Think More North

Trip Start Jul 22, 2006
Trip End Aug 15, 2010

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Flag of Japan  , Miyagi,
Monday, March 8, 2010

In an effort to add yet another city to the list of places I've visited in Japan, I had a mini adventure a few weeks ago (from the 19th to the 21st of Februry, to be exact).  Ostensibly to see a show with my friends William and James, I booked an overnight bus ticket to Sendai, in Miyagi Prefecture, north of Tokyo, where I was hoping to eat some good food, see some pretty sights, and maybe even experience some proper winter, which is in short supply in Tokyo. [Though we did actually have real -- more or less -- snow this winter, which I'll post pictures of soon.]

My bus left Tokyo Station at 11:40 p.m. on Friday and was set to reach Sendai at 5:15 a.m the following morning.  Travelling by highway bus in Japan is a much cheaper option than taking bullet trains, and if, like me, you don't mind sleeping in public, as it were, they're very convenient.  In this case, the ticket was a mere Y3,900 instead of the roughly Y10,000 is would have cost to take the bullet train.  Of course, the train would have taken under two hours...

As has been the case nearly every time I've taken an overnight bus, we arrived in Sendai a bit early.  It was still dark and a light coating of snow dusted the area outside the station.  It was still snowing.  Half an hour spent cleaning up in the washroom of Sendai's main train station left me feeling much less bleary, and a bottle of hot café au lait woke me up enough to face the day.

One of my priorities in Sendai was going out to Matsushima, only 30 minutes away by train.  One of Japan's "Three Famous Views" [; the other two are Miyajima, which I saw last September, and Amanohashidate, which I should be seeing two weeks from now!], the name means "pine island" and is the collection of dozens and dozens of small, pine-topped islands that sit off the coast.

The forecast was predicting cloudy skies and snow for the whole day, but I'm glad I took the 6:32 train out to Matsushima, because I got a beautiful sunrise all to myself.  Walking along the pier, climbing up on stone walls to get better pictures, jumping a fence and leaving footprints in the snow, I felt the kind of elation that comes from doing something you love; in this case, being in a new place and being witness to a peaceful moment of beauty.

After waiting for the rest of the world to wake up, I bought a ticket for a boat cruise among the islands.  It lasted a bit under an hour and took us by all the most interesting islands.  The sky and sea were both an iron grey, and there was some snow falling, but hopeful seagulls trailed us most of the way, even when everyone on board, save me, had gone back inside to stay out of the wind.

Back on dry land, I paid the toll and crossed the red bridge to one of the large islands close to shore.  The sun came out then, and for perhaps fifteen minutes, the sea sparkled and the air was warm.  I had just enough time to take a video of it before the clouds rolled back in and suddenly it was snowing, fat and heavy flakes falling so fast that in a minute, my hair and shoulders were completely white.  I hadn't been covered in so much snow in years, and I ran back, laughing, to the safety of the town and its restaurants.

Since Matsushima is known for its oysters, it would have been criminal to not make at least one meal of them, so I had a kaki-furai (fried oyster) lunch set.  The oysters were incredibly tender and juicy, possibly the best I've ever eaten (certainly the best fried oysters I've ever had!) and my energy thus restored, I explored the town a bit more before heading back to Sendai.

I'd left my overnight bag in a locker at the train station, but since I couldn't check into my hotel before later that afternoon, I explored downtown Sendai a little.  It's very different from Tokyo, not only because of the weather, but also because it's much more open and there's so much more space.  The main shopping arcade that leads away from the station is quite long and there were more than enough shops and restaurants to keep me entertained for an hour or so.

William and James had booked a room at the same hotel as I had, so after a shower and a nap, I met up with them to go out and find some supper.  First of all, I led them on a (sort of) wild duck chase, looking for a 150-year-old restaurant that my guide book said served noodles with duck.  We finally found the place, only to be told that they closed at 6; it was nearly 7.  We wandered around for a while, looking for a place to eat one of Sendai's specialties, cow tongue.  At length we decided on a restaurant, but when we noticed that they offered all-you-can-eat yakiniku [meat that you grill yourself at your table], we couldn't resist.  I'd say we did rather well, devouring an impressive quantity of beef, pork and chicken.  Even after all that food, I ordered a plate of gyuu-tan, because I couldn't leave without sampling that local delicacy!

My stomach wasn't quite as full as it was after my incredibly feat of 5 helpings at the hotel buffet in Okinawa in November (another story to be told soon, I hope!), but it was at a very sedate pace that we waddled back to our hotel that evening.

The next morning, after partaking of the hotel buffet, I set off at a brisk pace to find the mausoleum of Date Masamune, the samurai who founded Sendai back at the beginning of the Tokugawa shogunate.  It's up on a pine-covered hill, along with the mausoleums of two of his sons, and its bright colours reminded me of the shrines up in Nikko.

Since I was afraid of being late for the show I'd gone all the way to Sendai to see, I took a taxi back to the station.  Upon hearing that I spoke Japanese, the driver let out a relieved sigh.  "That's good, because the only English I know is 'Where do you want to go?' and 'North, south, east, west, about 2km,' " he confessed.  He kept me entertained for the short ride with stories of other foreign tourists he'd taken to various places.

Once the show was over, I parted ways once more with William and James.  They went off to see the mausoleums, and I returned to the noodle restaurant which was... closed on Sundays.  So instead, I treated myself to a good meal of sushi, which was totally justified because another thing the area is famous for is fresh seafood.  Indeed, the North Sea crab was wonderfully sweet, as were the different shellfish I sampled.

To get back to Tokyo, I took another highway bus, leaving at 5:50 p.m.  I spent most of the way home listening to my ipod and knitting, when I wasn't dozing.  The girl beside me spent the ride dozing and taking sips from the can of beer that was "concealed" in a plastic bag.  I wasn't paying any attention at first, except to wonder why she insisted on keeping her Coke in a bag, until I actually looked at the can in question and saw the star and SAPPORO on the side of it.

Again, the bus arrived early, and though it was only by ten minutes or so, it created a chain reaction of me being able to take an earlier train, then change to another earlier train, and a final earlier train, so that I reached my apartment half an hour earlier than I'd thought possible.  And that's a welcome thing when one has to go to work the next morning!
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