Sendai (仙台) is a beautiful city set within the prefecture of Miyagi (宮城県). Famous for its beef tongue, kokeshi dolls, and Feudal Lord Date Masamune (伊達政宗), is it a major stop on the Tohoku (東北) trail. Linked by shinkansen (bullet train; 新幹線), it’s only a 90-minute ride from Tokyo. Yet despite its fame, there is still a part of Sendai that remains relatively untouched by tourists’ feet.
Kita-Sendai (北仙台), a 10-minute train ride north of Sendai Station, holds a host of undiscovered history dotted within its borders. Not part of the well-publicised Loople Bus tour, there is little English information about the area. Yet, a few minutes’ walk west of Kita-Sendai station is an area that boasts an array of temples, shrines, and gardens, all with close ties to Date Masamune.
Who was this man, whose picture is plastered everywhere in Sendai? Date Masamune was the regional Lord of Sendai during the early Edo (江戸) period and had a profound impact on Tohoku’s development. He established Sendai and was known for his strength and intelligence. He is also famous for having only one working eye. An excellent warrior, his classic crescent moon helmet and coat of arms are legendary.
Date Masamune was a patron of science and culture, especially poetry and painting. Before the change in Tokugawas, he was also a strong exponent of international cooperation, funding many expeditions to Europe and the Americas, and a supporter of Christianity. His legacy is still felt today in Sendai’s character and economic development. You can see his statue in Kita-Sendai.
The first of Masamume’s sites is the Komyoji Temple. One of the Date Clan’s family temples, it was founded in 1604. Set within a mini-forest and linked to its neighbour, the Toshoji (東昌寺), by a series of graveyards, the Komyoji is best known for holding the memorial tomb of Hasekura Tsunenaga (支倉常長), one of Sendai’s most famous faces.
Hasekura Rokuemon Tsunenaga (支倉六右衛門常長) was born in northern Japan in 1571, a descendant of the imperial family. He served as a samurai during the Korea wars and, in 1613, was appointed by Date Masamune as an Ambassador to Europe. Date wanted to expand trade and develop relationships between the Tohoku region of Japan and the rest of the world. Tsunenaga’s role was to promote such relationships, as well as to gain technological and scientific knowledge. From 1613 to 1620, he travelled across southern Europe, including Spain and the Vatican, as well as making missions to the Philippines and Mexico. His mission was relatively successful; he was granted Rome citizenship and became a Catholic.
However, when Tsunenaga came back, he returned to a very different Japan. A new Tokugawa, Hidetada (徳川秀忠), had inherited the shogunate and under his rule, Japan had moved quickly to Sakoku isolation (鎖国). Relationships with Europe were violently discouraged and Christians persecuted and killed. Date, originally a strong supporter of establishing foreign relations and Christianity, began to distance himself from his previous policies as Tokugawa’s control over the whole of Japan strengthened. No one knows what happened to Tsunenaga when he returned, but he was soon forgotten, until the Meiji Restoration (明治維新), when his achievements were rediscovered. Tsunenaga’s picture now dons numerous sites in Sendai, including the castle and museum.
The next place worth a look is Aoba Shrine. Said to house the kami of Date Masamune himself, it was founded in 1874 after a petition by residents. The shrine is very interesting, with statues and illustrations of Date’s history. It is also home to the famous Sendai Aoba Festival, when mikoshi shrines and more than 300 dancers parade the streets to celebrate the founder of Sendai.
The next temple on the list is the Shifukuji (資福寺), famous for its hydrangea. It, too, was one of Date’s temples. The temple has a lovely little garden to explore, along with some historic buildings. However, just a little further up, you encounter one of the best Japanese Gardens in Tohoku, within the grounds of the Rinnō-ji temple (輪王寺).
Rinnō-ji was constructed in 1441 in Fukushima (福島), Tohoku by Date Mochimune (伊達持宗). It was moved to Sendai in 1602 under Date Masamune, after he united the area. Under Date’s protection, the temple enjoyed a prominent position within Sendai. However, after the Meiji Restoration, the temple declined in importance. It has now renewed itself and is the headquarters of the Sotoshu (曹洞宗) Buddhist sect. It took more than 50 years under the Sotoshu to rebuild and restructure Rinnō-ji’s temple and garden.
The entrance to the Rinnō-ji garden can be accessed for 300 yen. There are a series of stepping stones as you enter the garden. The first sight is the small pond, and it’s full of wonderfully friendly and colourful carp. The water is very clean and you can get a really close look at the fish, who follow you around as you traverse the pond’s rock stones.
There is a series of bridges and the path follows a circle around the pond. There are also turtles and water birds, as well as a tea house and cemetery, which is said to house some of the Date family.
The three-storey pagoda is the newest building in the garden. Constructed in 1981, it was built to commemorate the death of the first temple priest. A very tasteful addition to the Zen layout, the pagoda can be best seen from across the pond. Zen forms a strong component of the garden, and it is easy for your mind to drift away. The temple offers, on Saturdays, a free Zen meditation session. The sessions, open to anyone, combines “quiet time”, prayer and sutras.
The journey along this Kita-Sendai stretch can be done in less than an hour – everything is close and within walking distance. However, I guarantee you will spend far longer here, discovering these sites off the beaten track. An excellent experience, Kita-Sendai is a part of Sendai more tourists really should explore – but then again, if too many people follow the Kita-Sendai path, perhaps it will lose the mystery and quiet charm that makes it so great.