Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Day Trip: Matsushima

One of the most popular day trips from Sendai is to the small, coastal town of Matsushima. It's about a 30 minute train ride out of Sendai and quite inexpensive to visit. The main reason for its popularity is because it's considered one of the "Nihon Sankei", or the "Three Most Scenic Places in Japan." Matsushima Bay is full of hundreds of tiny islands, whose trees and rocky bases have been twisted into interesting shapes by the wind and waves.

There are a number of very old temples in Matsushima as well, including Zuiganji which dates back to the time of Date Masamune (the 16th cent.) It has since been rebuilt of course, and since it's been under repairs the past year or so, I've yet to see it myself. But there are a lot of beautiful statues in niches along a cliff wall outside the temple and other smaller temples that can be visited.

One such temple offers a truly gorgeous traditional garden, with evening "light-up" events throughout the year. I was lucky to catch one of these in October when the Japanese maples were bright red. I highly recommend it if you get the chance!

Matsushima also has a fun lantern festival during the Obon season (August). Obon is a bit like a Buddhist version of Halloween or Day of the Dead; it's about honoring ancestors who have passed away. At night, the Obon dancers, in black kimono and lit up by candles, were fittingly creepy as they made a procession through the forest outside Zuiganji. Among the trees were musicians playing traditional flutes, as well as some of the "basket-head" monks who play recorder-like instruments. Definitely one of the most memorable festivals I've seen!

Whenever I visit Matsushima, I always take the time to visit one of its largest islands, accessible by a long red toll bridge. (The toll is only about $1.) The island offers fantastic views of the bay and lots of little meandering paths around the island. You can also find little niches carved into the stone cliffs, where Buddhist monks used to go for meditation. There are lots of quiet beaches as well, which are great for picnics (but watch out for bugs and jelly fish!)

Obviously another attraction in Matsushima is the seafood. I usually get sashimi (sliced raw fish, usually served on a bowl of rice with pickles and miso soup) or one of the seasonal seafood set meals. In the summer you can get hotate, or scallop sets, as well as grilled ika, squid, or various shellfish. 

Fresh tuna sashimi! With pickles, miso, and vegetable/seafood sides. Yum!
Although it's a bit expensive, I usually catch a boat tour whenever I visit. I recommend taking the tour last, so that you can do the half-trip to the next town over where you can catch the train back to Sendai. It's a bit cheaper and you still see the same incredible scenery. (I think the half trip is about $15.) The boat tours take you on a 30-40 minute route through the bay, pointing out some of the famous islands and telling stories about them (mostly in Japanese). When the weather's nice, it's fun to grab beers from the vending machine on the boat and hang out out back, where you can watch the islands and the giant flock of seagulls that always chase the tourists.

Watch out for the seagulls! They are cracker bandits.
Matsushima also has a number of antique shops, hotels, museums and hot springs, as well as an aquarium (although I wouldn't recommend it to anyone over 10). If you come to Tohoku, make time for a stop in Matsushima- it's well worth the trip! The haiku poet Basho fell in love with the beauty of the islands, and was made speechless; he famously wrote, "Matsushima ya, a~ Matsushima ya, Matsushima ya."

You can see the rest of my Matsushima photos here.


  1. That food looks really good. I do have no interest in getting pooped on my gulls though, seems like it would only be a matter of time.

    How often do you visit?

  2. The food's amazing! I go out there relatively often, since it's so close to Sendai. Especially in the summer, when it gets super hot and humid here- trust me, it's worth risking gull poop to get some cool ocean air!

  3. I guess you could bring a sun umbrella with you.