Once we had booked our airline tickets, I started researching if anything special would be going on during the dates we were in Japan. One thing that really stood out for early August was Sendai's Tanabata Festival! I had learned a little bit about Tanabata during my study abroad but I didn't know there were whole festivals dedicated to its celebration. [Read more here from japan-guide.] I decided that that sounded like something cool to experience that we had the special opportunity to check out due to our travel dates, and I put it on the agenda as something that would be "nice to do".
Sendai's Tanabata Festival runs from August 6 to August 8, and we had originally planned to attend the first day (Aug 6) because we figured that since it was a Thursday, it might be less busy for travel? But on Wednesday night, we still hadn't reserved any tickets for the shinkansen and told ourselves we would wake up and go to the station early and reserve them that morning before leaving. As it turns out, Thursday morning we ended up sleeping in past the time I wanted to catch the bullet train lol. It worked out just as well I guess because my bf wanted to go to one of the fishing stores on Thursday due to when a certain shop staff was working and if we had gone to Sendai, he wouldn't have been able to since it was meant to be an all day trip. ANYWAY, that's why we ended up going on Friday instead lol. (Actually, I think that even if we had woken up at an appropriate time on Thursday in the morning, we wouldn't have been able to catch any of the trains that I wanted to that same day lol.)
Thursday night, determined to go to Sendai the next day, we went to the Shinagawa station ticket office to reserve tickets for Friday. There weren't any seats we wanted on the Hayabusa shinkansen heading over there in the morning! We would have had to sit apart in order to catch the ones at our first and second choice times, and there isn't any unreserved seating on Hayabusa trains. We weren't so keen on going that we wanted to sit apart, so we ended up just reserving tickets for the a Yamabiko shinkansen that would still arrive at a reasonable time. We also reserved tickets for the train ride home in that same instance on Thursday night because my bf was worried we wouldn't be able to get on a train back lol (and we definitely wanted to come back).
Friday morning, we woke up at an appropriate time, hopped down to Shinagawa station, picked out a few things to eat and then caught a Hikari shinkansen in an unreserved car to Tokyo station. Once at Tokyo, we made our way to the correct platform for the Yamabiko we wanted to catch next.
The platform was actually quite crowded! We're not used to catching the shinkansen from Tokyo station in general (we usually just go between Shin-Osaka and Shinagawa so there's no need), but I guess it makes sense that there's lots of people to be on our train since the others around the same time were mostly sold out!
The Tohoku shinkansen had a different look than the Tokaido ones we were used to and we were going in a completely different direction than we've gone in the past, so a lot felt new and exciting lol. And for once we had to share our row with someone! Or rather, he had to share his row with us since he was seated first and by the window haha. He didn't go all the way to Sendai, but I didn't take a lot of pictures during this time because I didn't want to bother or accidentally nudge him.
We were on the train for about 2 hours and arrived at Sendai station around 11:00am without knowing exactly where to go or what to do having never been there before. For some reason I actually felt a little panicked - like we had just traveled all that time, and I wouldn't be able to find something for us to do. But one of the first things that greeted us was the Tanabata decorations, and I remembered that we were visiting during the festival and that there were bound to be people who could help point us in the right direction.
|Exiting the shinkansen tracks in Sendai station|
|Outside the west exit, view of Parco|
|Selfie bc full length mirror|
|Pens that I really liked the look of but didn't buy|
|Wahhhh Gudetama stuff!|
Feeling a bit cooler, we decided to walk towards Parco. I figured I could go to Liz Lisa and....yeah, that was my only motive lol.
@lizlisa_sendai) and I recognized the shop staff that's featured a lot both there and on their blog, but she was really just intent on doing her own thing lol. I bought two things and we headed back out.
My intended plan to have a small talk conversation with the shop staff ending with asking where we should go for the Tanabata Festival obviously didn't happen, so I just googled it, and we realized the entrance to the huge shopping arcade was just across the street. Wtf duh.
|They were also selling these balloons for 1500yen lol|
|These ones made out of cranes were quite special and had a message on them|
|(click to enlarge if you can't read it at this size)|
|we took a small break from the constant walking and rush of people are one of these ufo catcher shops & didn't win anything with our literally 1 try lol obviously|
|We saw a Daiso so I had to stop and look for a few things|
Most (if not all) websites and people we talked to mentioned gyutan with Sendai, so I figured that's what we should eat there. I googled to find a restaurant in the area and decided on Kisuke. We wandered a little to find it, but actually it's just past the first section of the shopping arcade on the left as part of this "Ever-i" building on the third floor. We were able to be seated right away. I think there was a sign with something about them not serving the lunch menu during the Tanabata Festival outside the shop but it was only in Japanese so I'm not super sure. Regardless, we were fine just looking at the dinner menu (available in English upon request).
