Matsushima means “Pine Islands”, which is a fitting name for the some 260 islands scattered off the shore north of Sendai in Miyagi prefecture. It is said to be one of the three views of Japan, as all great things in this country seem to come in groups of three, and there is plenty there to make it a worthwhile day tripping candidate.
What to SEE
The main attraction here are the many stone islands spattered about, which drastically transform from one season to the next. From being on fire in fall to powdered pink in spring, Matsushima is worth seeing more than just once.
Fukuura-Jima is one of the larger islands and is accessible by a very long foot bridge over the water, which superstition says will cause couples who walk across it together to breakup. There is a small shrine nestled in the heart of the island, but otherwise it’s simply a lot of pathways through nature, leading up to some great views over the entire bay.
Spread over the islands, there are four famous views of Matsushima: the Magnificent, Enchanting, Beautiful, and Grand views. You can pick up maps guiding you there if you want or you can explore on your own and find your own favourite spots.
If you want to get out past the islands accessible by land, there are boat tours that meander around the bay to some of the further out spots.
In addition to the natural beauty, there are some other sights of interest around the area. There is Zuigan-ji, a famous temple that serves more as a museum these days (and also may currently still be under renovations) and is located at the far end of a pine-covered pathway lined with large stone walls, carved out and littered with Buddhist statues. The Kanran-tei pavilion isn’t far off, offering a walk through a lovely zen garden and a small tea house to sit in peace and refresh yourself.
All of this can easily be gotten to by foot, as the town is quite small, but each place will charge a small admission fee per person.
What to BUY
There are plenty of souvenir shops littering the area, but nothing of particular interest. Pick up the local version of your favourite collectible character if you want, whether it’s Kitty-chan or Stitch. You can also find some very nice handmade Kokeshi dolls for sale as the area around Miyagi and Yamagata are both well known for them.
What to EAT
The Sendai area is most famous for gyutan, or cow tongue. It may sound gross at first, conjuring up an image of a thick, slobbery tongue on a platter, but it is actually quite good. It is sliced very thin, so you would hardly know it was tongue unless you were told, and often served over rice, on a stick or just by itself. It’s a tad pricey, but if in the area it is really worth giving a try. Hiyashi chukka (cold Chinese noodles) and zundamochi (mocha balls with sweet, bright green edamame paste inside) are also a specialty of the region. Finally, being near the sea means good seafood, like fresh sashimi, sushi and some really good oysters. October to march is prime oyster season and you can find some all you can eat buffets open during that time.
How to get there
Take a train or bus to Sendai station and from there grab the JR Senseki Line (仙石線) and take it to Matsushima-Kaigan (松島海岸). You can also get off at the main Matsushima station, but you’ll have to take a pretty long trek from there to reach the main attractions. The train ride from Sendai is 25 minutes on rapid train or closer to 40 by rapid.
As the Haiku poet Matsuo Basho said, after being stricken speechless by Matsushima’s beauty:
A-ah, Matsushima, ah!