Tokyo and Sendai: Two Capitals Where the Past and Present Co-Exist

Tokyo and Sendai are the largest cities in their respective regions of Kanto and Tohoku. While both cities boast impressive populations and vibrant urban landscapes, nature, history, and culture still prevail in the modern day and are cherished by locals and visitors alike. Make the most of both cities with this three-day itinerary that explores the modern and traditional sides of Tokyo and Sendai, offering an exciting and enriching experience of Japan's contrasting charms.

*This article is sponsored by Tokyo Tokyo.

Where to Stay: Mitsui Garden Hotel Nihonbashi PREMIER

With over 3,000 hotels in Tokyo alone and far more throughout the country, it can be hard to choose where to stay. For this trip, our writer Alex stayed in Mitsui Garden Hotel Nihonbashi PREMIER in Tokyo. Here’s what he had to say:

“The big, fluffy beds and spacious rooms coddled me as I returned to the hotel after each long day of exploration, and the breakfast, featuring both Western and Japanese options, charged me up before I set out. If you’re coming in from the airport or taking the shinkansen in and out of the city, Tokyo Station is only a 10-minute walk away, which really comes in clutch for early departures or late arrivals. But for me, the best part of my stay was the big, steamy bath on the 9th floor that melted my stress away and left me relaxed and ready to embrace the next day.”

Day 1

About Tokyo

As of 2023, just over 14 million people live in the city of Tokyo. To put it in perspective, that’s roughly 11% of Japan’s entire population, creating a wild and diverse culture that is fast-paced and continuously evolving. Its rise to become one of the biggest world metropolises is stunning considering its history stretches back just around 400 years.

Despite its rapid urbanization, Tokyo has put significant effort into the preservation of historical districts like Yanaka and Nezu, allowing pockets of tradition and culture to flourish amidst urban development. Nature is also still very much present, with havens such as the Hama-rikyu Gardens exemplifying Tokyo’s commitment to live alongside nature despite the hustle and bustle of modern life.

How to Get to Tokyo

・Getting to Tokyo by Plane

There are two airports that service Tokyo: Narita International Airport and Haneda Airport. While Narita is a little further out from the city center than Haneda, both airports see hundreds of flights both internationally and domestically each day and can be easily reached by bus or train directly from a number of places within the city.


・Getting to Tokyo by Train

Whether you're arriving from the bustling metropolises of Osaka or Kyoto or exploring the serene beauty of rural Japan, Tokyo's extensive network of rail connections ensures that the heart of Japan is never out of reach via rail, express train, or the shinkansen!


Start your Tokyo journey by having the time of your life!

Having just opened in April of 2022, RED° TOKYO TOWER is one of Japan’s largest eSports parks, and feels like the future is here and now. It takes up the 1st, 3rd, 4th, and 5th floors of Tokyo Tower’s FootTown and commands 5,600 square meters of space for games, excitement, and thrills.

Combining unique physical challenges with the most cutting-edge technology of today, such as VR and projection mapping, the hybrid arcade hosts two next-generation eSports arenas, motor sports simulators, mind sports such as poker, and even a cafe and bar.

Tokyo Tower Top Deck Tour

Since you’re at Tokyo Tower anyway, why not go all the way to the top?

Seeing Tokyo from the sky down really puts into perspective just how big Tokyo is and how small we are in comparison. Looming over the city at 250 meters tall, the Top Deck Observatory of Tokyo Tower was renovated and reopened to the public in 2018.

After transferring elevators at the main deck, you’ll be given an audio guide available in 13 languages, a welcome drink, and a friendly smile from one of the lovely Top Deck attendants who will teach you about the history of the broadcasting tower as well as what treasures are tucked away in the city’s panoramic skyline.

Lunch: Azabu-Juban Hanabusa

A relaxing 20-minute stroll from Tokyo Tower is the charming restaurant Hanabusa in the Azabu-Juban neighborhood. The atmosphere is simple and minimalistic, but the attention to detail and flavor is complex and ornate.