Okay, so I'm a really picky eater, right? There's lots of things I don't eat - from the extremely mundane to the understandably "weird". I'd say this falls somewhere in between. If you don't know, gyutan is beef tongue. I would never order this as a meal at home, but while in Sendai, I considered it a must. I read about/"researched" it a bit beforehand, and I figured it wouldn't be too bad considering I do eat beef, and it also didn't look too bad either, so I told myself that I should try it.
Tbh, it wasn't bad! If I'm really honest, I didn't particularly enjoy it, but I definitely liked it more than the yakisoba (which gave me a headache after because I disliked it so much) and I was happy to try a dish in the region it originated from and is famously known for. I think if I think about the idea of eating tongue for too long, it's not very appealing, but when prepared, it doesn't appear like anything odd in particular at all and is no different from really any other body part from an animal. It was a very filling meal.
The final thing I wanted to do in Sendai was visit Matsushima Bay and do one of the boat cruises. This was another thing that constantly came up for what to do when in Sendai and it's part of Nihon Sankei/Japan's three most scenic places and a portion of one of the model courses on Sendai's tourism website. I mostly relied on japan-guide for information about the cruises.
Although the cruises depart/arrive from both Matsushima and Shiogama areas (many cruises are one way so you leave from one harbor and arrive at a completely different one), the stations you want to go to to get on a boat are Matsushima-Kaigan and Hon-Shiogama. Don't get that confused or you'll be at a completely wrong station and/or get on the wrong train line. (I almost did that wtf.) Trains going to these areas are not as frequent as we were used to in Tokyo. And according to Hyperdia, sometimes there were huge gaps between when they would be running.
Once we were done at the restaurant, we still had about 20 minutes to kill until the train came at around 02:21pm, but we definitely didn't want to miss that train. We ended up with just a leisurely walk back to the station and then a very slight rush at the end because we didn't realize how far away the particular track we wanted was lol.
The ride is about 40 minutes on the JR Senseki line from Sendai station to Matsushima-Kaigan station. During that time, I realized that a number of the boat cruises actually stop running at 03:00 - 04:00pm wtf! (We were on schedule to arrive at about 03:01pm.) I told my bf about it, and he's like "okay let's just get off and go back in the other direction" lol. But I insisted that we go out and try because maybe we can just look and say we went even if we can't get on a boat. I'm not sure why I didn't think about there being a time restraint on the cruises before. I mean, it's a cruise that looks at tiny islands! It's not like they're all lit up or anything so you obviously need sunlight for it! Thankfully, it's summer though, so I think that helped a little?
We got off the train and took our time trying to find the cruise area. I didn't really have any reference for how to get there beforehand except knowing that it was about 5-10 minutes from the station. Thankfully the station had a map outside. I didn't know the kanji for harbor but I knew it would have to be on the ocean (duh), and there was a little boat icon so I figured that was the safest bet lol.
The walk is actually pretty short. Closer to 6 minutes depending on how fast you walk, I think. And there was a nice big sign to let you know you were in the right spot. I was worried that each cruise company would have a different office and we'd have to search and walk to several before finding one that would take us, but the tickets for each one are all sold from the same building with separate tellers/windows. Actually, there were a lot of crew members in the open area that were trying to get you to pick their cruise lol. The first one that approached us spoke English and helped us buy these tickets which also came with a map -
Marubun Matsushima Kisen Co. and we were taking the Basho cruise.
The cruises generally run for about 50 minutes to an hour, so one leaves at the top of each hour essentially. There were only two businesses that were still running by the time we got there and both were to leave the dock at 04:00pm - last cruise of the day. There was a large waiting area by the ticket windows with vending machines and seats and AC that was already full of people. We only had to wait for maybe 5-10 minutes before they allowed people to board the boats. Apparently the majority of the people had purchased tickets for the other business's boat lol. Our boat was mostly empty, but I didn't mind that. The narration is all in Japanese anyway, so it didn't matter to me which one we took.
We chose a booth on the right side of the boat, out of the sun. But that turned out to be a mistake in the long run because the boat turned around at the start of the journey and then we were in the sun for the 50 minutes lol.
One of the problems with going this late in the day is that the sun is at a bad angle for half of the islands because you're looking pretty much right into sun. And guess what? Those were the islands on our side of the boat lol. I really did pick the loser side of the boat. You can see the true color through the opposite side's windows.
But then I realized it was scary to stand there and be able to drop my phone directly in the water or, god forbid, fall in myself, so I returned to my seat for the rest of it lol.
Since the trains don't run very frequently, we had about a 20 minute wait once we got to the station. It's an open, pretty much completely outdoor station, so we just sat and sweated lol.
