The maidens of Sendai
The earthquake-hit town rekindles its spirit and ancient history
In the middle of the street, a pile of shovelled snow glimmers in the morning sun. On a visit to the capital of Miyagi Prefecture, this is the cityscape that greets me from the terrace on the top of a building near JR Sendai Station.
On a hill to the northwest, I can make out the figure of the Sendai Daikannon. The 100-metre-tall statue possesses a magnificence rivalling that of a skyscraper. Two years ago, the kannon goddess escaped unscathed when the Great East Japan Earthquake struck, and despite being an atheist, I can’t help but clasp my hands in prayer.
I'm eager to become reacquainted with the city's heavenly maidens, which can be thought of as female angels.
Carved alongside a vividly coloured decorative motif, 12 heavenly maidens seem to dance below the eaves of Zuihoden - the mausoleum of Sendai clan founder Date Masamune (1567-1636).
Their beauty enchanted me when I visited the mausoleum eight years ago. Now, I'm again enraptured by their elegance but overcome by a strange realisation: All the maidens face forward, reclined in a sensual pose while showing off the soles of their feet.
"It's definitely out of the ordinary. The maidens here daringly show off what shouldn't be exposed. I feel like this is a sign that they're trying to tell us something," says a volunteer guide.
After hearing this, I begin to feel like their serene faces have suddenly transformed into something serious.
Was that their purpose? I feel as if they are asking me, "If you've come all this way, why don't you see something you've never seen before?"
Listening to my inner voice, I leave the centre of the city for the western suburb of Akiu.
The area is known for its hot spring, the water of which is said to have cured Emperor Kinmei of a skin disease in the sixth century. Today, however, the resort is dotted with cookie-cutter hotels made of reinforced steel, making it hard to get a sense of its ancient history.
One of the older establishments is Sakan, a 900-bed hotel. Here, I find an open-timbered corner, where the ceiling has been preserved since the Edo period (1603-1867). Beneath the ceiling is an irori fireplace, where you can sometimes hear the crackling of a fire.
"We've kept the fire burning for 420 years. The charcoal is replaced every three to four hours," says a hotel employee as she expertly tends to the irori.
According to the hotel's brochure, the eternal flame was kindled from a votive candle from Mount Koya in Wakayama Prefecture to ward off fires after the hotel burned down in 1593. In 1855, water stopped flowing from the hot spring after a massive earthquake. Back then, the owner was said to have gone to Mount Yudono in today's Yamagata Prefecture to pray for the water to start running again.
Reading about these stories, I think about how the people in this region have endured natural disasters through the centuries without succumbing to them. These days, the water in the onsen is comfortably warm.
On my last night, I head back to the centre of the city to visit an izakaya that writer Kazuhiko Ota describes in a travel essay "The Yokozuna of the East".
This particular izakaya serves warm local sake and specialities. One of the dishes is boiled Japanese parsley seasoned with kombu seaweed soup stock. The taste of herbs in early spring has a pleasant bitterness that lingers on the taste buds.
"This parsley is harvested in Natori," says the proprietress of the izakaya with a smile.
"Sendai parsley" has been cultivated for 380 years. Despite its name, the herb is the local speciality of neighbouring Natori.
Although the damage caused by the terrible earthquake still remains, this particular spring herb tenaciously holds its ground.
If you go
<< It takes 1 hour 40 minutes to reach Sendai from Tokyo on the Tohoku Shinkansen. Akiu hot spa resort is a 50-minute bus ride from JR Sendai Station.
<< For more information, call the Sendai general tourist information centre at (+81 22) 222 4069 or Akiu hot spa resort information centre at (+81 22) 398 2323.