They are known for their eel dishes, cooked using the “jiyaki” method where the eel is slowly grilled without any steaming, ensuring a beautifully crisp exterior and soft, flaky interior. No part of the eel goes to waste, as even the spine is fried and served as a crunchy appetizer.

Walking Around Azabu-Juban

Walk off your full stomach by exploring the Azabu-Juban neighborhood which is a perfect mix of new meets old. Here, you’ll find long-standing shops with lines of loyal customers, as well as boutiques run by dreamers who hope to make it big in the heart of Tokyo.

One of the fun activities you can do is “snack hop” - jumping between sweets and snacks shops to sample the local flavors. Senbei, candy-dipped nuts, and Mont Blanc cakes are just some of the tasty delicacies you can find tucked away in this trendy neighborhood. Keep your eyes peeled as some of the best shops are the most hidden!

Mohri Garden

Azabu-Juban eventually bleeds into the Roppongi district. Although Roppongi is best known for its nightlife and shopping, calm lies in the eye of the storm. Built some 350 years ago, Mohri Garden is straddled between skyscrapers and preserves the traditional charm of a lost era.

Like much of Tokyo, the line between the present and the past is blurred - for example, 10,000 Japanese rice fish that are descendants of the ones born aboard the Space Shuttle Colombia in 1994 call the garden pond home!

Dinner: Gonpachi Nishi-Azabu

Calling all fans of Quentin Tarantino! End your day with this restaurant that inspired the set for the iconic “House of Blue Leaves” fight scene from the film Kill Bill.

Gonpachi is popular with both tourists and locals, and the bilingual staff easily accommodate those with dietary restrictions, which can be challenging to navigate in Japan. The menu features a slew of classic Japanese dishes such as grilled fish and sushi, reimagined in the modern day. On Sundays from 8:00 PM, you can expect a lively, boisterous “taiko” drum performance as you dine.

Day 2

Hama-rikyu Gardens

Start day two of your Tokyo journey fresh by basking in nature.

Despite being surrounded by towering skyscrapers, it’s easy to find yourself lost in the ever-verdant gardens of the Hama-rikyu Gardens. Once a feudal lord’s residence, it became a villa for the imperial family post Meiji Restoration and today, it is open to the public as a soothing oasis amid the looming heights of the city.

One of the most fascinating features of the garden is that the canals that feed into the pond are actually channeled directly from the sea, resulting in aquatic residents that are usually only found in the ocean, such as the flathead grey mullet or Japanese black porgy.

Lunch: Tsukiji Sushisei Shinkan

After strolling the gardens and working up an appetite, head on over to Tsukiji Outer Market for some lunch.

While there is no shortage of good seafood at this popular seafood market, Tsukiji Sushisei Shinkan is hard to beat - if you don’t have a reservation, you may find yourself lining up down the block for a bite!

Sushi fresh from the sea is prepared right before you at this restaurant. To ensure that the sushi is at its maximum freshness, the chef will only prepare and serve each piece as soon as you’re done with the last one. Talk about a personal touch!

Tokyo Cruise (Hinode Pier - Asakusa Route)

The subway, trains, taxis, and buses are typically what come to mind when it comes to transportation in Tokyo. But did you know that you can hop aboard a water bus and make your way all the way to the other side of town?

It’s a bit away, but head over to Hinode Pier, where you can take the Tokyo Cruise directly to Asakusa. The voyage only departs five times per day and takes roughly 40 minutes.

Still, the spectacular views of Tokyo from sea level and the oceanic breeze in your hair might just become one of your more memorable moments during your Tokyo adventure.

Rickshaw Around Asakusa

Though most people explore Asakusa on foot, we recommend splurging a bit on a rickshaw. Zoom down the streets of Asakusa while listening to your rickshaw driver tell you about the rich and deep history of the area!

