connecting Sendai & Yamagata: time required — 1 hour by express bus with two buses running hourly.
From Tokyo to Yamagata: quickest journey – 2h 29mins on the Yamagata Shinkansen.
From Yamagata to Zao Onsen: 45mins by local bus.
From Tokyo to Yonezawa: quickest journey – 2h 15mins on the Yamagata Shinkansen.
Matsuo Basho and Okuno-hosomichi (The Narrow Road to the Interior (of the Deep North))
Matsuo Basho was born in Akasaka-cho, Igaueno, Mie Prefecture in 1644 — just 4 decades into the famous Edo period. Burning with ambition, he moved east to Edo in 1674. When he moved to Fukagawa, in eastern Edo, in 1680, he effectively retired from business in order to instruct his disciples on haiku while occasionally commenting on the work of others. Basho, the name he was given by his disciples as his house in Fukagawa was called ‘Basho-an’ after a type of banana tree growing at its gate, lived in quiet seclusion for several years and interrupted his tranquility only to travel.
Aged 41, Basho made one of his longest trips when he went to Yamato, Yoshino, Yamashiro, Omi, Ogaki and Owari over a period of 9 months in 1684, after first visiting Ise Jingu Shrine. He called this journey of personal enlightenment “Nozarashi kiko.”
By the time he had reached 46 he was well versed in the role of sadness in daily life and the annoyances to expect when traveling but his feet were still itchy and he wanted to be on the open road again. This time, the poet aimed for the Tohoku region, an area he knew to be full of famous places covered in many an old poem, and being as much of a reader as a composer of poetry, Basho wanted to see for himself the historical places he had read about.
On May 16th, 1689, with his disciple Sora, Basho left Edo for Tohoku, embarking on what was to become the longest, and centuries later, most famous trip of his life. Having left Fukagawa early in the morning with a small party wanting to see him off, he sailed up the Sumida River and landed at a spot named Senju, the first post-station of the Oshu-kaido (Nikko-kaido) street. Walking north along the Nikko-kaido, the pair visited Nikko, Kurobane, Nasuyumoto, Shirakawa-no-seki, Izaka-onsen, Kori, Sendai and Matsushima in turn — many areas still popular today.
When Basho arrived in Sendai on June 20th 1689, the city was a 620,000-goku castle town (a ‘koku / goku being a unit of rice) ruled by the famed Date family.
Although Basho only stayed in the town for several days; he preferred more rural settings, the Sendai of the 21st century is a beautiful town nicknamed “Mori-no-miyako (the tree-clad city),” and is the prefectural seat of government for Miyagi Prefecture.
To link the present with the past, the ruins of the former Sendai Castle (Aoba Castle) are located on a hill from which today’s Sendai can be viewed whole. After being built by lord Date Masamune in 1610, the castle flourished as a residence for the Date clan for some 270 years with the Hirosegawa River fortifying the whole hill as a natural moat, thereby making the huge castle impregnable.
As all must come to an end, so did the life of Date Masamune. Zuihoden, his mausoleum, is located on the mountain to the east of Sendai Castle. Sadly the original building burned down during WWII, and the magnificent reconstruction is a 1978, 800 million yen version which took 5 years to complete.
The ‘tree-clad’ city of Sendai turns into the ‘light-clad’ city from mid-December to New Year’s Eve as the zelkova trees along Jozenji and Aoba-dori are decorated with approximately 800 thousand lights forming tunnels of light.
The Sendai Tanabata Matsuri, held in August, is a gorgeous festival to behold and is ranked as one of the three major festivals of the Tohoku region.
There are traditional onsen all around Sendai and the Akiu Onsen is a hot spring once used by the Date family and with a 1500-year history of its own.
Matsushima is believed to be one of the three most beautiful places in Japan. The other two are Amanohashidate in Kyoto Prefecture and Itsukushima Shrine in Hiroshima Prefecture. Numerous islands and islets dot Matsushima Bay to create a domestically incomparable scene. Basho, hoping to view the bay said that he wanted to see the moon shining on Matsushima when he first started his trek. After his visit however, he was at a loss for words and could not produce any poem, so impressed was he with its overwhelming beauty.
Excursion boats take modern day tourists among the islands with four routes on offer. The course touring the whole of Matsushima Bay takes about 50 minutes and it is fun to see the many flocks of gulls chasing the boat.
Godaido, a temple located on a small island is accessed via a red arched bridge and is famous for its historical atmosphere while Zuiganji, one of the most famous Zen temples of the Tohoku region is a picture postcard of serenity and serves as the temple that houses the Date family grave. Lord Date Masamune had the temple, which is adorned with dynamic Momoyama-style decorations, completed in 4-years and the brilliantly carved decorations of the main building as well as the other buildings have been designated as Japanese national treasures. For lovers of haiku, there is stone tablet inscribed with a haiku written by Sora on Ojima Island.
The official name of Yamadera is Hojusan Risshakuji. It was built in 860AD and is one of the most famous temples in the Tohoku region. The temple precincts cover the whole mountain on which there are scores of strangely shaped rocks. The scenery alone deserves the name of Yamadera (meaning: mountain temple). As visitors ascend the 1015 stone steps cut from rock it is said your acquired desire and impurity will disappear. Godaido, at the top of the steps provides for a glorious view and a stone tablet has inscribed upon it a very famous poem written by Basho himself: Sizukasa ya / Iwa ni shimi iru / Semi no koe (“The stillness / Seeping into the rock / The chirping of cicadas.”) The tablet stands near Konponchudo.
