Chuson-ji Temple in Hiraizumi // © 2012 Monica Poling
On September 11, the Japanese people will observe the 18-month mark since a powerful 9.0-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami devastated parts of the Tohoku region in northern Japan.
Although largely unfamiliar to American travelers, the area’s principal city, Sendai, was catapulted to international attention through heavy media coverage of the city’s flooding airport.
Follow up stories on the region have been slow to appear, but tourism officials are anxious to let travelers know that, while most of Sendai was never affected by the tsunami, the city is now fully operational and more than ready to welcome visitors.
Nicknamed the “City of Trees” for its lush greenery, Sendai was founded in 1600, when Date Masamune, one of the most powerful warlords in Japanese history, established residency here and built the Sendai castle atop a small mountain near what today is downtown Sendai. Although much of the castle was destroyed by fire, the area now serves as a park, with sweeping views of the city and the surrounding area, and visitors can still find many of the castle’s original stone walls.
Sendai, which is located less than two hours from Tokyo by bullet train, is also a convenient starting point for other attractions in the Tohoku region.
A popular Tohoku excursion is a visit to Matsushima, with its charming setting on the Matsushima bay, which features 260 small, scenic islands covered in pine trees. While the coastal city did see some damage from the tsunami, the area islands served as a natural barrier to the rising waters, minimizing what could have been a far more devastating tragedy.
A bay cruise around the area islands is a must-do activity in Matsushima. Once onboard, the most popular activity is feeding the greedy black-tail seagulls — and the occasional eagle — who anxiously await the arrival of pleasure boat cruises and their cracker-bearing passengers.
Matsushima is a popular destination with Asian travelers and is home to a variety of contemporary attractions, including the Kyouhei Fujita Museum of Glass, the Mastsushima Retro Museum and the Marinepia Matsushima Aquarium.
The most popular site, just steps from the waterfront, is Zuiganji Temple, one of the most prominent Zen temples in the Tohoku region. The temple is being renovated, but its scenic grounds, protected by stately cedar trees, are well worth exploring. Until the temple’s main building reopens in March 2018, alternate buildings not normally available to the public are open for viewing.
Another popular day trip from Sendai is the 30-minute bullet train ride to Hiraizumi. Listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in mid-2011, Hiraizumi has become incredibly popular with Japanese tourists.
The area’s temples and gardens, which were built on the principles of “Pure Land Buddhism,” are well worth the visit. The most prominent temple is Chuson-ji, which was built in the year 850 A.D.
A must-see location at Chuson-ji is Konjiki-do, a wooden hall completely covered in gold leaf. The gold building is not representative of wealth or power, but rather serves as a symbol of the golden light that surrounds the enlightened Buddha.
Another popular site is Motsuji, once the site of some 40 halls and stupa. Today, the buildings no longer exist, but the Oizumi ga Ike Pond is a fully preserved 12th century garden, built on the principles of “Pure Land Buddhism.”
Plenty of other historic sites dot the area, and clients with spare time might consider spending the night in one of the area’s popular hot spring hotels.
Admittedly, a trip to Tohoku isn’t for all clients. Language can be a barrier, and distance between sites can be hard to navigate. Still, tour companies like JTB, JapanQuest Journeys and Inside Japan Tours can help clients customize the perfect itinerary.