When famed haiku poet Matsuo Basho traveled Japan in 1689 he found himself at a loss for words when he first saw the hundreds of pine forest-covered islands of Matsushima Bay in the Tohoku region. Eventually, he came up with those words and wrote about it in his poetic travel log, “Narrow Road to the Deep North.”
Matsuhima, located in the central part of Miyagi Prefecture, has been regarded as one of Japan’s three most scenic views for centuries, alongside Itsukushima Shrine in Hiroshima Prefecture and the forest-clad sandbar of Amanohashidate in Kyoto. There are about 260 small islands in Matsushima Bay, in fact Matsushima literary means Pine Islands.
There are many cruise ferries departing from the main pier that visitors can take to enjoy the bay views. The view of Matsushima changes from place to place and from season to season, attracting more than 3 million visitors annually.
Matsushima was hit by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011 like other coastlines in the region, but the area was protected by the small islands and escaped major damage. Now, it is fully restored and the crowds of tourist are slowly coming back to this treasure of Tohoku.
The must-see attraction in Matsushima is the national treasure, Zuiganji, which is the most famous Zen temple in northern Japan. The entrance to the temple is shaded by beautiful tall cedar trees. On the right side of the pathway leading to the temple are caves and grottos dug out by monks who used to practice zazen meditation there long ago.
Zuiganji was originally founded in A.D. 828 during the Heian Period for the Tendai Buddhist denomination however it became a Zen temple in the 13th century. The temple was remodeled in 1604 by order of Date Masamune, Japan’s most powerful lord of northern Honshu. Unifying the region known as Tohoku, Date built his castle in nearby Sendai, which is about 15 miles from Matsushima.
There are many historical sites tied to the Date family still standing in Sendai and the Matsushima area. It took hundreds of workers five years to build the impressive main hall of Zuiganji. The large wooden structure was constructed in the “shoin-zukuri” style, which is a typical of the Momoyama Period (1573-1615).
’s the temple’s interior, however, that impresses the most, especially the brilliantly painted, gold-plated “fusuma” (sliding doors). The Zuiganji Art Museum attached to the temple is also good place to see some of the treasures of the Date family, including painted sliding doors, portraits and statues of the Date clan. Plan to take about an hour to see the Zuiganji’s amazing structure treasures. (Admission is 700 yen [$7]).
In recent times, the temple has served as a sanctuary in more than one way. The 2011 earthquake may have caused a few minor cracks in Zuiganji, but it served as a shelter for evacuees immediately afterward because of its impenetrable structure.
“We housed about 300 people, including tourist and locals, that were evacuated because of the earthquake and tsunami on the day of disaster,” said Yoichi Chiba, a monk at Zuiganji. “Today, tourist are coming back to Matsushima after the disaster but only 70 percent of what we get in a normal year.
“Matsushima has been protected by small islands for a long time and people believed this is a scared place,” said Chiba. “This place has always welcomed foreigners to see the beauty of Japan’s nature. Zuiganji is made by lord Date Masamune and what makes it unique is that it has a more castle-like interior compared to other temples.”
A street market outside of Zuiganji is an ideal place to pick up souvenirs and try some of the local foods. A brief walk down the street leads to the pier in about five minutes, where you can board one of the cruise boats. Matsushima Godaido, a small wooden worship hall on a tiny island by the pier, is a great place for a photo op. The island is connected to the mainland by a short bridge; it’s open night and day and admission is free.
From Oct. to March, Matsushima becomes heaven for oyster lovers. You can enjoy all-you-can-eat locally grown oysters at a “Kaki-goya,” or oyster hut, near Matsushima Fisherman’s Cooperative. Typically, diners sit around a table with a big iron plate on which a server heaps oysters with a big spade. When they are cooked, the server will open the shell for you. All you have to do is just keep eating.
These oyster feeds are so popular that you need to make reservations during peak hours, especially at lunch time. A 50-minute all-you-can-eat meal is 3,000 yen ($30) for adults and 1,500 for children. There’s also a 40-minute deal for 2,000 yen. Make sure to be hungry before you get there.
Matsushima will not only fill your stomach, it will fulfill your heart with its local beauty, charm and hospitality. Indeed, you may just be inspired to come with your own words for a poem about Matsushima, just like Basho.
Some local fare
Cow tongue is a local specialty in Sendai. There are many cow tongue restaurants in the Sendai area, but I recommend a small restaurant named Shinsuke (it only seats 17) near Sendai Station. The barbeque cow tongue with homemade sauce is delicious. Japanese website: tabelog.com/miyagi/A0401/A040101/4000147
Takaraya Shokudo is an 80-year-old restaurant that reopened in 1012 after surviving the Great East Japan Earthquake. They serve great fresh seafood which is caught right out of Matsushima Bay. Try their sea eel bowl and raw oysters. They also offer their own homemade Sendai miso. Japanese website: www.takaraya-matsushima.com/takaraya_restaurant.html
Getting there by train
Take a bullet train from Tokyo to Sendai (1 hour and 41 minutes). Then take Sengoku line to Matsushima Kaigan Station (35 minutes)
Getting there by car
It takes about 6 hours from Tokyo. Once you get on the highway, it is an easy drive with lots of scenic mountains on the way.
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