A statue of Basho, sitting on a rock and wearing a traveler’s outfit with a face displaying determination can also be seen.
The nearby Yamadera Basho Memorial Museum was founded in 1989 in commemoration of the 300th anniversary of Basho visiting. Inside, as well as viewing the collection, powdered green tea can be tried in the in the tea room.
Basho didn’t stop but passed through the town of Tendo when he visited Yamadera. Not overly famous then, Tendo today is known for its Japanese chess (shogi) pieces. The town produces 95 per cent of all pieces produced in Japan and many chess piece shaped monuments can be seen around the town. The origin of the quest to dominate the shogi piece market dates back to the end of the Edo period when the then lord of the Tendo clan encouraged his lower ranked warriors to produce pieces on the side. Today, an event in which participants move just like each shogi pieces on a large board is held atop Mt. Maizuruyama every spring under the blooming cherry blossoms. In Tendo, all is not shogi however as the local onsen is also rather famous nowadays. A relatively new hot spring source, it boasts an ample supply of water heated by mother earth.
In addition, the Dewazakura Museum of Art is located in the grounds of the Dewazakura Sake Brewery mixing antiques from Korai and Richo with the national drink.
Yamagata City is the seat of prefectural government in Yamagata Prefecture but was once a castle town of the Mogami clan and boasted an annual income of 570,000-goku. The Ninomaru Higashi Otemon Gate, now rebuilt in Kajo Park reminds tourists of the atmosphere of long ago as it sits alongside the ruins of the former Yamagata Castle. For visitors in search of celebration, the Hanagasa Matsuri is one of the main festivals in Tohoku and participants dance to Hanagasa ondo music while holding Hanagasa (a flower hat). Flower hats are hats decorated with safflowers as the safflower is the prefectural flower of Yamagata Prefecture.
The Zao mountain range is located on the border of Yamagata and Miyagi prefectures. Zao is an all-season resort with hiking during the summertime and skiing during the wintertime.
Its famous juhyo, or silver frosts, are natural works of art created by the winter wind when the cold wind from Siberia hits the Asahi mountain range and rapidly ascends, changing it into a cold moist mist. It freezes in matter of seconds when it touches the Japanese spruce trees in Zao leaving the frosted trees as giant ‘chunks’ covered with snow.
The local Okama Lake is a crater lake formed in Mt. Karitadake, one of the Zao mountain range peaks. The lake is approximately 1km in circumference, 360m in diameter and 25m deep with a beautiful emerald green surface. After driving along the Zao Echo Line and Zao High Line (toll road), cars can reach the top of the 1758 meter Mt. Karitadake enabling passengers to walk to Okama. For the less energetic, at the foot of Zao, the Zao and Togatta onsens can be found.
Yonezawa, in Yamagata Prefecture, was once a castle town worth 150,000 koku annually and was the home of the Uesugi family. Uesugi Yozan, once praised by U.S. President Kennedy, was adopted into the Uesugi family in the then hard-up Yonezawa clan when he was just 10 years old. At 17-years of age, he became the local lord, a title under which he carried out many reforms including major cuts in clan expenditure, and the promotion of newly emerging industries. Over time, Uesugi restored the clan’s finances and saved it from bankruptcy. Even today, most of the traditional industries in Yonezawa are connected to those promoted by Uesugi as a stroll around the town will show — a stroll taken in a relaxed atmosphere thanks in part to the white walls of the old sake breweries that remain standing from centuries past.
The former Yonezawa Castle is now Matsu-ga-misaki Park and contains Uesugi Shrine and Keisho-den to remember the efforts of the Uesugi family.
Gourmet and Souvenirs
Gyutan (ox tongue)
Sendai was the birthplace of the now highly popular ‘gyutan’ dish. People in the area usually eat gyutan with mugimeshi (rice with barley), pickles and oxtail soup. The mugimeshi is said to bring out the flavor of the gyutan.
Sasa-kamaboko is a local Sendai fish paste cake and many varieties can be bought with ingredients including porgy, pike congers, Japanese basils and even cheese.
Hagi-no Tsuki is a fluffy sponge cake produced in Sendai with a creamy custard filling.
A famous sake produced in Miyagi prefecture, Ichinokura is made from local rice known for its taste.
Alongside Hiroshima, Matsushima is an area famed for its oysters. The ‘season’ when the oysters are at their best is October to March and the annual Matsushima Oyster Festival is held on Matsushima beach over the first weekend of February. Oysters galore and local sake are served to all comers free of charge.
Yamagata cherries, peaches, grapes, apples and ‘la france’ pears can be enjoyed in season as can fruit picking.
Dewazakura is another famous sake from the Tohoku region of Japan — one of many.
Imoni is a Yamagata prefecture autumnal dish in which taro (a type of potato), beef, konnyaku (devil’s tongue), leeks and mushrooms are cooked in a pot, flavored with soy sauce, sugar and sake before serving.
Soba (buckwheat noodles)
Soba is another specialty of Yamagata as the large differences seen in seasonal temperatures contribute greatly to the soba produced.
Yonezawa-gyu is marbled beef known for its soft and juicy texture — often compared to Matsuzaka-gyu and Kobe-gyu.