The pretty, coastal town of Matsushima is one of the nihon sankei, aka the three most scenic places in Japan (the others are the island of Miyajima near Hiroshima and Amanohashidate, a pine-tree topped sandbank in Miyazu Bay). Nestled on the coast in the centre of Miyagi prefecture, the town’s beautiful bay is dotted with more than 250 small islands.
Browsing the shops and cafés that line the shore front, it’s hard to imagine that five years ago this peaceful, picture-perfect spot witnessed one of the worst natural disasters in recent memory – the massive 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami that struck off Japan’s north-east coast on 11 March 2011.
Matsushima, unlike its neighbouring towns and villages along the coast, was spared the full devastating effects of the enormous tsunami thanks to the islands in the bay, which acted as a buffer against the huge waves, reducing the tsunami’s impact on the town. Nevertheless, the wall of water that hit the town was immense – I visited one shop on the shore front that had a sign in its window indicating the water level, which reached my shoulders.
During my visit, the sea is calm, it’s a warm day and the serene bay is full of people enjoying the sunshine, the sights and the weird and wonderful Japanese snacks (wasabi, jellyfish or whitebait ice cream anyone?). We decided to take a boat trip around the bay, in and around the many islands, to fully appreciate the spectacular natural defences before us, and so we hopped on a relaxing cruise that lasted around three-quarters of an hour. The oddly shaped, tree-topped islands were spectacular and the bay very much deserves its scenic reputation, it’s an incredibly pretty part of the world.
Following the boat ride, we headed over to Godaido Temple (above), a small temple on a little island just off the shore, accessible via little wooden bridges filled with small stalls selling souvenirs and kitsch toys. The teeny island was teeming with tourists taking pictures of the ancient wooden temple and having joined the hoards and snapped our own photos, we headed back to the mainland to visit the Zuigan-ji temple.
The temple itself was closed as it was undergoing an extensive, years-long renovation, but we were still able to walk around the tree-lined grounds and admire the sights. Chief among these were the small caves underneath the cliffs that overlook the park, which were home to lots of interesting shrines and statues (above).
On leaving the temple, we passed a couple of small shops selling fresh oysters. I’d never tried oysters before, but my brother-in-law promptly handed me a rather large, raw oyster. “Swallow it whole,” came the order from my father. But it was alarmingly big and I couldn’t bring myself to swallow it, so I stood there, chewing for a good five minutes – much to my family’s amusement – before I got any of it down my throat. It certainly wasn’t one of my most glamorous moments.
We finished our day with a trip to Fukuura Island, a largish island off the coast accessible by a long red footbridge. The island was full of picturesque little coves and beaches, some of which we had to clamber down fairly precarious paths to get to, and there was a small wooden temple on the island, too. It’s incredibly idyllic and was the perfect place to while away the remainder of the afternoon.
Matsushima is a world away from Japan’s frenetic big cities and made for a fantastic day trip from Sendai, where we were staying. It was easy to see why it’s revered as one of the three most scenic places in the country and I will definitely be adding the other two nihon sankei to my itinerary on future trips to Japan.