Rickshaws became popular as a means of transportation at the start of the Meiji Period. Despite the invention of the car and train, they still linger as an exciting tourist activity for you to try when you visit Asakusa.

Wind, rain, snow, or shine, the muscular rickshaw drivers tout anywhere between 5-10 groups of tourists a day for 30-90 minutes at a time. Despite each rickshaw weighing as much as 250 kg, they never seem to break a sweat!

Sensoji Temple

Sensoji is just one of those places that just never really loses its magic, no matter how many times you visit.

As Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist temple, the legend of Sensoji reaches back to the year 628 when a golden Kannon statue was pulled out of the nearby Sumida River. Today, it is not just the most visited temple in Japan, but one of the most frequented spiritual sites in the world!

Explore the colorful Nakamise Shopping Street, shoot stunning pictures of the Five-Storied Pagoda, and pray at the Main Hall. For those looking to beat the crowds, try checking out the temple at night.

Dinner: Kappo Shimamura

Having just visited Sensoji, you may feel like you have taken a step back in time. Historic restaurant Kappo Shimamura keeps that vibe going with its incredible menu that has remained largely unchanged since its founding in 1850.

While well known for their tiger pufferfish dishes, their other menu items are definitely worth looking into as they ensure only the freshest ingredients make it to the table. Of particular note are their kaiseki course meals which change with the seasons, ensuring that there is always something unique and exciting to try with each visit.

Day 3

About Sendai

While Sendai may not be as well-known as Tokyo, it's a vibrant city that plays a significant role in the cultural and economic landscape of the northern Tohoku Region. Originally established as a castle town in the early 17th century, Sendai has grown into a dynamic city of over a million people and serves as the capital of Miyagi Prefecture. It's a place where historical treasures coexist with bustling shopping districts and exciting nightlife, offering visitors and residents a taste of the city's diverse culture.

It’s rather spread out, so our writer traveled by car for the duration of their visit and we recommend you do the same if you want to explore everything in one day!

How to Get to Sendai

・Getting to Sendai from Tokyo

The easiest way to get to Sendai from Tokyo is the Hayabusa Shinkansen on the Tohoku Shinkansen Line. Reaching a max speed of 320 km/h, the Hayabusa is the fastest bullet train in Japan and will take you from Tokyo to Sendai Station in just a little over an hour and a half.

Sendai Daikannon

Although Sendai is one of Japan’s largest cities, past the initial downtown area, there are not many tall skyscraper-type buildings as compared to Tokyo. That isn’t to say that the city’s skyline is flat, though, as the Sendai Daikannon sticks out like a sore thumb with its striking height of 100 meters. You won’t be able to resist the temptation to check it out, which is why we have it first on the Sendai itinerary!

While normally a sheer white, it was looking pretty in pink when our writer went as it was undergoing some restoration. Make sure to also go inside and up to the top floor to admire the many other Buddhist statues inside.

Jogi Nyorai Saihoji Temple

Despite its secluded location deep in the mountains, people have been coming to Jogi Nyorai Saihoji Temple to pray for all sorts of things for over 800 years, from easy childbirth to a successful business. It houses a sacred scroll painted with the image of the Amida Buddha, called the “Jogi Nyorai,” which is only revealed to the public five times a year.

Outside of these times, there’s still plenty worth seeing, such as its Five-Storied Pagoda (pictured above) which was built as a Buddhist symbol for the eternal peace of all humanity.

Lunch: Hayatomi

Just around the corner from Jogi Nyorai Saihoji Temple, Hayatomi is a cute local dive that, judging by the amount of customers, is a clear town favorite. Specializing in noodle dishes such as imoni udon (rich udon noodle dish topped with taro and other veggies, pictured above), everything comes in massive quantities, and with one bite, you can tell they’re made with love.

If you have any room after lunch, try the area’s local specialty, aburaage, which is a type of deep-fried triangular soybean and salt curd. Best paired with garlic shichimi, the crisp of the skin and the juicy inside is hard to top on a cool fall day!

