Airmen adventures: Sendai, the "City of Trees"
MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan -- During the week, I write stories that highlight Airmen, airpower and the advancements to quality of life our Airmen make here on Misawa Air Base. As a junior-enlisted member, my weekends and any free time are very important, so once the weekend comes, I high-tail it off base to explore new and interesting parts of Japan.
Having traveled quite a bit in the Northern Tohoku-region already, I decided to venture down south with a rag-tag group of friends to the region's largest city, Sendai, for a couple of days' worth of big-city fun.
When planning this trip, our group didn't have much knowledge of Sendai. We knew they had baseball, a castle and an exciting nightlife. More importantly, we knew we wouldn't be working and that was enough to motivate us to travel.
We started our trip to Sendai much like any other trip would be started - with a frantic run to the Shoppette for last minute snacks and a four-way free-for-all brawl to use the bathroom.
After determining who got front seat supremacy, our group hopped on the Tohoku Expressway and sped off towards our destination, fueled by caffeine and a desire to explore.
With a moderately long four hour car ride, we made sure to rotate music playlists fairly and without much injury and naturally, games like "20 Questions" and "Never Have I Ever" were played as we passed by sights like the behemoth Iwate-san (one of Japan's three great mountains), and the busy city of Morioka.
After an afternoon of driving, we coincidently reached Sendai around the same time our driver was about to strangle us. Anxious to leave our automobile prison, we turned our attention to the looming city ahead of us.
Sendai is a large metropolis and the Tohoku region's biggest city; it's home to over 1 million Japanese citizens. It's also a college town, meaning there are an abundance of trendy clothing stores, coffee shops and izakayas (Japanese-style bars) to go to.
Side note: After the trip's costs were calculated, we found the $70 toll-road fee to be cheaper, split four ways, than it would be for us to have taken the Shinkansen, or even Route 4 or Route 45.
Upon arriving, we immediately checked into our hotel, located near the Sendai train station and after carefully throwing our luggage across the room, headed out to experience what Sendai had to offer.
The cost for lodging for two nights totaled $150 per person and provided us with breakfast and immediate walking access to the downtown area.
Friday night was dedicated to meeting four of our local friends for an intimate dinner at an izakaya. Typically, izakayas offer an "all you can eat and drink" period for a reasonable price, so of course there were lots of chopsticks clashing for food, glasses being "kanpai'd" and laughs to be shared. The eight of us conversed about things like music, our work and the reason why mayonnaise is so popular here (we never figured it out). After a few hugs and "mata ne's" (see you later), we parted ways and headed back to the hotel.
Cost of dinner and drinks totaled $50.
Saturday was our busiest day. Starting early, and with a collective headache between all four of us, we decided to explore some of Sendai's historical side: Aoba Castle, located on the outskirts of the city.
Although most of the castle was destroyed in World War II, the remaining pieces offered a glimpse at what feudal-era Sendai once was - a regal and defensive stronghold during a period of warring clans. The area of the city where the castle stands also provided an amazing view of Sendai that we all were collectively amazed by.
Ticket fees for Castle and shrine entry ran around $8, along with $6 taxi fare.
After our brief but enlightening visit to the past, we sprinted faster than the Shinkansen to our most anticipated event of the day - baseball.
Entering Miyagi Stadium, we were hit by a sensory-overload with scarlet and gold banners, pennants, smells of grilled baseball-field snacks like takoyaki (balls of dough filled with octopus and other vegetables), and the deafening sound of cheers for the home team Rakuten Eagles. Although it wasn't quite the baseball we were used to back in the United States, the theatrics and energy of the Japanese fans and players quickly alleviated our feeling of homesickness and we quickly found ourselves rooting for the home team.
Tickets, food, souvenirs and, of course, a taxi ride totaled $150.
Throats sore from cheering, adrenaline pumping, stomach slightly queasy, our group decided to cap off the night with a stroll around the downtown district for some shopping and nightlife fun.
Our destinations for the night: Chuo-dori and Kokubuncho.
Chuo-dori is a large shopping district centered in the downtown area, frequented by flurries of people. Covered by a skylight and littered with more clothing shops, restaurants, gift shops and bars than you can imagine, the street offers something for every sort of customer. Deciding it would have been better to see in the daytime, but not before spending some yen on trinkets, we proceeded to our next stop.
After playing the role of traditional tourist, we made our way to Kokubuncho, the entertainment capital of Sendai's downtown area. Neon-lit, vaguely seedy, crowded with people of all styles and buzzing with the sound of club music and "irrashaimase" (welcome); we knew we were in the right place to find some fun.
Five games of darts, four different restaurants, three hours of dancing, two phone numbers collected and one taxi ride later, my group, tired, full of good food and memories called Saturday a success and welcomed the idea of Sunday's adventure.
Sunday greeted us with an early check-out time and fresh towels. Unable to take advantage of the towels, we bid farewell to our hotel and to central Sendai and headed to our last stop of the weekend: Matsushima.
Matsushima, located approximately 30 minutes from Sendai is one of the Nihon Sankei, or "Japan's three great sights", and rightfully so. Matsushima is a beautiful port area filled with over 250 pine tree coated islands; some dotted with micro-shrines, others with Torii gates.
Although on a time crunch, our group made sure to visit the Zuiganji, one of Tohoku's most important Buddhist temples. The $8 entrance fee included a tour of the temple and surrounding ruins. It was an easy purchase to make and a no-brainer as to why it's revered as an important landmark of the area.
With a successful vacation to the Miyagi Prefecture under our belts, we fought for seats one last time, conversed with each other in Japanese and exclaimed "tanoshikatta" (it was fun), before gearing ourselves up for the drive back home to Misawa Air Base.
After everything was said and done, the cost of our trip totaled approximately $350. The scenic drive to Sendai was pleasant, the sights and downtown lived up to their expectations and the reprieve from our collective daily routines was much needed.
I encourage all of you to experience a little of Japan while you're here. Whether it's trying sushi for the first time, or bravely venturing to parts unknown, you'll always be welcomed with a friendly smile and helping hand by our partners in the Land of the Rising Sun.