Second of two parts
There’s a bible lying in the street outside the church opposite the Sendai City Hotel on Bansui Dori, where I’m staying this Easter weekend. The pages are flicking over in the breeze, inviting me to pick it up and read a random verse. I begin to feel like I’m in “The Da Vinci Code II” and Tom Hanks is about to tap me on the shoulder as I slip it into my pocket and head back to the hotel.
“Sendai is called the City of Trees!” says rotund, jovial driver Morihiro Takahashi as the bus inches its way down a narrow winding mountain road. Crows — Japan’s gothic scourge — swoop scornfully all around, and on one side is a steep drop that would mean certain death if the driver lost control.
“These are walnut trees,” Takahashi says. “In the autumn, the crows wait for the cars to crush the nuts and then eat them. You see, these are the most intelligent crows in Japan because they live in the grounds of Tohoku University over there.” He points over the precipice toward the prestigious college and the tourists burst out laughing at his latest wisecrack. I’m just thinking, “Keep your eyes on the road and your hands on the wheel, mate. I want the crows to stay vegetarian today.”
We’re on Sendai’s Loople bus and a ¥600 one-day pass allows you to jump on and off the buses as they stop at popular spots such as Sendai Castle, Zuihoden Mausoleum, Tohoku University’s Botanical Gardens and the Miyagi Museum of Art, while crossing the splendidly scenic Hirose-gawa River.
Be careful, though. The bus picking up me and my Sendai friend, red-haired punk-rocker Miho, at the mausoleum was 25 minutes late, which meant we had just 10 minutes at the castle before the last bus of the day arrived — which, as it turned out, was 20 minutes late.
“This is Sendai jikan (time) and it’s slooow,” says Miho. “In Sendai, if you say meet at the station at 7, well, 7 will be when Sendai people leave their home to go to the station.”
The Zuihoden Mausoleum enshrines Masamune Date (1567-1636), the iconic one-eyed samurai who founded Sendai. Zuihoden is a stunning structure, covered in gold and with colorful inlays of maidens playing musical instruments that reflect Masamune’s love of the arts and particularly music. In the tiny museum beside it is a model of his skull, examples of spectacles he used, fragments of his bones, and a piece of his hair that looks like an old lump of ganja.
As for Sendai Castle, there might be nothing left of it, but the site where it stood commands a breathtaking view of the city, with the 100-meter-high Nakayama Daikannon Buddha standing out above all else.
After the bus, we stop at the famous Kowameshiya soba-noodle shop in the Ichibancho Shotengai arcade. Miho orders a sekihan (rice with azuki beans) dish because the place is renowned for it, while I opt for my usual tenzaru soba (noodles with tempura prawn and vegetables).
“Last night I had another dream about Masamune Date,” I tell Miho. “I was looking out of the hotel window and there was the One-Eyed Dragon himself standing outside the church wearing a priest’s cassock and beckoning me to come over.”
“That’s hilarious. You’re obsessed.”
“And all this Christian stuff — The Christian singers when I arrived at Sendai Station, the church opposite the hotel, Masamune — who protected Christians — telling me in the dream that Jesus put him on the guest list for Club Heaven and asking whether I’m on the list [see part one]. And then you telling me there is a Club Heaven in Sendai. These are massive coincidences, don’t you think?”
“There’s probably a Club Heaven in every major Japanese city,” deadpans Miho.
“Maybe, but what about the bible?”
“It’s Easter weekend. Someone leaving the church dropped it by accident. You’re trying to link it all into some theme. Why don’t you just write about the pretty tourist sites. Isn’t that what travel writing is all about?”
“Maybe Masamune’s spirit is haunting me,” I say, with an awkward grin. “Trying to warn me I’m going to hell.”
“Tell you what,” says Miho. “I’ll introduce you to another of Sendai’s famous sons, and then you can dream about him instead.”
Sendai Shiro was a familiar figure, ambling around the streets of Sendai at the end of the 19th century. He was as fat as a sumo star, had a speech impediment and was always smiling. People called him “Shiro Baka (Shiro the Fool),” but this “village idiot” was touched by the hand of God. Soon townsfolk realized that the various izakaya (Japanese-style pub) and stores where he loitered would suddenly prosper and that babies he held in his arms would grow up to become fine, robust specimens. Shiro is now regarded as a symbol of good fortune, and stores or homes festooned with his image are said to be visited by his spirit. After Masamune, he’s probably the most famous Sendai personality ever.