It was another 30 minutes back to Sendai station, and we arrived at 05:50pm, so we had about an hour to kill before needing to be at the Shinkansen platform. Thank goodness we reserved our seats the day before because the line for ticket reservation right then was massive. We probably would have had to wait at least an hour to just get to the window and then who knows what time train we would end up getting on!
Since we were able to avoid that mess, we decided to just do some shopping in/around the station because we didn't want to risk missing our train by wandering too far. My bf had looked up what the popular omiyage from Sendai was and the main answers were gyutan and zunda, which is like soy bean paste. We couldn't bring back gyutan for sure, so instead we looked for zunda themed stuff. The most popular item is zunda mochi which also wouldn't do well to bring back since the expiration date would likely be too soon, but there were quite a few other things besides that, so we had plenty to choose from.
We took our time, looking around and buying things when they piqued our interest. The station was quite busy lol. We also made sure to buy bentos for the train, since it was about dinner time and it would be awhile before we got another opportunity. The main bento store was so packed lol. People were just seemingly grabbing whatever and things vanished before our eyes lol. We still managed to get something suitable, but it was kind of a mad house lol.
While we were looking around, I noticed a Samantha Thavasa store and since we still had some time to kill, I took a look around. Some of their stuff was actually 50% off! I wasn't intending on buying anything, and actually my hands were already a bit full with my Liz Lisa purchase and other shopping from earlier and then the bento and all the omiyage we had just bought in the station, but how to resist a sale like that with a really reasonable looking purse? It's nothing too fancy or spectacular, but I was happy to pay the price I did for it. I really like the quality of Samantha Thavasa bags.
Our Hayabusa shinkansen was leaving at 06:57pm, so by around 06:40pm, we finished up our shopping, bought some water bottles and headed over to the platform. We were still a bit early, but thankfully there were some open seats in the area so we were able to just relax and wait for it to arrive.
The Hayabusa we were on must have been booked up after we got our tickets because there were people with "unreserved" tickets and were standing/sitting in the space between the cars. (Cars on Hayabusa trains are all reserved seating.) We were seated in row 1 of our car right next to the doors, so we had a constant view of them the whole time. They looked really uncomfortable. In our row, we trapped someone traveling solo against the window again lol.
The shinkansen only took us back to Tokyo station, so we had to transfer there and decided to take a JR Yokosuka line train back to Shinagawa. The Hayabusa is actually the fastest bullet train at the moment, so it was cool to be able to ride on it with the Rail Pass! We got back in about 1.5 hours + like 15 minutes for the final transfer.
Sendai gets -
|from Daiso, Daiei and Tutuanna|
|Sendai omiyage. Some zunda stuff and Tohoku apple hi chew (+ 2 regular hi chew lol)|
|Liz Lisa and Samantha Thavasa shopping bags|
Although we didn't get to experience all Sendai has to offer (believe me, there is so much more!), I feel happy that we were able to catch three of the most recommended things I could find - Tanabata Matsuri, eating gyutan and Matsushima Bay cruise (+ being able to ride a Hayabusa shinkansen). We spent quite a bit of time on trains and started the day a bit later than I had originally intended, but somehow we were able to make it all work. I think my favorite part was walking down the shopping arcade and looking at all the Tanabata decorations. I can't even begin to explain to you how amazing it was! And you could really feel that some had such hard work put into them! If we had had more time, I would have loved to walk all the way through and make it to the park at the end. But, looking back, I don't regret not doing it because, if we had, we wouldn't have made it on the cruise! Maybe if I had a chance to do it over again, I would have taken my bf's suggestion to do the cruise first and then we could have gotten better sun positioning and would have been able to take our time in the Sendai station area afterwards. I'm not disappointed with what we did though! I also really enjoyed shopping for all the zunda/omiyage items in the station lol.
I would definitely recommend going to Sendai if you get a chance! It would be best to allot a little more time for it than we did so you can do a few more activities, but even if it's just a day trip, there's definitely a lot you can do. I'm not sure if I'll go back any time soon by myself since I got my major must-dos done, but I'm really glad we took the time to go and experience what we did.
Japan trip Summer 2015 posts:
Part 1 - Osaka & Kobe: Day 1 - 2
Part 2 - Kyoto & Namba: Day 3
Part 3 - Tokyo-based: Day 4 - 6
Part 4 - Sendai: Day 7
Part 5 - Tokyo-based: Day 8 -9
Part 6 - Osaka: Day 10 - 11
Part 7 - Airbnb & accommodations
Part 8 - Liz Lisa purchases
Part 9 - Other shopping
Part 10 - Travel notes
Japan trip Spring 2015 posts
Japan trip Summer 2014 posts