Nikka Whisky Miyagikyo Distillery

Nikka is a popular brand of whisky in Japan that has gained plenty of recognition overseas as well in recent years.

In 1969, Masataka Taketsuru, the father of whisky in Japan and the founder of Nikka, erected a whisky distillery in the mountains of Sendai due to its pristine environment and pure water. Fans of whisky can visit this distillery today and learn about the history of whisky in Japan, the distillation process, and even sample a few glasses as well!

The gift shop sells exclusive products, so it’s also a great place to explore if you’re looking for a great gift to bring home.

Rairaikyo Gorge

Rairaikyo Gorge is a hidden gem just waiting to be discovered by nature enthusiasts and adventurers alike. As you traverse its winding trails and wooden bridges, you'll be greeted by the soothing sounds of the river that meanders through the rocky terrain.

The gorge is particularly stunning during the fall when the foliage transforms into a bright tapestry of red and gold, creating a mesmerizing contrast against the rugged cliffs.

Akiu Winery

Just 30 minutes away from Sendai’s city center, Akiu Winery was established in 2015 to help support Miyagi Prefecture’s agricultural and tourism industries after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami.

Indulge in a sample of some of the winery’s finest starting from a paltry 200 yen for a small glass of wine and 400 yen for a large. For those who don’t drink, the winery also sells all sorts of local products such as cured meats, cheese, and craft soft drinks. It’s very close to Rairaikyo, so it’s a great rest stop after hiking through the gorge.

Tenshukaku Natural Park (Akiu Night Museum)

Stunning, spectacular - these are just some of the words you might use when you visit Tenshukaku Natural Park at night.

This Edo-style strolling garden sitting just a bit away from the winery radiates nothing but tranquility during the day, but at night in the autumn, lights transform this natural space into a magical fantasy land as part of the Akiu Night Museum event.

Trees look almost like rainbows, rocks glow in the dark, and ponds are illuminated with the reflection of the lights suspended from above. There’s even a foot bath that you can relax in while taking in this wondrous autumnal sight.

Dinner: Matsushima

As you wait for your train ride back to Tokyo (or whatever your next destination may be), make sure to stop at the restaurant Matsushima within Sendai Station for a steaming bowl of “harako meshi.” It is a bowl of rice cooked in a salmon and soy sauce-infused broth, topped with cooked salmon belly and salmon roe.

While travelers come here for the convenience, locals visit due to the delicious food and unrivaled quality of the ingredients. Make sure you eat your fill, because once you head back to Tokyo, harako meshi is going to be hard to find!

Explore the Contrasting Sides of Tokyo and Sendai

Tokyo and Sendai are the perfect representations of Japan’s way of modern life, where the past lives in the present and nature co-exists with humanity. We hope that as you follow this three-day itinerary jam-packed with excitement and fun, you’ll be able to experience these contrasting sides to these two metropolises for yourself.

Inspired to take on Japan’s northern frontier of Tohoku as well as dive deeper into the hidden charms of Tokyo? Check out the Tokyo x Tohoku website to find more exciting itineraries and information about these two wonderful destinations for your next adventure into Japan.


If you want to give feedback on any of our articles, you have an idea that you'd really like to see come to life, or you just have a question on Japan, hit us up on our FacebookTwitter, or Instagram!

The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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About the author

Alexander Litz
Having moved to rural Yamagata Prefecture after junior high school, Alexander bounced around Tokyo, Seoul, and Taipei until he eventually returned to Yamagata, where he carved out a career as a travel writer and tourism professional. A serial traveler, feverous nature enthusiast, and advocate for adventure, Alexander has explored over 40 countries and all 47 prefectures of Japan. He has made it his life’s work to bring sustainable tourism to rural areas in order to promote, protect, and preserve local culture, traditions, and ways of life.
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