Sendai itself is a pleasant modern city and makes a great base for exploration of the Tohoku region. Zuihoden, the mausoleum of a powerful feudal lord, is one of the most ornate and richly detailed surviving structures in Japan. But it is the day trips that really make it worth staying a few days here. To the east, Matsushima Bay is a delightful scenic spot with the hilltop view out over its scattered islands amongst Japan's official top three. To the west, Yamadera temple and shrine complex clings to the hillface, rewarding the climber with great views back over the complex and valley below. An hour or so north is Hiraizumi, stronghold of the 12th century Fujiwara clan. Some structures date back a thousand years and it has recently become a World Heritage site. In the autumn, Naruko gorge to the south is one of Japan's most popular and dramatic autumn leaf viewing spots, with a scenic local train ride up the gorge and some fairly gentle hiking trails. At Zao in winter, snow compacts on the trees and then the wind whips them into 'snow monster' shapes. Those travelling through northern Japan on a Rail Pass can make these side-trips at no extra cost, then come back to base in Sendai for restaurants and creature comforts.