"Fall" in Love with Miyagi
Miyagi is the place to begin any autumn adventure in Tohoku! Sendai is the largest city in the region, and its combination of rich history, enduring culture and beautiful nature provide tons to see and do. It's also the perfect launch pad for exploring the rest of the prefecture, which offers visitors the chance to enjoy incredible food, get off the beaten path and soak in some truly incredible fall sights.
As the largest city in the Tohoku region and the capital city of Miyagi Prefecture, Sendai is arguably the best place to start any autumn adventure in northern Japan. Just an hour and 30 minutes from Tokyo by Tohoku Shinkansen bullet train, Sendai is close enough for a day trip. Combined with the rest of the sites Miyagi has to offer, it’s also deep enough for an extended stay.
Known as the “City of Trees,” Sendai was built in harmony with nature, as evidenced by the lovely zelkova trees that line its main avenues. Though green beyond belief in spring and summer, in autumn they turn a deep scarlet to herald the change in season.
As the seat of power of the famous feudal lord Date Masamune, the incredible historical legacy of the Date Clan can be felt throughout the city. The remnants of Aoba Castle harken back to the age of the samurai, which visitors can experience firsthand at the museum located on the former castle’s grounds. On a hilltop surrounded by massive cedar trees that block out the hustle and bustle of the city lies the Zuihoden Mausoleum—dedicated to Date Masamune himself—a vibrantly colored, beautiful resting place for the clan’s patriarch. In autumn it’s the perfect spot for quiet contemplation among nature, but in summer during the Tanabata Festival the mausoleum is open at night. Lit by paper lanterns, it fills to the brim with spectators eager to glimpse the romantic nighttime scenery.
Culture runs deep in Sendai as well. Besides traditional events like the Tanabata Festival, which is one of Tohoku’s “Three Great Festivals,” Sendai also has a unique local food culture and a vibrant nightlife, as well as hundreds of shops in its covered shotengai shopping malls. Pop out of the chill autumn air for an incredible set meal at one of the many delicious restaurants peddling Sendai’s most famous local specialty, gyutan beef tongue. The thickly-sliced beef tongue is grilled to perfection and accompanied by a hearty helping of rice mixed with barley (mugi gohan), as well as a piping hot serving of simmered oxtail soup.
After eating your fill, why not wander through the winding alleyways of Sendai’s yokocho bar districts and sample some of Tohoku’s award-winning local sake? Cap it all off with a panoramic view of the city in all of its nighttime splendor from the AER Lookout Terrace.
Another fantastic way to brush off the brisk weather that comes with autumn in Miyagi is a visit to the famous Nikka Whisky Distillery. About an hour outside of Sendai proper, it’s easily accessible via the JR Senzan Line and a bus from Kumagane Station. Nikka Whisky was founded by Masataka Taketsuru, who developed a passion for spirits after a pilgrimage to Scotland in 1918. After recognizing the abundance of pure natural springs throughout Miyagi, a distillery was opened in 1969.
The picturesque distillery offers free guided tours of the facility, which includes a complimentary tasting for participants of legal drinking age. While there, be sure to pick up some Miyagi specialties, like the single-malt Miyagikyo, or the Date, a blended whisky named after Masamune.
But what’s a trip to Miyagi without stopping at Matsushima, one of the famously beautiful “Three Views of Japan?” An archipelago comprised of some 260 small islands along the coast, Matsushima is a pine tree-covered paradise only 30 minutes from Sendai via the JR Tohoku Line. Alternately, those who want to get a closer look at the islands that inspired the famous Japanese poet Matsuo Basho can take the JR Senseki Line from Sendai Station to Hon-Shiogama Station, and board a sightseeing cruise to Matsushima. Bundle up, because the breeze from the bay can be a little chilly!
