New Years in Sendai, Japan

I couldn’t find anywhere to stay in Tokyo over New Years because the entire city was booked, so I improvised and headed to Sendai as a stowaway on a late night train out of Tokyo. I figured that Sendai is off the tourist radar, especially over New Years so it would be easy to find reasonably priced accommodations, and I wanted to see how a regular city in Japan operated over the holiday.

It turned out to be an incredibly memorable New Years: I had Japanese hot pot with a local family, rang in the New Years by going to a local temple with a midnight food market, got a traditional Japanese New Years fortune, and found a local New Years tradition where they weave thousands of small LED lights through the barren branches up and down a street in the city, which made for an incredibly beautiful view at night.

Some of my favorite stories to tell from my entire 6 months solo backpacking trip came from this unexpected stop.

I arrived in Sendai close to midnight. I was starving so I bought a self heating beef tongue bento box at the station before walking about 2 miles to the hostel and settling in for the night.

The next morning I headed out to explore the city. Most places were closed for New Years, so for breakfast I got some steamed buns at the old reliable FamilyMart. Then I wandered aimlessly around, which is my favorite way of exploring new cities. It was clear that this is a very urban, working city, although it felt like a ghost town compared to Tokyo.

By now finding a birds eye view of every big city I go to is tradition, so I did the same in Sendai. I found the tallest high rise, which was an office building in the city center. I went up to the observation deck, it was super clean and eerily empty due to New Years but that also gave it a peaceful feel. I felt like I had a private lounge overlooking Sendai.

A view of Sendai from my little private lounge. I brought some food with me and spent about 2 hours up here eating and enjoying the quiet view.

Walked back to my hostel in the afternoon because there was nothing else to do around the city, and even the locals will tell you that. The streets were very clean, but it didn't have to immaculate 'Wow' factor that the streets in Tokyo did.

At night, the street right behind where I was staying was lit up with thousands of little LED lights adorning the branches of the barren trees along the road. It's a winter festival of sorts that happens each year in Sendai, it's loosely translated to: 'The Pageant of Starlight'. The lights stay on until midnight on New Years Eve.

It was gorgeous walking through the tunnel of light created by the trees, especially with the snow on the ground softening the scene. It felt like something out of a romance movie. I spent a long time slowly walking up and down the street taking photos and taking it all in.

I headed back to my hostel for dinner. The hostel owner had invited their local friends and the handful of people staying there over New Years, for hot pot. There was a guy from Germany, a girl from Austria, a girl from Taiwan, and me from the U.S. along with the hostel owners and their friends from Sendai. We were swapping travel stories, laughing a lot, trying our best to communicate. It was such a cool way to spend New Years Eve!

After hot pot, we chatted some more and watched a crazy New Years variety show together before heading outside to watch the lights go out on the trees. We got there literally 10 seconds before the lights on the trees went out and the normal street lamps came back on, marking the end of 2018. Afterwards we headed over to a nearby temple to ring in the New Year in a traditional Japanese style.

When we got there it was packed. I did not expect this many people, nor the midnight food market! There were vendors up and down the walkway leading to the temple.

If I wasn't so full from the hot pot, I would've tried so many of these things, I love food on sticks.

If I wasn't so full from the hot pot, I would've tried so many of these things, part 2. That cake thing looked so fluffy.

Once we got through the food vendors we lined up to go into the temple area. The lanterns hanging over the temple entrance looked really nice!

Rang in the New Year literally with these bells and the ropes attached to them. I rang it and threw in a coin, I forgot how much.

Afterwards I got my New Years fortune. I asked somebody to help me read it, and they told me that I was destined for moderate luck this year, but that I shouldn't travel too far from home. Whoops, too late :)

I’m so glad I ended up spending New Years in Sendai because it was the most unique New Years I’ve ever had! I left the next morning, on New Years Day, and caught a train headed north to Hakodate on the island of Hokkaido.

I was in Sendai between December 30th, 2018 - January 1st, 2019