Matsushima, on the coast of Miyagi Prefecture, is widely regarded as one of Japan’s three most scenic destinations, thanks to the pine-dotted islands in its broad bay. For good reason, it has been a popular travel destination for centuries (literally!). It has great natural beauty, religious and historical sites, and delightful local culture.
Cruising the bay
The “must do” activity at Matsushima is a sightseeing cruise around the bay to enjoy the scenery of the bay’s 260 islands. Although tsunami waters found their way here in March 2011, thanks to the bay’s south-facing opening to the sea and the position of many islands at the mouth of the bay, the inundation was not as bad as at other areas of coastal Tohoku, and the area has recovered well.
Tickets for the boat tours are available just outside JR Matsushima Kaigan station or at the Matsushima Kaigan Rest House, a combination information/refreshment/ticket center near the pier, just a 5-7 minute walk from the station. There are a couple of tour choices: one about 30 minutes, the other about 50 minutes, and a few boats every daylight hour. In August there is even a sunset cruise available.
For something a little different, follow in the footsteps of famed 17th century poet and traveler, Matsuo Basho, by catching a boat to Matsushima from Shiogama. To do this, get off the train at JR Hon-Shiogama station and walk about 10 minutes to Marine Gate Shiogama. While this boat purports to be a ferry, rather than a sightseeing cruise, it takes a scenic route through the islands on its way to Matsushima, providing a wonderful introduction to the bay and the Matsushima waterfront. Basho’s experience of the beautiful vistas of the bay as he travelled to Matsushima are said to have left him at a loss for words.
The islands of Matsushima Bay are varied in size, from several hectares to mere stone pinnacles jutting out of the water. The small islands often have steep sandstone cliffs, carved by wind and water, topped by the pine trees from which the bay gets its name (Matsushima literally means “pine island”). Sea birds abound. Poles jutting from the water in a grid pattern mark oyster beds. Matsushima is famous for its oysters, which are just coming into season in October.
All of the boats have Japanese and English announcements about the names of various islands, many of which have been eroded to weird, evocative shapes. The announcements also relate legends or stories about particular islands and other information about life on the bay.
Historic teahouse with a view
Overlooking the bay from a hillock just south of the pier is Kanrantei, a traditional-style tea house whose name means “house for watching the sea ripple”. Originally built at Kyoto’s Fushimi Castle for warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598), the teahouse was later acquired by Date Masamune (1567-1636), lord of Sendai Castle, and moved to his estate in Edo. After Masamune’s death, his son Tadamune (1600-1658) had the building moved to Sendai as part of a pleasure complex, the rest of which has long since disappeared. In its samurai days, Kanrantei was also a popular spot for moon viewing. Today’s visitors can savor a cup of traditional green tea and a sweet while enjoying the view over the bay.
Hours: 8:30 a.m. - 4:30 p.m. (November-March) or 5. p.m. (April-October)
Admission: 200 yen (adults); 150 yen (high school/university students); 100 yen (primary/junior high students)
Tea sets: 300 - 700 yen
Islands accessible from the shore
Just north of Matsushima’s pier is a small island connected to the mainland by a series of three red bridges. This is the home of Godaido, a small temple built by Date Masamune in 1604 to house five Buddhas of wisdom. Alas, the statues are only displayed to the public every 33 years, so visitors can only see the outside of the temple and enjoy views of the bay. Godaido replaced a shrine dedicated to Bishamonten, a god of war, that was originally built on this site in 807 AD. The bridges are a bit unusual insofar as their decks are not solid, but rather consist of spaced planks, requiring visitors to watch their step. It is said that if you trip or lose your footing, you aren’t yet spiritually ready to visit the temple.
Further north is a long red footbridge to Fukuura Island, a nature preserve criss-crossed with trails to explore and, this time of year, to enjoy the autumn leaves. There is a small Benten shrine on the island, as well as several look-out points providing different perspectives on the beauty of the bay.
