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Sendai, the contemporary capital city of ancient Tohoku

With roughly one million inhabitants, Sendai is by far the largest city in the Tohoku region and one of the country’s 15 largest cities. The samurai benefactor Date Masamune (one of feudal Japan’s most powerful lords) is synonymous with founding Sendai in 1600, and his lasting legacy is a ruined castle set in pleasant gardens. Many of Sendai’s tourist attractions are related to Masamune and his family and the city’s samurai history is displayed in well-preserved historical sites and architectural treasures.

Due in part to being bombed heavily during WWII, the city has a modern feel with wide tree-lined boulevards that have a European feel. The compact city center and grid-like streets aligned north-south and east-west allow for easy access on foot to dining and shopping options. Those seeking some retail therapy can check out the upscale Izumi Premium Outlet, or take a short 18-minute train ride to experience the largest outlet shopping center in Tohoku, the 120-store Mitsui Outlet Park. For traditional crafts including kokeshi dolls, stop by Shimanuki, near Sendai Station.

The main shopping and entertainment area is around Ichibancho Avenue, where there is a reasonable selection of shops, bars, cafes, restaurants, and clubs. Finish your day with some fine dining or a few drinks in Kokubuncho, Sendai’s nightlife district packed with over 2,500 bars and restaurants. The nightlife district is impressive for a relatively small city.

Grilled beef tongue, or gyutan, is the local specialty and a must-try for meat-eaters. There are many restaurants specialising in grilled meat and gyutan around the station area. If you’re not in the mood for meat, zunda, a sweet green soybean paste, is the other local favorite and used to top everything from mochi rice to ice cream parfaits. Sendai is the surprising home to a piece of hamburger history. Located among the bustling bars and clubs of Kokubuncho is Hosoya’s Sandwich, possibly Japan’s oldest hamburger restaurant, still serving up classic American-style burgers to this day.

Sendai was the closest major city to the epicenter of the earthquake of March 11, 2011. The tsunami devastated the city’s coastal outskirts but did not cause major damage in the city center. Virtually all tourist spots reopened within a few months of the earthquake.

The city’s wide, tree-lined streets fill up in summer for spectacular Tanabata Matsuri, one of Japan’s most famous festivals. Sendai’s big annual event, the Tanabata festival is held from 6 to 8 August.