The archipelago of Matsushima is frequently featured in rankings of the most scenic places in Japan. This picturesque little town makes a perfect day trip from Sendai.
Matsushima is one of the Nihon Sankei or “Three Great Sights of Japan”. It is located only 25 kilometres from Sendai, and is what we would consider a must see if you find yourself in the region. What makes Matsushima so special is the archipelago next to the town. Consisting of approximately 260 tiny islands, the vast majority of the islands are barren, uninhabited, and covered in pines, but a handful have some small settlements.
The view of this spectacular archipelago can be enjoyed from several viewpoints in the village, but if you want the best possible experience, the hour-long cruises are hard to beat.
Besides the beautiful scenery, Matsujima also boasts several impressive shrines and temples, with the most famous being the Zuigan-ji Temple, one of the most important Zen temples in northern Japan. The temple dates back all the way to the Heian Period (794-1185), but the current structures were built over a five-year period back in the 17th century.
One of the most famous features of the temple is the impressive paintings on the sliding walls that separate the rooms. In fact, these paintings are so special they managed to get the temple designated as a National Treasure. Next to the temple, you will find the Zuiganji Art Museum, where you can find several other ancient treasures, some of which originally belonged to Date Masamune, the founder of Sendai and the man who unified most of Tohoku.
Matsushima was close to the epicentre of the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami, but suffered relatively little damage thanks to the surrounding geography. After the earthquake, Zuiganji opened up its doors to evacuees, both locals and stranded tourists, and became a shelter for about 300 people. Within a couple of months, most of the businesses in Matsushima had reopened, and today things are pretty much back to normal, with few traces remaining of the disaster. Near the temple, you will find a small market street with several charming shops selling everything from food to souvenirs.
Matsushima is also famous for its oysters, often mentioned alongside those grown in Hiroshima. There are plenty of restaurants in town offering all you can eat menus for the very reasonable price of 3000 yen during lunch hours. No matter if you prefer your oysters raw, fried or grilled, Matsushima will most certainly not disappoint. Oysters are served all year round, but the best season is from October to March. There’s even an oyster festival held here during the first Sunday in February, where local producers often give away free bowls of oyster hotpot (kakinabe), an excellent way to stay warm despite the chilly winter winds.
The beauty of Matsushima is difficult to capture in words. Matsuo Basho, the famous Edo era haiku master, famously tried but was at loss, in the end he came up with this somewhat unconventional Haiku:
A-ah, Matsushima, ah!
Matsushima can be reached by taking the Senseki line from JR Sendai Station, with the trip taking 35 minutes and costing 410 Yen.