The jumble of wooded islands dotting Matsushima Bay, a short train ride northeast of Sendai, is officially designated one of Japan’s top three scenic areas, along with Miyajima and Amanohashidate. Roughly 12km by 14km, the bay contains over 260 islands of every conceivable shape and size, many supposedly taking on familiar shapes such as tortoises, whales, or even human profiles, and each with scraggy fringes of contorted pine trees protruding out of the white rock faces. In between, the shallower parts of the bay have been used for farming oysters for around three hundred years.
Bashō, travelling through in 1689, commented that “much praise had already been lavished upon the wonders of the islands of Matsushima”, but many visitors today find the bay slightly disappointing. Nevertheless, a boat trip among the islands makes an enjoyable outing, though it’s best to avoid weekends and holidays when hordes of sightseers descend on the area. Matsushima town has a couple of less-frequented picturesque spots, and a venerable temple, Zuigan-ji, with an impressive collection of art treasures. Most people visit Matsushima on a day-trip from Sendai, but there are some reasonable accommodation options in the area that are worth considering if you’re heading on up the coast to Kinkazan.
The modern town of Matsushima (松島) is little more than a strip of resort hotels and souvenir shops, but its origins go back to 828 AD, when a Zen priest called Jikaku Daishi Enrin founded the temple of Zuigan-ji (瑞巌寺), set back from the bay. The entrance to the temple is marked by a suitably grand grove of four-hundred-year-old cedar trees halfway between (and a five-minute walk from) the central tourist pier, where boats from Shiogama dock, and the train station (Matsushima-kaigan). Zuigan-ji has been rebuilt many times since its foundation, but retains a compelling sense of history. Though deceptively plain from the outside, the buildings bear the unmistakeable stamp of Daté Masamune, the first lord of Sendai, who oversaw Zuigan-ji’s reconstruction in the early seventeenth century. He employed the best craftsmen and the highest-quality materials to create a splendid monument of intricately carved doors and transoms, wood-panelled ceilings and gilded screens lavishly painted with hawks, chrysanthemums, peacocks and pines. What would ordinarily be the highlight of a visit to the temple, the main building, is off limits to visitors until 2016 while it undergoes a renovation. However, you can still get a taste for Masamune’s style with a walk around the neighbouring guardhouse and the modern Seiryū-den (both included in the ticket). Alongside the normal array of temple treasures, this museum has statues of a squinting Masamune, in full armour and in an uncompromising mood, alongside his angelic-looking wife and eldest daughter. This statue of Masamune is a rarity in that it shows his missing right eye.
In front of Zuigan-ji, just north of the ferry pier, two tiny islands are threaded together with arched vermilion bridges. No one knows why the bridges were built with precarious gaps between the planks, but one suggestion is that it kept women (who were forbidden) from crossing and sullying the sacred ground, because of their awkward traditional shoes and kimono. The object of their curiosity was the Godai-dō (五大堂), a picturesque pavilion built by order of Masamune in the early 1600s. It houses statues of five Buddhist deities, which can only be viewed every 33 years – the next is 2039. Meanwhile, you’ll have to make do with the charming carvings of the twelve animals of the zodiac decorating the eaves.
There are a couple of larger, less-frequented islands along the seafront, of which Oshima (雄島), five minutes’ walk south, is the more interesting. Once a retreat for Buddhist priests, the island’s soft rock is pocked with caves, tablets and monuments; from its east side you get attractive views of Matsushima Bay. The second island, Fukuura-jima (福浦島), lies north of Godai-dō across a 252m-long bridge. A natural botanical garden, it’s home to more than 250 native plant species, and makes a good picnic spot.
The hills around Matsushima town provide plenty of opportunities for panoramic views of the bay. Of the four main lookout points, southerly Sōkanzan (双観山) is reckoned to offer the best all-round views, including both Shiogama and Matsushima itself; take a taxi (¥2500 return fare) to avoid the thirty-minute climb on a busy road. Alternatively, Saigyō Modoshi-no-matsu (西行戻しの松) is a more pleasant, fifteen-minute scramble west of the station.