Perhaps the most interesting of the small islands connected to the mainland by a footbridge is Oshima, a 7-8 minute walk south of the pier. This little island was an early site of esoteric Buddhist meditation. The island is dotted with small caves and niches carved some 10 centuries ago by monks as part of their meditation. Many are crumbling and overgrown, making the island feel like a lost world.
One of the most famous monks to live on the island was Kenbutsu Shonin, who arrived in 1104 and spent many years on the island. According to legend, Emperor Toba so admired Kenbutsu Shonin’s devoted meditations that in 1119 he sent Kenbutsu a gift of 1,000 pine seedlings. These are said to be the ancestors of the pine trees that now cover all the islands.
The influence of the Date clan on Matsushima can be seen at every turn, but perhaps their greatest legacy is Zuiganji, a Zen Buddhist temple just inland from the pier. Although the temple had been founded in 828AD, it was nearly derelict by 1609 when Date Masamune decided to make it his family temple. He had it rebuilt to palatial standards, as visitors learn when they take a walk through the temple’s opulently appointed chambers. There is even a room set slightly higher than the others where the Emperor Meiji (1852-1912) slept when he stopped at Matsushima during a tour of the Tohoku region in 1876.
Apparently in the 17th century, the temple was a kind of fortress occupied by the Date clan. Visitors can learn more about this history, and see other temple relics, in the temple museum. It is said that in those days the chimney roof vent of the temple kitchen was also used as a lookout tower.
Hours: 8 a.m. - 3:30 p.m. (December-January), 4 p.m. (February and November), 4:30 p.m. (March and October), or 5 p.m. (April-September)
Admission: 700 yen (adults); 400 yen (primary/junior high students)
Between Zuiganji’s outer gate and the ticket office is a long, paved approach and a yard dotted with tall, straight cryptomeria trees. On the right stands a cliff-face dotted with more meditation caves, carved by monks centuries ago. Some of these caves serve as the final resting place of long-dead warriors.
To the south of Zuiganji stands Entsuin, a Buddhist temple dedicated to Kannon, the goddess of mercy. The temple was founded as the mausoleum of Date Mitsumune (1627-1645), a grandson of Masamune, who was just 19 when he died. The temple was dedicated in 1647. Its main hall is a thatched building that was Mitsumune’s Edo home before his death. Nearby stands his mausoleum, which houses a small statue of Mitsumune astride a white horse.
Entsuin’s grounds are particularly lovely, with a Japanese-style moss garden in one section and a Western-style rose garden in another. The temple is also well known for its autumn leaves. It usually has an autumn illumination event; alas, for 2020 the event has been cancelled.
Hours: 8:30 a.m. - 4 p.m. (December-March), 4:30 p.m. (late October-November), or 5 p.m. (April to late October)
Admission: 700 yen (adults); 400 yen (primary/junior high students)
Paint your own kokeshi doll
The Tohoku region is known for its kokeshi dolls, wooden dolls often consisting of just a body and a head. They are simple, yet rendered elegant by the way they are painted. There are a variety of sizes and styles of kokeshi dolls, the shape often denoting the Tohoku locality where the dolls were produced. At Nihachiya Bussanten, about halfway between Entsuin and the pier, visitors can watch an artisan turning the wood that is ultimately assembled into the dolls. Here, you can also shop from among a wide selection of kokeshi dolls and other items with kokeshi images, or, for a small fee, paint your own doll. You can choose from three sizes and shapes, all produced on site, and then sit at a work table to apply a bit of paint and bring her to life. What a great souvenir of your visit to Matsushima.
It takes about 40 minutes to reach Matsushima Kaigan station on the Senseki line from Sendai, Tohoku’s largest city (Hon-Shiogama station is 10 minutes closer to Sendai). This makes it an easy day trip from Sendai. But there is so much to see and do at Matsushima that you may prefer to stay overnight.
Vicki L Beyer, a regular Japan Today contributor, is a freelance travel writer who also blogs about experiencing Japan. Follow her blog at jigsaw-japan.com.© Japan Today