When in Japan, a visit to the enchanting islands of Matsushima is a must.
This summer I returned to Japan for a university lecture in Sendai, in the country’s northern part. Not far from there is Fukushima, a place that evokes memories that are still painful due to an unresolved situation, but also other locales that are able to stir positive sensations. For example, Matsushima.
On a two-day trip, the chance to be a tourist was reduced to a minimum. I had to choose what to see. In my case, someone chose for me, and it was the professor friend who invited me to give the lecture. “Would you like to come to Matsushima? We’ll be there and back in a few hours,” he asked. I couldn’t resist.
From Sendai you can get to Matsushima by a very comfortable train – like all Japanese trains when they’re not crowded. When we arrived, the weather wasn’t great. It was a bit rainy, but in the end, and luckily, it wasn’t very hot (the first half of July can easily fall into the rainy season). My friend’s professor brought along a Japanese student and together we decided to take a ride on a small boat to see the islands of the archipelago. We had little time, the duration of the trip was not excessive and the cost was low.
The Matsushima Archipelago is said to consist of 260 small islands and is also one of the most traditionally celebrated views in Japan—it’s a wonder. Composed of two kanji (the characters of Japanese writing borrowed and reworked from Chinese ones), the word Matsushima means “islands” (shima) and “pine trees” (matsu). We visited the islands of Kane-jima, Chōmei-jima, Niou-jima, Katsura-jima and Koma-jima, and among them, Niou-jima has the most peculiar shape. It can easily be mistaken for a kind of art installation or spaceship wreckage from who knows what planet. It reminded me of what my professor friend had told me about Bashō, the great Japanese poet of haiku and his relationship with the landscape of the archipelago.
Lunch break: where to go, what to do? A place by the sea – one thinks – and then, of course, fish. Reasoning knows a bit of clichés, but it is one that does not produce errors. So we walked in search of somewhere to sit and eat. Everywhere the food is high quality, so I trust the advice of my companions of fortune and chose a dish with grilled oysters as the protagonists. Everything is great. Then, as a snack, we went to try a local specialty, Sasa Kamaboko, an excellent fish cake.
In the afternoon, we visit the Buddhist temple of Zuiganj, one of the largest in the region of Tōhoku which dates back to the year 828. The immense, harmonious structure was founded by the monk Jikaku Daish who was hoping to spread the Buddhist faith.
However, the temple owes its modern fame to Date Masamune, a daimyō of Tōhoku and who revamped it into a family temple in 1609. Today the entire complex has several precious sights, including the “Peacock Room” located in the central structure (Zuiganji Hondō). Today, the temple still hosts Buddhist celebrations. In fact, its name comes from the decorations on the sliding doors painted by “court” artist Sakuma Shūri. These are decorations that certainly do not leave one indifferent.
Even though I could have spent more time in this incredible place, I left Matsushima happy. Even if you’re not a poet, the preciousness of certain places – sometimes – seems within everyone’s reach.