As usual, I check into the Sendai City Hotel on Bansui Dori, one of the best deals in town: It sits on the edge of the Kokubuncho entertainment district, has a Christian church opposite for easy penance if things get out of hand, and newly-refurbished single rooms start from a comfortable ¥3,500. The Irish pub that was next door the last time I was here has been replaced by yet another konbini (convenience store) that faces off against an almost identical one across the road, and next to the new one is a brand-new Don Quijote discount megastore that makes the Tokyo branches seem like corner shops. Here I buy crucial things I forgot to bring — a CD player, bottles of mineral water and a nurse’s uniform.
Across the road from Don Quijote and into Kokubuncho, I take the first left to the tiny Okinawa-themed izakaya (Japanese-style pub) Kaminari Kazoku (Thunder Family). I know Sendai is renowned for it’s gyutan (cow-tongue) restaurants, but I’d have to be severely water-boarded by a team of crack CIA torturers in Dick Cheney’s basement for a week before I’d eat a mammal.
Kaminari Kazoku’s always my first stop in Sendai, just for the sensational sasami (chicken breast) smothered in an umeboshi (sour plum)-flavored cream sauce. It’s the best yakitori I’ve tasted in Japan — the immediate hit of the sour plum slowly overcome by the sweet cream to leave a delicately sweet taste in the mouth that lingers until you gargle with a glass of awamori (Okinawa sake) from the izakaya’s regal collection.
In Kokubuncho, I bemoan the recent ban on bar girls and besuited guys pimping customers on the street. It’s now like being in a sci-fi movie where some weird alien plague has wiped everyone out — and all that remains are the photos of the big-haired, garishly madeup hostesses in the windows, reminding me of collections of exotic pinned butterflies.
But Kokubuncho, like every single street in central Sendai, is certain to be its old wild self during the Tanabata Festival, which is held Aug. 6-8 and is the biggest and most extravagant Tanabata celebration in Japan. An estimated 2 million people throng the streets (pretty impressive considering Sendai boasts a 1 million population), eating and drinking at hordes of yatai (food stalls), enjoying outdoor music shows, street processions and immense firework displays. It’s the perfect time to visit.
During the Tanabata Festival (which commemorates the romance of two celestial stars), famous artists (last year including J-poppers Melody, Ayaka and Bonnie Pink) play on the permanent outdoor stage at Kotodai Koen, which is a 15-minute walk into the center from my Kokubuncho base. Kotodai Koen is also a venue for the Jozenji Street Jazz Festival (Sept. 13-14 this year), where almost any band (jazz or otherwise; although they don’t like hardcore punk) can play on Sendai’s streets if they apply for a license.
This March day, the park is virtually empty. There’s an old man selling “pigeon food” for ¥100 beside a sign urging people not to feed the flying vermin, and a snowy-whiskered hobo in a scarlet waistcoat dancing on a bench and ushering out a tune with a warm Jim Morrison-like baritone.
Nishikicho Koen — another park a few minutes down the road — is always quiet except when it’s packed with revelers for what townsfolk call their Oktoberfest beer festival (despite the fact it’s held Aug. 22-31). It has more grass than Kotodai Koen, making it a pleasant sojourn in the summer and in the arms of a lover. If you’re a man and the girls of Kokubuncho don’t take your fancy, however, then take a train ride to Tsutsujigaoka Koen, where you can wander under the cherry trees humming a George Michael song in the hope of attracting a new (wink-wink) “friend.”
Having little money to squander in the pleasure palaces in Kokubuncho, I eat at the hambagu restaurant Hachi, just around the corner from Don Quijote on Hirose Dori, where you get a superb 300-gram tofu burger with vegetables and roast potatoes for ¥1,260 (for an extra ¥315, you can eat as much rice and slurp as much miso soup until you explode; and they do takeout). Back at the hotel I open a bottle of rotgut and let my mind marinate in thoughts of Masamune Date (1567-1636), the Samurai lord who put Sendai on the map.
He’s standing outside a club called Heaven clad in a smart brown pinstripe suit and trilby. He’s smoking a cigarette and looking right at me. He tosses the butt to the ground, reaches up, plucks out his right eye and flips the marble-shaped thing up in the air before catching it and letting out a hearty laugh. With his good eye, he winks at me and cocks a finger toward’s Heaven’s neon sign. “Jesus put me on the guest list. Are you on the list?” he asks. “I don’t know,” I reply, shaking my head.
