(This was all written in September 2011. Some details may have changed, but it’s all roughly correct. I reckon.)
I’m going to briefly tell you about four different ways you could get to Ishinomaki from Tokyo, including information about cost and time.
Three of the methods of transport from Tokyo drop you in Sendai, so first, let me explain the highway bus to Ishinomaki from Sendai, 800 yen one way. The train from Sendai to Ishinomaki, the Ishinomaki-sen, is not yet fully operational, so the bus is the only way to make the trip.
Here’s an easy-to-read version of this bus schedule. Here’s a complete schedule, including weekend time differences. Both are in Japanese. You’ll notice that the last bus leaves Sendai (stop 33番) at 21:07, which is 9:07 pm. This ends up being the limiting factor for day bus and shinkansen trips to Ishinomaki.
Here’s a map of how to find this bus stop at Sendai station.
1) Day bus. This basically requires that you have a full day to get to Ishinomaki. It appears that the latest you could leave Tokyo and arrive in Sendai in time to catch the bus to Ishinomaki is 15:30, or 3:30 pm, and it takes 5 hours and 15 minutes, which is the fastest possible trip by bus. This puts you into Sendai at 20:45, or 8:45 pm. That’s 0nly 20 minutes before the last bus to Ishinomaki leaves, so it is cutting it close, especially for your first time there when you have to search for the bus stop. And if there are any troubles on the highway, you may be stranded in Sendai for the night.
I am not aware of any day buses that go straight to Ishinomaki. There are night buses, which I’ll explain below in 3).
On the plus side, it appears that you can get a bus ticket for as little as ¥2500 one way.
2) The shinkansen leaves you a little more leeway. The shinkansen for Sendai leaves from Tokyo and Ueno both. It looks like you can take an 18:56 (6:56 pm) from Tokyo and arrive in Sendai at 20:37 (8:37 pm). Or you can leave a little earlier just to be safe. It still basically leaves you enough time to work most of a full day in Tokyo and still make it to Ishinomaki by 10:30 pm. The cost of the shinkansen is 10,590 yen each way.
You can get the full timetable in English of the shinkansen by going to Hyperdia, searching for Tokyo to Sendai for any time of the day, and then clicking “interval timetable” in the search results.
3) There are also night buses, and some that go straight to Ishinomaki. Here is information in English, but I don’t know the source or whether it is current.
Information on the night buses to Sendai is available in the same place as the above link for day buses. The advantage of this is that it can be as cheap as the day bus. The night bus for Sendai requires you to leave around midnight and arrive around 6:00 am, give or take an hour on either end. The first bus leaves Sendai for Ishinomaki at either 6:17 on weekdays or 6:47 am on weekends and holidays.
I personally can’t sleep on a bus, but then I’m a highly sensitive person. I know some people who find this the best option, who arrive in Ishinomaki rested and ready to work.
4) A fourth option is to drive. I’ve done some research on this, though haven’t yet made a trip myself. My best estimate is that a suitably sized group could hire a car or van for a two-day weekend and do the trip for anywhere between 10,000 yen and 13,000 yen per person. Likely it would be about half the cost of shinkansen tickets for everyone. A three-day weekend would add about 2000 yen per person, which could find you inching uncomfortably close to the shinkansen price.
The trip takes 6-7 hours, so a group could leave Tokyo at 5:00 pm. Not a lot better timewise than the best day bus (the one that leaves at 3:30 pm), but perhaps enough to make it worthwhile for some people.
Here is roughly how I’ve calculated the costs:
The biggest cost is rental of the vehicle. For Toyota Car Rental, vans that hold from 5 to 9 people plus luggage can be hired for between 12,000 yen and 27,000 yen the first day, and 10,000 yen and 18,000 yen for subsequent days. It’s a complicated calculation, because the cost per person shifts unpredictably depending on how many people there are and how big the needed vehicle is.
If there are much cheaper rental options, please let me know. I simply inquired with the only agency I’m aware of.
Obviously, if someone can borrow a car or van, the cost goes down dramatically.
Currently, it is possible to get a pass on paying expressway tolls if you are going up to volunteer. Without the pass, it would not be cost effective to hire a car or van. In contrast, if you can borrow a car or have a car and can fill it with people and can get the toll pass, the cost of coming would be virtually nothing. You may need to build a relationship with a volunteer organization before you can get the toll pass though, so this may not work for your first trip up.
I estimate fuel costs to be about 2500-3500 yen per person, assuming about 1000 km of driving. It’s 420 km one way.