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With a speedy bullet train link from the capital, it’s easy to add a Sendai day trip or overnight stay onto your Tokyo adventure.
Tokyo is full to bursting with only-in-Japan experiences, from fresh sashimi breakfasts in Tsukiji to Tokyo Tower views, and centuries-old gardens with a backdrop of giant skyscrapers. But to really get to know this enigmatic country, you’ll need to venture beyond the capital – and beyond the popular Golden Route, too.
Only one percent of overseas visitors went to Miyagi prefecture in 2019 but, with its speedy shinkansen link to Tokyo, it’s an accessible destination for diving deeper into Japanese culture. Take a trip north to add serene spiritual sights and nighttime illuminations, plus wine and whisky tastings to your itinerary.
Start your trip to Japan’s capital by visiting one of its most beloved sights – Tokyo Tower. Built in 1958, it remains the second-tallest structure in Japan, as well as a popular date spot. Urban legend has it that, if you and your partner see the illuminations turn off at midnight, you’ll be happy together.
To boost your chances of relationship success, head up to the Main Deck (150m), where you’ll find one of the city’s highest shrines. Write your wish on a heart-shaped ema (wooden tablet) or pick up an omamori (amulet) for luck in love.
At around 250m high, the Top Deck offers even more impressive views, from the sleek Skytree to Rainbow Bridge spanning the bay. For the best chance of seeing Mount Fuji, visit on a clear morning in January or February.
Opened in 2022, RED° TOKYO TOWER adds three floors of interactive fun. It’s a showcase of Japan’s world-leading technology, with immersive AR and VR games, e-motorsports using actual race-car frames, and the largest e-sports park in the country. It makes Tokyo Tower an even more attractive date spot – so long as you don’t get too competitive during the red light, green light games reminiscent of a certain Korean TV thriller…
Azabu-Jūban and Roppongi
The side streets of Azabu-Jūban are packed with hidden restaurants, chic cocktail bars and live music venues. Hanabusa makes a perfect lunch spot, serving course menus and a la carte dishes focused on unagi (eel), served either in an umami-rich sauce or simply grilled (shirayaki). Though the food and hospitality here is traditional, the building itself is the pinnacle of Azabu-Jūban cool, with concrete walls and a small garden of succulents out front.
For dessert, head to nearby Azabu Yasaigashi, where you can try cakes and traditional sweets made with vegetables. Tanuki Senbei (founded 1928) and Mamegen (founded 1865) are ideal stops for snacks and souvenirs, with an impressive range of rice crackers and nuts.
A short walk away, Mohri Garden provides a moment of calm in the bustling Roppongi Hills complex, home to high-end shops, restaurants and one of Tokyo’s most prominent art museums. The planting in this Japanese garden means that there’s something to admire in each season – not to mention skyscraper-framed views of Tokyo Tower.
Round out your day with dinner at Gonpachi, the restaurant made famous by Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill. The lantern-strung wooden interior is as memorable as the food, which includes set menus of Japanese dishes like crispy tempura, skewers of meat and fish, and tangy pickles.
Since this slice of bayside land was reclaimed in the mid-seventeenth century, there has always been a garden at Hama Rikyū. First, it belonged to the samurai rulers (shōgun), then the Imperial Family; finally in 1946 it was opened to the public. Today it’s a piece of old Edo in modern Tokyo, an elegant stroll garden of manicured pine trees and seawater pools set against a backdrop of glittering high-rises.
Not far away is Tsukiji, previously the site of Tokyo’s fish auctions (now held in Toyosu) and still one of the city’s best spots for fresh seafood. Weave your way through the Outer Market’s narrow alleys, packed with kitchenware shops and restaurants, until you reach Tsukiji Sushisay. Grab a counter seat upstairs and watch the chefs prepare your food, admiring their ability to keep on top of rolling orders without a single note, as your belly begins to rumble.
After lunch, ride a couple of stops on the driverless Yurikamome elevated monorail to Hinode, from where the futuristic Hotaluna water taxi runs up the Sumida River to Asakusa.
Charter a jinrikisha (rickshaw) to get a sense of Asakusa. Your rickshaw driver will explain the neighbourhood’s historic sights, then pause at the perfect place to see Skytree across the river. And what’s more, they’ll do this all while running and pulling you behind them – entertaining, educational, and an impressive display of athleticism.
Asakusa’s unmissable sight is Sensō-ji, Tokyo’s oldest temple. The approach takes you through two monumental wooden gates with huge red lanterns, and along the densely packed Nakamise-dōri. Though this shopping avenue has its fair share of tourist trinkets, just peek down the side streets or further back in the overstuffed stalls and you’ll find some real gems.