Next morning, I drink beer with a blond-haired punk-rock girl called Miho out front of the hotel and tell her how I met Masamune Date outside Heaven. She laughs but then adds, “There is actually a Club Heaven in Sendai. Fujio Yamaguchi, the guitarist of Murahachibu (one of my all-time favorite Japanese bands, about whom Miho and I had been talking), played there. Heaven puts on punk bands and reggae nights.”
“Interesting,” I say. “Well, I guess I’m gonna have to go there. Just to round off this trip.”
“I’ll take you on that trip,” she promises.
One of the most arse-kicking samurai Japan has ever known, Masamune Date hadn’t been there to greet me at Sendai Station when I’d arrived the day before. Instead, he’d installed a Christian choir in the foyer to remind me that Jesus was ready to save my soul this Easter weekend. But there’s no getting away from Masamune in Sendai. You want Radio Date! Sendai’s radio station is called Date FM. Then there are the miniature statues of him atop street lights, his face adorning bottles of sake, and the crescent moon-shaped motif he wore on his helmet is a big art piece crowning Miyagi Stadium’s architecture.
The statue of him on a horse, which I’d been expecting at the station, had been moved the week before to Iwadeyama town in Osaki City as part of the Sendai-Miyagi Destination Campaign. As Masamune is the main draw, he’s been sent off on his horse to tour northern Miyagi Prefecture to lure more tourists to Sendai.
Masamune would have approved. Although he got off to a bad start in life when he lost the sight in his right eye due to smallpox, he didn’t let that do him over. Instead he ripped the eye out of the socket, beat the crap out of a bunch of warlords, built Sendai into the northern capital it now is and went on to rule a huge swath of land in northern Japan. He was nicknamed Dokuganryu (One-Eyed Dragon), but he did have a softer, more edifying side. Masamune loved Zen poetry, adored music, and was open to foreigners and their philosophies. He stood up for Christian missionaries who were being hounded in Japan, and he may have converted to Christianity himself, although there’s no hard evidence backing this. But he did send an envoy to Rome to see the pope.
Sendai was flattened by U.S. bombers in 1945, but now wide keyaki (zelkova) tree-lined avenues and spacious arcades dominate the center, killing the kind of claustrophobia that can drive you to self-harm walking down any street in central Tokyo. But now Sendai is being rebuilt, or you could say destroyed, again.
I’m taking a picture of a building being demolished at the end of a yokocho (back alley) beside the Sun Mall Street arcade when an old guy wearing a sugegasa (sedge hat) shading most of his face shuffles up behind me. “It’s worrying,” the stranger murmurs gruffly. “Sendai seems to be becoming more Tokyo-fied.” He tells me the fabled ramen shop next to Sendai Station that sold delicious banana-stuffed gyoza (dumplings) is gone. Like many of its neighbors. Lots of charming small shops have been demolished to make way for a huge new Parco department store, due to open in the autumn. (Later, Miho tells me that — small mercies — a Club Quattro music venue will open inside the new Parco to add to the Shibuya and Shinsaibashi ones.) “There’s also another two skyscrapers going up on the west side of the station,” the old man says. “And a big theater, Gekidan Shiki, is being built on the east side. I really hope they won’t knock down Fujisaki (a famous old Sendai department store) and other old Sendai yokocho. God forbid.”
I look behind me, but the old man has gone. Instead it’s Miho. Today her hair is red. We stroll down to the lively outdoor market on Asaichi Dori (opposite the station), with its fresh and unbelievably cheap fish and vegetables and famous korokke (croquette) shop Saitou Souzai Ten, and I wonder how long this place has left before being replaced by a five-floor supermarket. And how long will it be before Sendai’s famous hyotan-age (fish balls on a stick) shops give way to yet more American burger joints. The old culture is being eroded and will one day just be a dream you read about on Web sites — like the legend that is Masamune Date.
The bright lights of the Don Quijote shop cast a dark crimson glow over my hotel room as I lie on the bed looking at the nurse’s uniform.
Part 2, which appears next week, includes a trip to Matsushima, one of the Nihon Sankei (Japan’s three most beautiful sites), a meeting with another famous Sendai son, and a “final showdown” with Masamune Date. Sendai takes between 90 minutes and 2 hrs to reach from Tokyo by train, and tickets are approximately ¥11,000 each way. Kaminari Kazoku, (0222) 227-5853. Hachi’s Web site address is www.maido-8.com, and it also has a branch near Sendai Airport.