Modern culture shaped by the ambition of a legendary samurai
Miyagi has a rich cultural history. The natural beauty and spiritual energy of Matsushima and Shiogama have fascinated people across Japan for many centuries. As the wild forces of nature here became tamed, coaxed into nourishing rich agricultural lands and prosperous settlements, Miyagi came to abound with tales of the deeds and daring of warlords, particularly those of Masamune Date. The age of samurai came to an abrupt end with the opening of Japan’s borders and the Meiji Restoration, the start of an era during which the rapid influx of Western technology and culture propelled Miyagi, along with the rest of Japan, towards modernization. Remnants of this era of rapid change are well preserved in the Meiji Village of Tome in northern Miyagi.
One man’s legacy looms large over Miyagi Prefecture: that of Masamune Date (1567–1636). This samurai lived four centuries ago during the turbulent Sengoku period. Known as the One-Eyed Dragon, he outwitted and outfought other warlords until he won control of a vast domain. In 1601, he established Sendai City as his capital and embarked upon ambitious construction projects throughout his lands: impressive temples, shrines, and other landmarks which stand to this day; and, less conspicuous but arguably of greater value, infrastructural works such as irrigation and flood control, which helped turn Miyagi into the rice-producing powerhouse it remains today.
Masamune is remembered even today for his strong sense of style. He and his men were unmistakable when they arrived on the battlefield in their jet-black armor, Masamune’s helmet embellished by its soaring golden crescent. As a patron of the arts and culture, his influence can be seen in the vivid coloring and gorgeous woodwork of Osaki Hachimangu Shrine and Zuihoden Mausoleum. The folk culture which took root during his reign lives on in many of Sendai’s festivals, such as the Aoba Festival.
Masamune was always a man of ambition. At no time was this more evident than in 1613, when he dispatched Hasekura Tsunenaga and crew on a trade mission to Europe. They met with Pope Paul V and Spanish King Phillip III in an attempt to establish direct trade relations. While ultimately unsuccessful due to the increasingly isolationist policies adopted by the Tokugawa shogunate, European influences can be seen in patterns used on Date family clothing held in the Sendai City Museum and in motifs decorating the inside of the mausoleum at Entsuin Temple.
In 1689, renowned haiku poet Matsuo Basho made a 2,400-kilometer journey to the north, inspired by generations of poets who had written of the beauty of this wild landscape. His famous anthology, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, became the best-selling travelogue of its day, prompting countless people to follow in his footsteps: from Matsushima to Ishinomaki, Naruko, Hiraizumi, and beyond.
Miyagi’s history neither began nor ended with the age of samurai. There is evidence of prehistoric peoples dating back as far as twenty thousand years ago. Ancient shell mounds have been unearthed along Miyagi’s coast, fascinating relics that can still be visited today. Twelve hundred years ago, before the reign of the samurai began, Miyagi was on the northern edge of the territory controlled by the Emperor in Kyoto and inhabited by the Emishi people. Exhibits at the Tohoku History Museum recreate and give insight into these ages.
In the late 1800s when the samurai era came to an end, Miyagi embarked upon rapid modernization. Today, Sendai is the largest city in the entire Tohoku region. It is home to more than one million residents, a large manufacturing base, and a vibrant commercial downtown. Miyagi has developed into a farming and fishing powerhouse, and a top sake producer. Its natural heritage has made it a leisure destination beloved for its scenic coastline, extensive hiking trails, abundant hot springs, and more.
In 2011, the tsunami of the Great East Japan Earthquake caused unprecedented devastation to coastal communities. As a result of the tragedy, the area has received aid and assistance from across Japan and around the world, resulting in innovative initiatives and a vibrant new culture taking root along the coast.
After four centuries of transformation, Masamune Date still looks out upon Sendai. Stand with his statue at the site of Aoba Castle and reflect upon how far his domain has come. Then, explore Miyagi and uncover the local stories behind the places you visit.