Friday, April 26, 2013

Visiting Japan's Most Scenic View Of Matsushima

Matsushima ah!
A-ah, Matsushima, ah!
Matsushima, ah!

Matsuo Basho
Haiku poet (1689)


In 1689, Haiku poet Matsuo Basho visited Matsushima on the trip recorded in Narrow Road to the Deep North. A well-known poem often attributed to Basho claims to record his reaction, signifying that nothing more could be said.

Matsushima, located in the central part of Miyagi prefecture and about half an hour outside of Sendai, is famous for its bay, which is dotted by over 200 small pine (matsu, 松) clad islets (shima, 島), hence its name. The view of Matsushima changes from place-to-place and from-season-to-season, and is so beautiful that it has been ranked as one of Japan's three most scenic views for centuries, alongside Itsukushima Shrine in Hiroshima and the pine-clad sandbar of Amanohashidate in Kyoto, Matsushima

Matsushima that has been written in waka (和歌), or Japanese poetry since ancient times is well known as the place to dazzle sophisticated individuals every years to come. Matsuo Basho, a poet, once wrote in his famous work "The Narrow Road to the Deep North" extolled Matsushima Bay formed by more than 260 motley kinds of islands having different shapes and sizes. Matsushima as it has been called one of the most representative places in Japan that can offer the view with many beautiful islands truly brings the splendid and exhilarating time with each seasons come.

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Matsushimakaigan Station, the nearest station to the famous bay.

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The signboard that reads, "Welcome to Matsushima".

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A monument that mentioned Matsushima as one of Japan's three most celebrated scenic sights, attributed to 1643 and scholar Hayashi Gahō.

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An open space with the legendary Godaido temple in the background.

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Matsushima was hit by the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, but escaped major damage thanks to its protected location inside the island dotted bay.
This is some part of the town where damaged could be spotted.

Enough of a short introduction of Matsushima. My second day in Sendai was a short visit to Matsushima. The train journey from Sendai station on the Senseki line (仙石線) took about 40 minutes. It was a Sunday, the weather was clear and what I saw upon arriving was throngs of visitors were already there to visit one of Miyagi's most well-known gem. 

The first stop was the picturesque Matsushima Bay which is dotted with small islands covered by black and red pines and grayish white rocks. The views of Matsushima Bay from the four view spots of Ogi-tani, Tomi-yama, Otaka-mori, and Tamon-zan are truly spectacular, which is called "Matsushima Shidaikan," the four grandest views in Matsushima. With its stunning island scenery, the place is frequented by visitors all year round.

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How can one separate pine from Matsushima?

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The beautiful red bridge that connects to Godaido Shrine.

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A cute little haiku (short form of Japanese poetry) box.

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Godaido is a Buddhist wooden worship hall located on a small island named Godaidojima

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Godaido, which is enlisted as among the Important Cultural Property of Japan.

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On the curved wooden supports of the four walls, carvings of the 12 signs of the Chinese zodiac are arranged facing their corresponding direction.

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The breathtaking view of Matsushima Bay from Godaidojima.

Godaido is a small temple hall on an islet just next to the pier. Due to its prominent location, it has become a symbol of Matsushima. Godaido was built in 807 and contains five statues which where enshrined by the same priest who founded nearby Zuiganji. The statues are displayed to the public only once every 33 years, and were last displayed in 2006.  

The present building is a 1604 reconstruction by the local feudal lord Date Masamune. The hall's exterior is decorated by small carvings of the twelve animals of the lunar calendar, three on each side. Despite its exposed location, the Godaido did not suffer any major damage in the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011.

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To go across this bridge, you have to pay the toll.

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Zunda (mashed young green soybeans) flavour soft cream.

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The magnificent Fukuura Bridge that connects Fukuurajima to the mainland.

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Just another few steps until reaching the island.

Fukuura Island (福浦島, Fukuurajima) is one of the few pine covered islands in Matsushima Bay that is accessible to the public. The island is reached via a 252 meter long, red painted bridge that costs 200 yen (round trip) to cross. The bridge was damaged by the tsunami of March 11, 2011 and had to undergo repair works.  

