The 260 islands of Matsushima Bay are collectively considered one of the three most scenic sights in Japan. Even legendary haiku poet Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) struggled to describe the beauty he encountered here on the coast of Miyagi Prefecture in Tohoku.
You can walk to a few of those hundreds of islands and explore black and red pine forests and ancient temples, which include Zuiganji, the family temple of the powerful Date clan that ruled this region.
Matsushima is accessible by train and bus from major cities in Tokyo and the Kansai area.
From Tokyo take a 90-minute bullet train ride to Sendai on the JR Tohoku Shinkansen. A 25- to 40-minute train ride on the Senseki Line gets you to Matsushima. Note: Depart at Matsushima-Kaigan Station, not Matsushima Station, since the latter is far from the tourist attractions.
Take a walk to Matsushima's coastline and enjoy the scene at your own pace. For a loftier view of the landscape and the 260 islands in the bay, go up into the observation tower, which is built to resemble an ancient castle.
Other fine sights include the three islands with bridges that offer unique views, and the four recommended viewing spots—Ogidani, Tomiyama, Otakamori, and Tamonzan—collectively known as Matsushima Shidaikan. They take some time to reach but live up to their reputations.
Hop on a ferry to enjoy the most popular close-up view of the islands. One course will take you on a loop of the bay, while the other runs one-way from Matsushima to the city of Shiogama. The ferries run year-round. A bilingual audio announcement and maps detail the history and names of some of the more unusual islands.
Save money by skipping the ferry and walking to three of Matsushima's islands over the footbridges connected to the mainland.
The central island adjacent to the ferry terminal is home to Godaido, a small temple that has become a symbol of Matsushima. The temple was originally built in 807, though the current structure dates to 1604 when Sendai's feudal lord went on a major construction spree to bolster his new domain.
Fukuura Island is easily spotted thanks to its 252-meter-long red bridge. For a small entrance fee, you can cross and wander around the forested island. Follow the paths to the opposite side for another splendid view of the bay. Be sure to greet the local fishermen, who claim the bridge is a lucky spot for catching fish.
The other island you can walk to is Oshima. Exit Matsushima-Kaigan Station, head for the shore and then go south along the coast for five to ten minutes. The temples and hand-carved meditation caves used by ancient monks are perfect places to contemplate life.
Zuiganji is the most important Zen temple in the Tohoku region. Originally built in 828, it was later restored by the warlord Date Masamune and designated his family's temple.
Since Date's castle was in Sendai, Zuiganji also served as a makeshift fortress to protect against any surprise attacks. The hidden features incorporated into the temple's design by the cunning samurai include the temple kitchen chimney, which doubles as a watchtower, a hallway lined with creaking “nightingale” floorboards to warn of intruders, and the tight passageways and outside walkways.
Next to Zuiganji is the smaller Entsuin, built by the Date clan leader Date Terumune in 1646. The temple was constructed to mourn his son Mitsumune, who died at the young age of 19. The mausoleum holds a statue of the son on a white horse surrounded by Western motifs. Entsuin has both a Japanese-style garden and Western-style rose garden. The autumn leaves here are particularly beautiful.
Matsushima offers foodies into seafood plenty of freshly caught, succulent options at its many restaurants and food stalls at Matsushima Fish Market. Locals highly recommend the oysters, including oyster burgers, and anago (saltwater eels) and grilled squid.
For an authentic Japanese tea experience, visit Kanrantei. This teahouse was a gift from the ruler of Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, to Sendai's daimyo Date Masamune. The Sendai feudal lord's son later moved it to Matsushima. Sip on bitter matcha green tea paired with a locally-produced Japanese sweet out on the veranda, which offers a stunning view of the bay below.