Save a couple of hundred yen for offerings at the temple – which has stunning ceiling murals – and to buy an omikuji (fortune). If your luck is bad, you can simply tie the paper slip to a branch and leave it behind you…
From Asakusa, make your way to the Nihonbashi district. The bridge for which it’s named is still the zero marker for the highway network – just as it has been since the seventeenth century. This bustling commercial district is home to all sorts, from Japan’s original department store, the upscale Mitsukoshi, to tiny izakaya pubs popular with local office workers.
Kappou Shimamura has been open since 1850, and many of its recipes remain unchanged. You can try kappou cuisine here, a multi-course style of dining which originated as a more relaxed, casual version of kaiseki. It focuses on seasonality, and you can often see the chefs working in an open kitchen, where they prepare anything from grilled fish to crispy tempura or delicate yuba.
With its proximity to Tokyo Station’s transport links, Nihonbashi is a convenient and comfortable place to stay. Mitsui Garden Hotel Nipponbashi Premier is a great option, with multiple restaurants, Japanese-style baths and views of Tokyo Skytree from many of the rooms.
Spiritual sights in Sendai
Start your next day early with a stroll through Nihonbashi to Tokyo Station. From here, catch one of Japan’s famous shinkansen (bullet trains) to Sendai, whisking you over 300km in just an hour and a half. Pick up an ekiben – a bentō lunchbox – to enjoy while you watch the scenery whip past.
Having arrived in Sendai, you have a few options. You could explore its samurai past, especially its links with the one-eyed warrior Date Masamune. You could also head off in search of local delicacies like sasa-kamaboko (fish cakes shaped like bamboo leaves) or gyū-tan (beef tongue, often charcoal grilled), or explore Sendai’s spiritual side.
Around 35 minutes from the station by bus (25 by taxi) is the serene Sendai Daikannon statue, which stands at an impressive 100m tall. You can go inside this colossal white structure which is one of the ten tallest statues in the world.
While the Sendai Daikannon was only constructed in 1991, Jogi Nyorai Saihoji Temple has been around for 800 years. With its precincts stretching across a mountainside, it invites visitors to contemplate nature in complete serenity. Pause to admire the five-storied pagoda and the sumptuous decoration in the Hon-dō (main hall), and to enjoy matcha at Yasuragi Teahouse, overlooking a koi pond. You can make it here within 40 minutes by car from Sendai Daikannon or in an hour from Sendai Station.
Around the temple are several shops and restaurants catering to the needs of pilgrims and travellers. Be sure to try the warming light local favourites, sankaku-age (deep-fried tofu) and yakimeshi (grilled miso rice ball) that are served fresh on the approach to the temple. For something more substantial, go for a generous serving of imoni udon (chewy noodles in a hearty meat and root vegetable broth) at Hayatomi.
Wine and whisky
About twenty minutes’ drive from Jogi Nyorai Saihoji Temple (or an hour by bus or train from Sendai station) is Nikka Whisky Miyagikyo disitillery. The fascinating tours here explain why the natural setting is so important for producing good whisky. You’ll be shown the hand-made barrels used to age the whisky, each of which lasts around 50 years, as well as the richly scented room where huge copper stills work their magic. And, of course, tours always end with a tasting…
A further twenty minutes by car (45 by bus from Sendai) is Akiu Winery. Founded after the earthquake and tsunami of 2011, the winery works in cooperation with farmers and food producers throughout Migayi to promote the region’s local produce. Owner Mohri Motochika founded Terroage Tohoku to link up food and drink businesses throughout the region, run training programmes and set up events.
As well as its growing gastronomic scene, Akiu Onsen is one of Japan’s three major imperial hot springs and has plenty going for it in terms of nature and culture. A kilometre-long trail runs the length of Rairaikyō Gorge, known for its canyon, beautiful giant rocks and small heart-shaped pool. It’s no surprise that this is regarded as a sacred place for lovers. Tenshūkaku Nature Park has annual evening illuminations which artistically light up the autumn foliage and dramatic rock formations.
Book into one of the onsen hotels for one night and make your way back to Sendai City, where you can enjoy set menus of sashimi over rice at Matsushima restaurant for the complete experience, before taking a comfortable shinkansen ride back to Tokyo.
Head over to TOHOKU x TOKYO to find out more and discover fascinating travel routes that allow you to take in both the iconic sights of Tokyo and the beautiful natural scenery and historical sites of the Tohoku region.