Tucked between the chain shops on the Cris Road arcade, a tiny lane leads into the Mitaki Fudosan Shrine, inside of which sits a huge painted statue of Shiro. A woman tending a shop selling Shiro merchandise tells me, “If you touch him you’ll get good luck. Before the pachinko parlors open, this place is packed with gamblers all pawing poor Shiro.”
I touch him and mutter, “One more dream of Masamune please.”
But despite washing myself with lucky Sendai Shiro soap that Miho had bought me, Masamune doesn’t visit that night, and the next morning we take a 30-minute train ride to Matsushima, which is one of the Nihon Sankei (Japan’s top three most beautiful scenic spots) because of the 260-plus islands of all shapes and sizes that dot the bay. I buy a bento (boxed lunch) from Sendai because the izakaya I’ve tried on the Matsushima seafront have been poor and pricey. But do try the superb coffee at Ile Cafe, just outside Matsushima-Kaigan Station.
Cruises around the bay start from ¥1,400 and last about an hour. I ponder paying the ¥200 each to walk across the 252-meter-long Fukuurabashi Bridge, an impressive vermilion-lacquered structure that stretches out to Fukuura Island, but Miho warns: “Sendai people believe the bridge is cursed. If any couple walks over it, they will break up.” I opt not to fork out ¥400 to ruin our budding relationship.
Zuiganji Temple is at the end of a straight 200-meter path that leads from the seafront through a wooded area flanked by clusters of creepy caves in which lie stone images of bodhisattvas. A huge bronze statue of Enmei Jizo, a guardian deity, greets you at the entrance. For your ¥700 entry fee, “national treasures” and “cultural assets” hit you thick and fast. Masamune completed the main Hojo building in 1609, using zelkova and white cedar wood transported from Mount Kumano in Wakayama Prefecture. The rooms inside contain Momoyama-style paintings — elaborate artworks depicting Chinese legends, chrysanthemums painted on gold leaf, etc. A sign beside a dark, dusty old room tells us 20 samurai who killed themselves after Masamune passed away were laid to rest here; it’s a tiny room, so they must have been “Lord of the Rings”-type dwarfs. And there’s the palanquin on which the resident priest was carried to Sendai by four panting retainers during the Edo Period (1603-1867) — a 32-km trip that took them four hours to complete.
The adjoining Entsuin Temple has a beautiful garden, and I write a wish on a wooden enmusubi kokeshi (romantic lucky doll) for ¥500 and add it to thousands more lined up in a small shrine.
We stroll back to the station past Kanrantei tea house, where Masamune used to chill out with his wife and enjoy the incredible view of the ocean and islands, as well as a Japanese gray elm, which, at 35 meters, is reputedly the biggest elm in Miyagi Prefecture and more than 800 years old.
“Do you want to check out the dolphins and penguins at the aquarium over there,” Miho asks.
“I love penguins,” I reply, “but once you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all. It’s my last night, so let’s go back to Sendai and drink beer.”
Makan is a small laid-back joint tucked away in a side street off Sendai’s Sun Mall arcade where chicken satay in peanut sauce and clams in garlic oil are washed down with several draft beers.
“I think it’s time for me to take you to Heaven,” says Miho.
At Club Heaven, garage-rock band The Chocolates are playing and my heart almost stops. The drummer has only one lens in his sunglasses.
“It’s a miracle,” I gasp. “Maybe he’s doing this as a homage to Masamune. Or, even better, maybe he’s actually only got one eye. This wraps up everything perfectly.”
“Maybe his sunglasses just broke on the tour bus and it’s got nothing to do with Masamune,” Miho says, unimpressed.
“It is a miracle!” I shout, and lots of people stare at me.
“You’re drunk,” she says.
I wake up with a hangover from hell. There’s a knock on the door. In walks a woman with bright green hair cascading over her shoulders. She’s wearing a sky-blue and white nurse uniform with a red cross on the front of it.
“How do you like the new color?” asks Miho, as she runs her hand through her hair.
“It goes well with the uniform,” I note.
“I still don’t know why you bought this nurse’s uniform,” she says.
“I didn’t at the time, but now I do.”
“I brought you your medicine, your mukaezake (hair of the dog),” she says, placing a can of Asahi Super Dry on the table. It sits there, next to the bible.
Sendai takes between 90 minutes and 2 hours to reach from Tokyo by train, and tickets are approximately ¥11,000 each way. Makan, (022) 268-1107; Club Heaven, www.blues-heaven.com firstname.lastname@example.org
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