The island is a natural botanical garden with a network of pleasant walking trails. It takes about one hour to walk all the trails at a leisurely pace. Some nice views of the bay can be enjoyed along the way. A circuit of the island won't take more than an hour and there are some very sparsely beautiful spots to be seen. An interesting anecdote, there is a local superstition that crossing the bridge with a girlfriend/boyfriend will cause a breakup.

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 The island, unsurprisingly, is covered with pine trees.

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Bentendo (弁天堂), a tiny Buddhist structure on Fukuurajima, Matsushima.

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One of the walking trails found on the island.

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There are some trails where you just walk on the ground.

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A observatory deck at the end of the trail.

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The magnificent view of Matsushima Bay.

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Another angle of the bay from the deck.

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The beach is mostly muddy, and sometimes you will spot locals collecting oyster from the water.

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Daruma dolls (after Bodhidharma, founder of the Zen school of Buddhism) foundin between a crack in a stone.

It was time for lunch after going around the island. Matsushima is well known for its fresh oyster and most of the restaurants here offer a huge variety of menu based on oyster. You have fried oyster, oyster soba, oyster udon, and even oyster favoured soft cream!

Our stop was at Nanbuya (南部屋). This restaurant has existed since the Edo period and is famous in this area for its oyster menu. During the tsunami on March 11, 2011, this restaurant was not spared as it is located just a stone's throw from the seaside. The water level which went into the restaurant was almost 1.2 meter and the water line could be seen from the photos on the wall in the restaurant.

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The main street in Matsushima.

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The menu on the table. Love the hand-written style with colourful pictures.
 
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Kaki-don set, which comes with fresh oyster and also fried oyster.

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Matsushima soba, which comes with oyster and sasakamaboko (笹かまぼこ), similar to fishcake.

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Another famous food from Sendai - fried kamaboko (揚げかまぼこ)

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What makes it special here is that the kamaboko here is made of tofu.

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More fresh seafood found at the stalls along the roadside.

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Some statues near the Zuigan-ji Temple.

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Sakura was in full bloom around Matsushima.

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One random temple at the area.

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Time to take the train back to Sendai.

When I was leaving Matsushima, I felt that I loved the place more than ever. From the pier, the seaside attractions are within walking distance. Theold zen temple can be reached through towering huge pines trees, a traditional Japanese garden that you can walk around, shops selling good seafood, a park where you can lie down, have picnic and delight in the quietness of the small town. ​

If you are visiting Miyagi in the near future, remember to include Matsushima in your itinerary!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Weekend Gateaway In Sendai

"Rectitude carried to excess hardens into stiffness; 
benevolence indulged beyond measure sinks into weakness."

Date Masamune (1567-1636)
founder of Sendai city



The locals of Sendai city often describe their city as "not too big, nor not too small, it's very convenient and it's close to both the sea and the mountains." Sendai city is the largest city in the northern region of Tohoku in Honshu island. The city possesses beautiful scenery, such as the Hirose-gawa River that runs through central Sendai, and the lush zelkova trees that line its streets. Greenery is especially abundant in the center of the city, which has tree-lined streets and parks. As a result, Sendai is called 杜の都 (Mori no Miyako, "Forest City").

I made a short two-days-one-night trip to this city over the weekend, temporarily to escape from the busy and crazy like in Tokyo. The journey on the night bus took us six hours and I woke up to a freezing morning at Sendai station.

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Five-thirty in the morning. You could hardly spot any human beings at the station at this hour.

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Early morning recharge at McDonalds.

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Walked to the nearby Tsutsujigaoka Park (榴ヶ岡公園) to catch the beautiful cherry blooms.
This park has a variety of Someiyoshino and weeping cherry trees planted along its paved lanes.

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Although the sakura season has ended in Tokyo, the cherry blossoms were at their peak over the weekend.

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One of the high-end section near the station, where it looks very much like Omotesando in Tokyo.

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The famous Jozenji Street (定禅寺通り). There are stories which says couples who visited this street together will break up after some time.

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A short break for a simple brunch at Mos Burger - hamburger and corn soup.

