Sendai’s Surprising Twentieth Century History


IMG_2789Between the introduction of the JR East Welcome Rail Pass 2020 catering to foreigners resident in Japan and JR East’s week-end and 3-day passes already available for anyone, this is a great time to head north. Sendai, the largest city in the Tohoku region, is just an hour and a half north of Tokyo by Shinkansen. There’s plenty to see and do in the city and nearby. Let’s look at a couple of lesser-known, but fascinating spots in the city.

Bansui Sodo is the former residence of Doi Bansui (1871-1952), a renowned poet and one of Japan’s earliest professors of English literature. A native of Sendai, Bansui (literati are, by convention, referred to by their given names) developed an early interest in Chinese literature which was, in 19th century Japan, still regarded as the pinnacle of literary studies. Such was his promise that he was able to enroll in Tokyo Imperial University, Japan’s first tertiary institution.

Even as a university student, Bansui was publishing his poems to wide acclaim. After graduating from Tokyo Imperial University in 1897, he was soon established as one of Japan’s greatest modern poets.

In 1900 Bansui returned to Sendai and took up a post at the Sendai #2 High School which became Tohoku Imperial University in 1907, Japan’s third imperial university and a leading center of higher education even today as Tohoku University. He taught there until his retirement, becoming an influential figure with his students.

Bansui was a prolific poet and also wrote and translated on a wide variety of topics. Perhaps best known is his translation of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey from Greek to Japanese.

Bansui’s private life was somewhat tragic. All of his children died as children or young adults; his wife also predeceased him. His home was destroyed during the American air raids on Sendai in July 1945, just weeks before the end of the war.

Bansui was so popular with his former students that they raised funds on his behalf after the war to rebuild his destroyed home albeit on a smaller scale. It is this house, Bansui Sodo, that is now open to the public as a museum.

The house is open, free of charge, from 9:00 to 17:00 Tuesday through Sunday (open on Monday public holidays and closed the following day). There is always a docent available, friendly and enthusiastic but not necessarily English speaking. Still, visitors can get a sense of the quiet life of an elderly man of letters, writing and looking out at his garden.

There are display cabinets containing a number of Bansui’s works, most with at least a little English signage. Visitors may be surprised at his bedroom, containing, as it does, a narrow frame bed, instead of a traditional futon. The docent explained that as Bansui aged, it was easier for him to get in and out of a bed, rather than getting up and down from the floor to sleep on a futon.

About a five minute walk from Bansui Sodo is the Sendai City War Reconstruction Memorial Hall, a history museum in the basement of a city-sponsored performing arts center. Sendai’s war damage seems to have been inflicted mostly in the final weeks of the war, but much of the city’s center was destroyed, which has had a long-term impact.

In the museum, early exhibits show Sendai as a “castle town” as well as its late 19th and early 20th century modernization. There is a clear sense of peace and prosperity.

Then comes the war and life becomes bleaker. Finally, at the end of the war comes the tragic air raids.

In just two hours on July 10, 1945, Sendai was razed. More than 57,000 people’s lives were disrupted by the air raids, including 1,064 dead and 1,683 injured.

Perhaps because the war ended so soon after the air raids, the people of Sendai could quickly focus on the future and begin to rebuild. One could even say the destruction presented an opportunity to modernize the city, building wide city streets that would easily accommodate vehicular traffic and lining those streets with elm trees that have earned the city the moniker “City of Trees”. There is definitely a sense that this city has risen from the ashes.

The museum is open daily from 9:00 to 17:00 (closed over the new year’s holidays). Admission is just JPY120. While the displays don’t include much in English, there is an excellent museum brochure that is a good substitute.

Both of these sites are a short distance from a stop on the Loople Bus, Sendai’s Hop On-Hop Off Tourist bus, which offers excellent value for visitors who want to spend a day exploring Sendai. As a 17th century castle town, there is much more than just 20th century history to explore in Sendai. (More on that another time.)

The Loople Bus day pass is JPY630, or for added flexibility, there is a Sendai and Loople day pass for JPY920. The bus runs every 15 to 20 minutes in a loop past most of Sendai’s most popular sites, taking about 70 minutes to complete a circuit (most visitors start from Sendai Station). Flash the pass at most major destinations (including the War Reconstruction museum) for discounted entry or other discounts.

IMG_2788One last bit of Sendai’s modern history to check out is zunda-flavored cream puffs. Zunda, a sweet treat made of crushed boiled green soy beans (think eda-mame), is a Sendai specialty that has been around since the castle town days. Mixing zunda into the cream pudding filling of cream puffs, however, is definitely a  modern variation on the traditional treat! They are only available at the Beard Papa shop in JR Sendai station and you’re bound to pass through that station if you visit Sendai using one of JR’s great passes!

© 2020 and Vicki L. Beyer
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