There’s a story that everyone in Japan will tell you about Matsushima Bay. Back in 1689, the great haiku poet, Matsuo Basho, was traveling on foot from Tokyo to the northernmost shore of Japan’s main island. He documented this six month journey in his most famous work, Narrow Road to the Deep North.
As he trekked up the northern coast, he ascended a hill overlooking Matsushima Bay. As he looked down at the bay, and the 260 stone islands covered with windbent pines, he was overcome by the beauty. He said it was, “impossible to describe with any expressions or words.” The place left this famous wordsmith without any words at all!
We visited the bay on our recent trip to Japan, and it had the same effect on me.
So I’ll let our photos do the talking.
A Photo Tour of Matsushima Bay
Matsushima Bay is an easy day trip from anywhere in northern or central Japan. It’s only 30 minutes by rail from Sendai (where we were staying), or two hours by rail from Tokyo.
A logical first thing to do in town would be to climb the hill overlooking the bay, just as the poet, Basho, did. The natural structure of the bay hasn’t changed all that much since Basho’s time. It’s considered one of the top three views in all of Japan. In 2013, a global conservation organization voted Matsushima as one of the most beautiful bays in the world, alongside San Francisco Bay and iconic Halong Bay, Vietnam.
This part of northern Japan (Miyagi Prefecture) was one of the hardest hit by the great earthquake and tsunami in 2011. Luckily for Matsushima, the relatively undeveloped outer islands absorbed the most serious damage (visible in the upper left of the photo below), though the local businesses downtown experienced some flooding and earthquake damage.
After returning to the village, we stopped by Kanrantai, a 17th century teahouse built by famous feudal lord, Date Masamune. The interior has been carefully restored with gold-leaf murals of the Matsushima Islands and windswept pine trees.
We kneeled on the floor in the gilded living room to enjoy the tea service.
From the open living room, we could see this view of the bay and the tourist boats that we would take later.
Our next stop was Godaido, a buddhist worship hall built on a tiny island close to the pier.
This island is connected to the mainland by Sukashi-bashi (called “see through bridge” because you can see the ocean through the large gaps in the floorboards). Today, wide wooden slats run down the middle to make the walk feel more secure, but our guide told us those weren’t there in the past. The large gaps existed to keep women (wearing geta, the traditional wooden flip flops, requiring tiny steps) from daring to cross to the island.
Godaido was originally built in 807, but (like the teahouse above) was re-built in the 17th Century by samurai lord, Date Masamune.
The tiny worship hall exists as it was built in the 1600’s, though the original paint has faded over the last four centuries, letting us admire the bare wood.
After Godaido, we took a walk downtown and passed one local shop that was still shuttered from earthquake and tsunami damage. There were photos posted up of what it looked like inside.
But most of the businesses are back up and running. While waiting for our ferry, we stopped in a local sweets shop to try edemame (soy bean) flavored ice cream, a local specialty in the Tohoku region.
Finally we were ready for the highlight of the day: The Matsushima Bay sightseeing cruise. Tourist boats depart several times a day from the Matsushima pier.
The sightseeing ship passes by dozens of islands in the bay and the guide tells the history and legends of the islands
Some of them had really remarkable shapes like this one (called Kane-jima) with a series of four caverns cutting through it.
Or this island (Niou-jima) with a rocky structure that looks like an animal’s head.
And on Yoroi-jima, where the cliffs are curved like the crest of a wave.
Legend holds that Lord Date Masamune held his full moon parties on this island, Zaijo-jima.
Matsushima Bay is famous for their oysters, and we could see the massive oyster fishing operation in place on the northern end of the Bay.
Throughout the trip, seagulls followed our boat, and the tour guide advised us not to feed them. In the past it was very common for tourists to feed the birds to keep them around for the ride, but they just recently outlawed that unsustainable practice. No one told the gulls…
After about one hour, the ship returned to land at the port in the town of Shiogama, just a short walk from the train station.
Our visit to Matsushima Bay was supported by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Miyagi Prefectural Government. All opinions and photos are my own.
Have you ever visited a place that left you speechless?