While the bay itself is Matsushima’s most popular attraction, there are also beautiful temples, like Zuiganji Temple and Entsuin Temple. In autumn, Entsuin has an incredible nighttime illumination of the temple grounds, highlighting the unbelievably vibrant colors of the maple trees with dazzling LEDs and stunning projection mapping.
Matsushima is also famous for seafood—especially oysters—so be sure to stop by the Matsushima Fish Market and sample some for yourself!
For those looking to get even more “hands on” with nature, Miyagi has plenty of options. The first is the aptly named Zao Fox Village. Although easily accessible by car, getting there by public transportation requires a bit more planning. Shiroishi Station is only 50 minutes from Sendai via the JR Tohoku Line. From Shiroishi, visitors can ride the Castle Kun Bus—which only operates on Tuesdays and Fridays—to Zao Fox Village, which takes about an hour. The village is home to over 100 free-roaming foxes, as well as other animals such as rabbits and goats. Visitors can feed them, and even cuddle them for a small fee!
There’s also Tashirojima, which is affectionately referred to as “Cat Island,” and getting there also takes a little planning and an early start! First, take the 50-minute ride on the JR Senseki Line from Sendai Station to Ishinomaki Station. From there, buses operate between Ishinomaki Station and the Ajishima Line Ferry Terminal. The ferries to Tashirojima typically depart three times a day, although the schedule changes with the weather.
Although the hundreds of cats of Tashirojima are cared for by the island’s residents and are used to humans, they roam the island freely. There’s a small cat-shaped shrine in the center of the island, and a small campground called “Manga Island” that is available for rental from April to October.
On the way back from Tashirojima, stop by the Ishinomori Manga Museum in Ishinomaki. Dedicated to the legendary manga artist Shotaro Ishinomori—creator of Cyborg 009 and Kamen Rider—the uniquely shaped Manga Museum is an interactive playground that should be at the top of any true manga fan’s to-go list.
On top of the impressive gallery of Ishinomori’s works, the facility has rotating exhibitions of some of manga’s most prolific artists, as well as a movie theater, a huge manga library, a manga-themed café, Kamen Rider games and more.
If you want to truly get off the beaten path, there’s no better way than a trip Kinkasan, a small, spiritual island off the coast that’s dedicated to good fortune. Getting to Kinkasan is an adventure all its own, in part because the ferry that departs from the town of Onagawa only takes a single roundtrip journey to the island each week! The ferry departs from a dock only a 10-minute walk or so from Onagawa Station, which is itself a 25-minute ride on the JR Ishinomaki Line from Ishinomaki Station.
The island is remarkably tranquil, and a short uphill hike through beautiful forestry (with plenty of deer along the way!) leads to Koganeyama Shrine. As a famous power spot that blends the beauty of traditional architecture with nature, it's said that if visitors come to pray at the shrine for three consecutive years they're sure to find fortune, and will have a life free from financial woes.
There are also fountains where visitors can wash their coins, a custom called zeniarai (literally, coin washing), which is also said to bring good luck.
For a one-two punch of breathtaking autumn leaves and incredible Japanese hospitality, you’ll want to visit the Akiu Onsen area. It’s about an hour from Sendai via the JR Senzan Line and a bus from Ayashi Station, and it is well-worth the trip. The ryokan Japanese inns in the area are famous for their alkaline saltwater hot springs, which are said to be therapeutic and are highly relaxing to soak in. The nearby Akiu Falls is designated “Place of Scenic Beauty,” and is arguably most beautiful in autumn.
There’s also the Naruko Onsen, which is further afield but no less beautiful. It’s about two hours and 30 minutes by train to Naruko Onsen Station from Sendai Station via the JR Tohoku Line, with a transfer to the Rikuuto Line at Kogota Station.
While the ryokan in the area give visitors the chance to luxuriate in comfort, the true highlight of the area is the incredible views of fall leaves offered by the Naruko Gorge. The 100 meter ravine (nearly 330 feet) overlooks the Oyagawa River, and the views of the mountainous landscape along the walking path is truly unbelievable.