Thursday, December 24, 2009

Sendai - the Capital of Gyu-Tan (grilled beef tongue)

This is Yoshi's debut as a travel blogger. Not bad for a first-timer, wouldn't you say?

It’s been a decade since my last participation in a job-related meeting of the Japanese, by the Japanese, for the Japanese, in Japan. Ten years ago it was in Fukuoka, and this time - in Sendai (Miyagi prefecture), in the north-eastern part of mainland (if you can call it “mainland”) Japan.

Sendai is also called “ A City of Trees” and that was the excuse a bunch of plant biologists (and I’m one of them) used to organize a meeting there.

This city of one million inhabitants (and counting) was established by a “one-eyed dragon” local ruler in the early 15th century (Tokugawa Edo period). His name was Masamune DATE (伊達 政宗) who lost his right eye to smallpox (hence the nickname).

Statue on horse x500 

Sendai's famous one-eyed founder on horseback. 


This “one-eyed pirate”-looking overlord (who also allegedly converted to Christianity at some point later in his life) was a fearless, intelligent and ruthless politician. Ruthless enough to assassinate his biological brother. And oh yeah, he was also into good food – and Sendai is known for its nice cuisine, because nothing calms down the nerves after a good massacre like a yummy bowl of gourmet goodies. Apparently, he was not only an expert at chopping off heads, but also generally good at chopping and cooking stuff in the kitchen, too. According to all historical records he was an exceptional cook, I believe the words "culinary arts" were even used to describe his cooking.

Masamune Date’s name and character overwhelms Sendai. I mean it (but I don’t mean that deadly sibling rivalry is a commonplace occurrence here these days). There’s a bronze statue at the Sendai castle, his mausoleum - Zuiho-den, and his name was even borrowed by a local FM station - Date FM, but the pronunciation is ‘deit’.

Another interesting historical fact is that he sent his retainer, Tsunenaga HASEKURA (支倉常長) on a diplomatic mission to España (via the Pacific and Mexico). That dude’s Christian name (yep, another “alleged” convert) is Don Felipe Francisco Hasekura!!! Now, how’s that for charming, huh?

Roses x450 

Roses were brought to Sendai from Europe by Hasekura 

Well, let’s proceed to my trip to Sendai. At the meeting, I realized how uniform everything in Japan was… men in their cheap suits (on a researcher’s salary you can’t really afford Armani or another Versace, unless you marry rich) looked like any other government-issue businessmen you could encounter on a Tokyo subway platform.

It appeared that I was one of the very few participants wearing… let’s say, “relaxed” clothes and four-year old sneakers. But hey, I didn't marry rich, and I happen to like my sneakers, after four years of constant wear they’re fused with my feet.

However, I realized one extremely basic fact that for some reason had eluded me until then. It was so easy and convenient to participate in a meeting conducted in my mother language. See? That’s what ten years of living abroad will do to you.

The boring scientific part took two days and there was even a celebration for those young, promising researchers in cheap suits, who provided a nice poster. Five PhD students got a prize for the best poster of the meeting and the “Daruma dall” was bestowed as an award by the organizer.

Daruma doll at meeting x500 

The winners with their daruma. 


In general, a Daruma doll has only one filled-in eye. However, in Sendai, because of Masamune Date, it is considered a taboo to have a one-eyed Daruma, or so the organizer told us...

Daruma is a representation of an ancient Indian Buddhist monk, Bodhidharma, who is also known as the founder of Zen. Anyway, the awarded young scientists with bright future all have Darumas with two black eyeballs, as a result. You know what? Actually that Zen founder is not an East-Asian! It is hypothesized that he was an Indian-born Aryan of uncertain heritage, but reportedly - with blue eyes. Yes, Zen was established by a blue-eyed guy (allegedly)! Chew on that, all you Asian culture freaks.

Zen style garden 2 

Zen style garden 


Zen style garden 

And even more zen. 


Because I happened to know one of the head honchos at the meeting, I was invited to visit Matsushima islands (松島), with the head honcho himself acting as a local guide.

Matsushima is popular sightseeing place around Sendai and is considered as one of the “Three Views of Japan”. Whatever. Matsu (松) in Japanese means pine. I expected to be able to find matsutake (松茸) mushrooms there but the weather was bad and it was not the season for mushroom picking.

Matsushima islands and ferry x500 

On the way to Matsushima 


Instead I had tons of oysters and a little bit of Ascidiacea (ホヤ) as the chef’s seasonal recommendation. Was it good? Hmmm… Let’s just say it was interesting, OK?

Another thing that Sendai is famous for is gyu-tan 牛タン (grilled beef tongue). I have to say that Sendai has a lot of yummy foods to offer (and that I can understand why Mr. Date was rumored to be a gourmand) and is definitely a place worth visiting.

Eating gyu-tan also made me realize how long I’ve been living outside of Japan. Last time I had gyu-tan in Sendai was in 1998. Back then, I was also in Sendai to join a boring scientific meeting (no fancy trips to Matsushima that time, btw). I remember eating gyu-tan in the 20th century was like chewing on a leather jacket, my jaw was ready to crack, and tears started to come out unconsciously from the sheer effort involved…
What a difference ten years make when it comes to food technology!

Tea x500 

I'd rather enjoy macha tea and a rice cake with edamame paste than chew old leather jackets.

OK, my next destination in the general Sendai area would be Tashiro Island (田代島), an island of cats!!!

PS> And what my poor husband doesn't realize is that with that last sentence he just decided MY winter break plans for me. The magic word - "cats"!!!

1 comment:

  1. hi there..i came across you site and i was wondering how was the trip to tashiro island? i live in sendai right now and i really want to go to that island. was it nice? where did u stay there thanks a lot...


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