The modern city of Sendai was founded around the year 1600 by Date Masamune, one of feudal Japan's most powerful lords. Many of Sendai's tourist attractions are related to Masamune and his family.  

Sendai was the closest major city to the epicenter of the devastating earthquake of March 11, 2011. The tsunami devastated the city's coastal outskirts and the Sendai airport but fortunately, the city center was spared from major damage. Virtually all tourist spots reopened within a few months of the earthquake. Today, more than two years after that faithful day, the city has bounced back to its former state, although there are still several regions which are still in the process of recovery.

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It has been some time since I took the train using a ticket. When I'm in Tokyo, SUICA comes in handy.

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Musubimaru (むすび丸), the mascot character that promotes tourism in Miyagi prefecture.

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A statue in Asahigaoka Park.

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Dried lotus plants on the pond.

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Come summer, this lake will be covered with beautiful lotus.

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A Mandarin duck was spotted swimming in the pond.

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Sakura still in their buds, due to the cold weather.

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There are however, a few petals, which have bloomed.

After strolling around the city throughout the morning, it was time to get some food for lunch, before heading to the next destination. Lunch was just a simple meal at Handaya (半田屋), which is a perfect place for someone who looks for good value for their money. The restaurant practises such a concept, similar to university cafeteria where you get to choose any combinations for your meal from the wide variety of menus.

One thing for sure, the food here is cheap, tastes good and will guarantee you a full stomach after your meal. One downside however, is that there isn't any branches in Tokyo.

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Hiyashi chuka (chilled noodles), a Sendai specialty with tonjiru (pork soup) and salad for lunch,

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The local train in Sendai. There are only two to three coaches, way lesser then the trains in Tokyo.

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Rows of breathtaking sakura trees along Shiroishi river (白石川). There are approximately 1,000 cherry blossom trees that line along the river.

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One cool thing about the train ride is that they decrease the speed along this stretch for the passengers to enjoy the beautiful sight of the cherry blossoms.

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Emerald blue river and mountain with snow caps in the background. This is what I miss a lot when I am in Tokyo.

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Finally, arrival at Shiroishi station after almost an hour of train ride.

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As the most southern city in Miyagi prefecture, it is just a small city with population of 37,000 people.

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The major attraction of this city every spring is the Shiroishi castle.

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The main tower of the castle, which was restored in 1995 and opened to public.

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A small park within the castle, which is hugely popular during the hanami season.

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Small huts selling snacks and drinks.

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On the way home, stopped to get this famous snack called Haginotsuki (萩の月), similar to castella with custard cream as its filling.

Mention Sendai and one of the most synonymous dish related to this city is none other than gyutan (牛タン), or grilled beef tongue. These thinly sliced beef tongue are usually cooked over a charcoal grill, or in donburi form, as a curry, or in a beed stew. During my previous visit to Sendai, which was almost two years ago, I missed out trying this delicacy because the idea of eating ox's tongue is just too kimochiwarui (disgusting) to me.

However, this time, I managed to overcome my fear and decided to try and see how gyutan tastes like. For dinner, we dropped by Rikyu, a famous chain restaurant for its gyutan. There were already a long queue when we arrived there but fortunately, we managed to get into the restaurant in less than half an hour.

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Rikyu (利久), one of the two most popular gyutan chain restaurant in Sendai.

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It was full house inside the restaurant. However, there were plenty of staff and you won't be make to wait long until you get your food.

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Starter for the day - boiled beef with miso paste and fine onion slice.

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The set meal I ordered. It comes together with a bowl of oxtail soup and teamed white rice with barley (mugi gohan).

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A closer look at the plate of gyutan. My verdict? It actually tastes much better than I initially thought and it is recommended if you happen to be in Sendai.

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Something new and raw. Gyutan sushi.

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Another dish with gyutan as its base - gyutan ice cream.

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After the satisfying meal and a short walk around the city, it was time to retire at the hotel.

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The final stop to end the day was the top floor of SS30 to get a night view of Sendai city.

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What a perfect place to end the wonderful day with such a magnificent night view of Sendai city.

That's the end of day one in Sendai. Stay tune for the second day of my exploration of this beautiful city. Thanks for reading.