Matsushima: The Shining Jewel of Miyagi
If you’re traveling from Tokyo, Sendai Station will be your hub where you get off the Shinkansen and transfer to a local train. But don’t just pass through. Spend some time in this station because there are so many good eats. We recommend trying some zunda, a local treat made from ground edamame. Zunda mochi and zunda shakes (we tried both) are two common variations.
We also highly recommend the sake shop, which has a vending machine to top all Japanese vending machines. It has a sake tasting vending machine that, for ¥100, will pour you small cups of different local sake. It’s like playing the slot machines except you never lose.
Take the JR Senseki Line to Matsushimakaigan Station, a quaint little platform of a stop that looks over Matsushima Bay. A short walk and you’ll reach a pier where ferries take you off on a one-hour cruise that circles the bay and follows the route explored by Japanese haiku master Matsuo Basho. It’s a wonderful way to get acquainted with a region that is blessed with some of the most beautiful island scenery in the country. The boat passes many islands, each with a different name and a distinct shape and form.
A few steps down the pier is Godaido Temple and the vermillion bridge connecting, which connects the small island to the coast. Depending on your fear of heights (or your leg span), the bridge could be quite harrowing. Planks are deliberately spaced far apart so that you must look down, through the planks, and at the sea below as you cross.
The present structure was built in 1604 by Date Masamune. In the temple are installed images of the five guardian Buddhist deities. Walking around the temple you can see some fantastic craft-work that includes the zodiac animals carved into all four walls. There aren’t too many places where you can get up-close and personal with a 400-year old temple, and then turn around to be surrounded by the beauty of the sea.
Ume Luv Kimono Rental
This isn’t for everyone but if you’re into it, Ume Luv, which is conveniently located right near the port, offers kimono rentals. For ¥5,000 (US$45.90) you can select from over 200 designs and the gracious host will fit you up so you’re ready to go. You can then walk around the historic temples, sit down for green tea and sweets and take in the scenery, all the while feeling as though you’ve been transported back in time. There’s a wonderful little tea house called kanran-tei right nearby where you can do such a thing.
Whether you’re clothed in traditional kimono attire or not, a stroll through Matsushima’s best-known structure and the most famous Zen temple in northern Japan is definitely worth it. Located just a couple minutes’ walk from Matsushima Kaigan Pier, its entrance is shaded by tall cedar trees. The green carpet of moss below the trees sets the stage for the calm, serene environment.
Highlights include the pathway leading to the temple, which is dotted with caves and grottoes dug out by priests long ago. The impressive main hall and its interior, which features wood-carved transoms and brilliantly painted, gold-plated fusuma.
If you’ve been following our recommendations, the day is probably coming to an end. But before you pack it up for the night, head to Otakamori for one last excursion. The relatively small mountain is an enjoyable 30-min hike that will take you 107 meters (350 ft) above water for a fantastic view over the sea and islands. And while the sunset is certainly breathtaking, making the hike any time of day is worthwhile. The mountain is a bit out of the way so check to see if your lodge offers a shuttle.
Speaking of lodging, Matsushima has plenty of inns and hotels for all budgets. One of the more high-end hotels is Ubudo, which is large but not too large. The food is amazing, the rooms and rooftop baths are luxurious, and it has this cool Southeast Asian island vibe.
For the budget-conscious traveler there are also many ryokan-style inns and one of them is Chidorikan. The rooms are sparse but clean; the meals (which are included) are just as amazing as any high-end hotel. And it’s just steps away from the sea.
For the active and adventurous, Matsushima offers a host of experience-based activities like sea kayaking, boat fishing and boat steering. Try your hand at operating a fishing boat (with an instructor by your side) or traditional basket fishing (keep what you catch!). At the very least, let a local fisherman take you out on the sea for an experience you won’t forget.