Matsushima Bay 松島
The islands of Matsushima
Sunset in Matsushima Bay
All of the Matsushima islands are covered in pine trees
Zuigan-ji temple in winter
A cave near Zuigan-ji temple in Matsushima
Zuigan-ji temple in fall
Matsushima painted by ukiyo-e master Utagawa Hiroshige
The pearl of Tohoku
The Matsushima archipelago isn't just one of the three most beautiful landscapes of Japan, it's also an ancient cultural treasure.
Matsushima Bay, in the Tohoku region, offers one of the most striking views in Japan. The pine trees that cover its 260 islets have led to the archipelago being named the "pine islands", and earned it its place as one of the Nihon Sankei, the three most scenic views in the country, alongside Itsukushima on Miyajima Island, and Amanohashidate, north of Kyoto.
A geological rarity
The islands of Matsushima are the result of a singular geological phenomenon: each of them is the point where an ancient valley covered by the water emerges, according to the tectonic movements. Within the archipelago, the depth of the sea does not exceed 10 meters. Over time, erosion has given all the islands unusual forms, some of which looked like mushrooms. The pine trees took advantage of the favorable natural conditions to cover the archipelago with a mantle of greenery, making it a unique landscape in Japan.
Cruise between the islands
To admire the islands, nothing compares to a boat cruise. Several companies offer tours from the port of Matsushima, a few minutes' walk from Matsushima Kaigan Railway Station. For a price between 1,000 and 1,500 yen (between $9 and $13), you can enjoy the scenery along the water. Some cruises will take you to the neighboring island of Shiogama and its Shinto shrine. Others go to Oku-Matsushima, a remote area less popular with tourists. There are regular departures from 10am to 4pm.
Two islands are connected by bridges to the mainland, and are easily accessible on foot. The first is the island of Oshima, once a place of asceticism for the monks of Matsushima. It also includes decorated caves that were used for meditation. Today, Oshima is a pleasant place to walk in the shade of the pine trees. The second island is Fukuura-jima, which is reached by a 252 meter bridge (price: 300 yen / $2.70). It also offers several walking routes and some pretty views of the bay.
The beauty of the archipelago of Matsushima struck the poet Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), and moved him to the point of speechlessness. After his visit to the bay, the master of haiku poetry could leave to posterity only these three, now famous, interjections:
(Excerpt from Oku no Hosomichi - The Narrow Road to the Interior)
Matsushima Bay also inspired the genius of ukiyo-e, Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858). The painter made it one of the Famous Views of the Sixty-one Provinces, a series of prints painted between 1853 and 1856 to immortalize the most beautiful landscapes of Japan.
A temple reflection of nature
The site inspired not only poets and painters. Buddhist monks also saw it as the ideal place for a monastic retreat, and built temples there to reflect the natural beauty of the site. The most famous is Zuigan-ji Temple. Founded in 828, it first belonged to the Tendai school before being converted into a Zen temple during the Kamakura period (1192-1333).
Read also: Zen in Japan
Restored by the feudal lord Date Masamune in 1609, it's a typical example of classical Japanese architecture. The main hall and the kitchen are listed as national treasures. The temple is also famous for its magnificent fusuma, richly decorated Japanese sliding doors, and its long cedar lined driveway that serves as a natural vestibule.
The symbol of Matsushima
Right next to Zuigan-ji is another Buddhist temple: Entsu-in. It was built in 1646 to serve as a mausoleum to the son of another lord, Date Mitsumune. The interior is decorated with gold leaf and paintings, some inspired by Christian art. Don't miss the moss and maple garden that borders the monastery.
Another temple is Godaido, built on the cliff side, which became the symbol of the bay of Matsushima. Dating from 807, it houses five sacred statues that are only shown to the public every 33 years! Mark your diary for 2039...
The tea house of Kanrantei
Originally built in Kyoto by the great daimyo Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598), this Momoyama-style tea house was offered to Lord Date Masamune and moved to Matsushima. Kanrantei, literally "Pavilion for contemplating the waves", offers a view overlooking the sea and islets of the archipelago. The building contains two rooms decorated with fusuma and intended to accommodate the wives of the feudal lords, and the princesses and emissaries of the shogun. Visit the house and sample a cup of matcha tea (from 600 yen / $5), before visiting the museum which has weapons, armor and other relics of feudal Japan on display.
Note: Matsushima Bay, like the entire coast of Sendai, was affected by the March 2011 tsunami. Most of the area was protected by the islands and suffered relatively little damage, but work on some affected buildings may still be ongoing.