Sendai is Tohoku’s largest city.
What does it have to offer in the way of evening distractions?
Just like any other large city there is a host of expensive bars and night clubs where you can light money on fire and throw it into the air (metaphorically speaking of course). The price of admission into just about any nightlife excursion is usually high but if you have a good time it was worth it right?
In Japan drinking establishments sometimes offer what is called, “nomihodai” (飲み放題). This literally means bottomless cup. For a nominal fee of $15 to $20 you will get all you can drink for about 90 to 120 minutes depending on the place. However, many places particularly in very popular areas will charge a seat fee just to sit in their restaurant. On top of that it is likely that while you are drinking you will order food. Your special price for all that alcohol just got really expensive.
However, there are some hidden gems. For instance there is a karaoke place on Clis Road (Clis Rd is a covered shopping arcade) that offers one of the cheapest nomihodais in Sendai, free snacks and you get to karaoke. Not to mention you get to make your own drinks. Hello Mr. Hangover, how are you today? Not well, indeed. There is a gyoza shop that offers a $20 nomihodai set that comes with 12 gyoza, pickles, and cabbage salad. The gyoza is fantastic but it tastes even better with reasonably priced booze.
If squirreling yourself away in a small karaoke booth with 5 close friends is not your idea of a night on the town the place to be in Sendai is called Kokubuncho. Kokubuncho is several blocks of densely packed bars, clubs, restaurants, shopping, and Japanese people dressed to the nines for a night on the town. About every ten feet there will be a Japanese person shouting and handing out coupons for their establishment. There is even a miniature Arc-de-Triomphe hidden away in Kokubuncho. Let me know if you find it.
Kokubuncho’s restaurant selection is likely the most diverse in the city. There are several Spanish style tapas places, sandwich shops, all of the traditional Japanese fare, the odd British pub or two, Phô and Thai food. There is even a Mediterranean restaurant and hookah lounge called Middle Mix, which I was told by the owner, is the only one in all of Tohoku. There is no lack of drinking establishments either. The entire place is one giant drinking establishment. I couldn’t even begin trying to do a pub crawl there.
Ostensibly going to Kokubuncho is for drinking or a drinking party (nomikai, bonenkai, other kinds of kai). Japanese society is relatively repressed and places like Kokubuncho are where stifled salary men, demure females and gai-jin of all kinds of come together in a beer and alcohol soaked good time. This is where the Japanese really cut loose. It’s fair to say that they are not particularly shy about taking it to extreme limits.
Kokubuncho is basically broken in three separate areas. There is the college area that is filled with cheap dining establishments and some of the more tame forms of entertainment like gaming centers and pachinkos. The next area is for the salary men (and women, although its mostly men in dark suits). The restaurants and bars here are little nicer and a little pricier, and usually a little more on the traditional Japanese side. Lastly there is the “Pink area” which requires a bit more explanation.
The pink area of Kokubuncho “features” Sendai’s largest collection of “host and hostess clubs, strip clubs and other slightly less reputable engagements. It’s not a true red light district in the traditional Amsterdam-ian sense but there is clearly enough “entertainment” in that fashion to give Kokubuncho a seedy feel in certain parts. It’s by no means dangerous but a little on the unctuous side.
These clubs aren’t exactly hidden away. If anything, they are probably the main attraction to the area outside of drinking heavily. The advertisements rarely leave anything to the imagination. The funniest one is this guy to the right, a common manga trope is to signal arousal via a massive nosebleed. As a foreigner there is very little I can offer in the way of experiential anecdotes about hostess clubs. They don’t cater to non Japanese speakers and even if you are fluent in Japanese you might get a brief Japanese grammar test at the door. Hostess and host clubs are looking for long term customers so they don’t really want crazy drunk tourists mucking up their vibe. Apart from the mostly nude women on bill boards there are also many flower shops in the area. Presumably you can buy flowers to curry favor with whatever hostess or host you are meeting that evening.
However, sandwiching Kokubuncho is Jozen-ji dori and Clis Road which are two major thoroughfares in Sendai filled with shopping, restaurants, bars and 100 yen stores. One of the best things about Sendai is most everything is very close together and centrally located around Sendai station. It’s only about a 20 minute walk down Aoba-dori from Sendai Station to Kokubuncho or you can take the subway 2 stops and get off at Kotodai-koen and exit through the Mitsukoshi Department store.
During the winter Jozen-ji dori is a absolutely stunning. It is covered in white holiday lights and they have a park light exposition called, “The Pageant of Starlight,” as well. In the snow it is really quite a romantic place (minus the crowds). There are also temporary structures that sell warm drinks and adult beverages.
Most of the buildings around Sendai station are just like any other shopping arcade in Japan or the rest of the world for that matter. Name brands stores, colorful signs and groovy techno music to help you shop – but Kokubuncho is just a little different.
I happen to quite like Kokubuncho despite its outward appearance. I like the variety, the people watching, the shouting, the confusing mass of tangled power lines. Everything about Kokubuncho looks as if it was delivered straight from a movie set about post-modern Japan. I can hear Kaneda revving his red motorcycle some where around the corner and somewhere above me cybernetic human in stealth mode is planning an assassination. Walking around Kokubuncho on a Saturday night is like stepping in a manga comic. You can’t help but be fascinated by everyone’s costumes, by the colors and the lights.
Check out these other awesome places in Tohoku as well.