Taking the overnight bus is an economical way to travel around Japan; not only can you arrive at your destination early to make the most out of the day, you also get to save on a night's accommodation. The Narita Air & Bus! is a service offered at Narita International Airport and which connects the airport to different places of interest by long distance bus. Of interest is the overnight route to Sendai and Matsushima, two destinations that offer visitors a wide variety of attractions from beautiful coastal views to bustling city vibes.

I started my journey from Narita International Airport and boarded the overnight bus, ready for a few hours of sleep. The bus makes a few more stops along the way to pick up more passengers, but it wasn't long before we were on the highway headed north. My destination was Matsushima Kaigan, and I arrived just as the sun was rising. The plan was to visit Shiogama and Matsushima on the first day with an overnight stay in Matsushima before moving to Sendai City the following day.

The overnight bus has three seats across so everyone has aisle access and a toilet at the back

As it was relatively early in the morning, there weren't too many things open in Matsushima Kaigan, and I made my way by train to Shiogama Fish Market in nearby Shiogama instead. The fish market, which is open to the public, was ready for business by the time I arrived. It felt a little surreal and adventurous to be at a local fish market, and I knew that I wanted to have raw fish for breakfast. One of the nice things about Shiogama Fish Market was being able to create a seafood rice bowl of my choice by buying pre-packed small portions from the vendors, then buying a rice and soup set from the cooked food stall to complete the meal.

Main entrance to Shiogama Fish Market
Fishmongers prepping the fish for sale
Inside the fish market
Shellfish available for purchase too
My morning creation
Eating area in the market

From Shiogama Fish Market, I took the bus to Shiogama Shrine, one of the most important shrines in the region. The shrine has a long history of more than 1000 years, and many of the buildings on the temple grounds date back to the 18th century during the Edo Period. The shrine is a must visit during the spring when the hundreds of cherry trees on the grounds come into bloom.

The main approach has lots of stairs
Visitors praying at the main hall
The main hall obscuring the older buildings behind

After paying my respects at the shrine, I walked down to the waterfront to catch my sightseeing cruise of Matsushima Bay, one of the top three scenic views in Japan alongside Amanohashidate in Kyoto and Miyajima in Hiroshima. There are a few cruise options available: those that start and end in Matsushima, or the one which I took from Shiogama to Matsushima. The 50 minute boat ride took me close to some of the islands in the bay as well as provided a look at some of the local fishing industries like seaweed and oyster farming.

The pier at Shiogama
The sightseeing boat that would take me from Shiogama to Matsushima
Oyster farming in Matsushima Bay
The island in the foreground kinda looks like a Hokusai Wave
Lonesome pine tree
First view of Matsushima and Godaido Hall
The pier at Matsushima

In Matsushima, I visited some of the more well-known attractions like Zuiganji Temple, Godaido Hall and Fukuura Island. These sites were a short walk away from the sightseeing cruise port and can easily be visited in an afternoon. Zuiganji Temple was interesting for me as visitors are allowed to enter the main hall to view the beautifully painted paper sliding doors. I also went for lunch in between the sightseeing and indulged in more local seafood specialties.

Having been up since sunrise, I decided to called it a day around sunset. It was time to check in to my accommodation for the night, enjoy a nice hot bath and dinner before going to bed full and content.

Main Hall at Zuiganji which houses all those beautifully painted sliding doors
Caves that run parallel to the main approach to Zuiganji
You have to cross a few bridges to reach Godaido Hall
The hall stands on an island in the bay
Iconic red bridge that leads to Fukuura Island
Little daruma dolls at the Benten shrine on Fukuura Island
Lunch of champions, oysters done two ways and an anago (conger eel) ricebowl
Called it a day at Matsushima Bay

The following day, I made my way to Sendai by train. The one way journey from Matsushima Kaigan Station to Sendai Station took only 40 minutes which surprised me a little as I thought that I was farther away from the city. The city of Sendai is the largest in the Tohoku Region, a fact which was evident upon exiting the busy station.

Quaint looking Matsushima Kaigan Station
Modern and huge Sendai Station

On the west side of the station are tall buildings and pedestrian bridges that connect the various places. I headed for the bus bay to take the convenient sightseeing loop bus which runs every 20 minutes. My first stop for the day was Zuihoden, an ostentatious mausoleum built in accordance to the final wishes of Date Masamune, the first feudal lord of what we know as Sendai now. This is definitely one of the top sightseeing attractions in the city, and one not to be missed.

Green steps to the mausoleum
Date Masamune's mausoleum
The dragon heads here take the place of the guardian lion-dogs typically found in front of a main hall
I was fortunate to come when the mausoleum's doors were open. They are only open at selected times of the year for the public to see the carving of Date Masamune inside

I got back on the sightseeing loop bus, and after a few minutes arrived at the Sendai Castle Ruins. This place used to be the grounds of Aoba Castle (colloquially known as Sendai Castle), but nothing except the stone foundations of the main keep remains. However, the site of the castle ruins is a good place to see the city from above and still worth a visit.

Sightseeing loop bus
Fortune slips (omikuji) and a torii gate not far from the Sendai Castle ruins
Only the foundations of the castle remain
The view of Sendai City from the castle ruins isn't too bad

To wrap up my day, I headed for the shopping streets in downtown Sendai. There are a number of shopping streets in the downtown core, and together they form one of the largest shopping arcades in the Tohoku Region! Majority of the streets are covered which makes for a comfortable shopping experience in any weather. Those who love shopping can probably spend an entire day here browsing and taking in all the products on offer.

Finally, no trip to a new city is ever complete without trying some of their local specialties. Zunda, a sweet edamame paste, and gyutan, grilled cow's tongue, are some of the delicacies here in Sendai. I made sure to try the both of them and suffice to say, I would recommend them to visitors. The area in and around the station district, which also includes the shopping streets where footfall is high, is the best place to find zunda products and gyutan restaurants.

Covered shopping streets are always a plus
So many people in the city
Zunda mochi for tea break
Grilled gyutan (cow's tongue) for dinner

For most people, it is worth considering extending your stay in Sendai, taking the train to further explore other destinations or simply take the overnight bus back to Narita Airport. But for me, my short trip has come to an end, and I felt like I fully maximised my time at the spots I visited.

Access

The overnight bus departs from Narita Airport daily and arrives in Sendai and Matsushima between 5:00 to 6:00. The approximately eight hour journey takes passengers across 460 kilometers with a few stops in between for the driver. Bus reservations can be made from the Japan Bus Online link below.

Roof details of a mausoleum at Zuihoden

Links