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In my last blog I talked about the first of my top two reasons to spend a couple of nights in Sendai; a fascinating city on the Tohoku coast, often overlooked by foreign visitors to Japan. In this piece I’ll be focusing on my second recommended day-trip from Sendai – Matsushima Bay.
Matsushima Bay is renowned for being one of the Nihon Sankei, the three most scenic spots in Japan, alongside Miyajima Island in Hiroshima Prefecture, and the Amanohashidate sandbar in the northern part of Kyoto Prefecture. The bay is admired for the many small islands that pepper the surrounding seascape – around 260 of them in all.
Matsushima literally means ‘pine island(s)’, and most of the tiny islets here are populated only by trees. It’s said that Matsuo Basho, the most famous haiku poet in Japan, who lived in the seventeenth century, was so taken aback by the beauty of Matsushima Bay that the best poetic summation of his impressions that he could muster was:
Ah! Matsushima Bay
The attribution of this haiku to Basho is almost certainly apocryphal (his poems were usually much better!), but I hate to let historical fact detract from amusing anecdotes!
The best way to admire the bay is to take one of the many sightseeing boats that sail around the area. Although you can take round-trip cruises from the central Matsushima area, I recommend taking the half-hour local train from Sendai to Shiogama and boarding one of the one-way boats from there. The boat cruise lasts for about an hour and drops you off at Matsushima town on the mainland, where there are some interesting sights to explore during the rest of the day.
The pricing system of the cruises is a little cheeky! The boats from Shiogama have three class compartments: Second, Green, and First. The one-way trip in second class costs 1,500yen per person, green costs slightly more, and the fare for sailing in the first class compartment is just under 3,000yen per person. It might seem a little steep, but I highly recommend doing as my parents and I did, and splashing out on the first class tickets.
The other compartments don’t have any outdoor observation areas, and there’s no question that the best views are from up on the top deck in the first-class section. However the best reason to upgrade is the fact that most other passengers don’t! On the day we took the cruise, there wasn’t a single other soul on board in the first-class compartment, and we had the place to ourselves!
After arriving back on dry land, I recommend heading over to Fukuura Island, one of just two islands in the bay that’s accessible by bridge. There’s a 200yen entrance fee to cross the red bridge onto the island, but it’s well worth it, as the whole island is a botanical garden and makes for a very pleasant place to stroll around for an hour or so.
If you fancy a mid-afternoon pit stop I suggest hunting down Shokado Café, located close to the ferry pier. The café is famous for its castella, a Japanese style sponge cake of Portuguese origin, but the standout menu item for me was the most wonderful kakigori I’ve ever tasted.
Kakigori is thinly shaved ice with sugar syrup, usually with a fruity flavour added. The quality of kakigori varies a lot from shop to shop. In its more mediocre manifestations, the ice is shaved too coarsely and the fruit syrup tastes like pure sugar, but the kakigori at Shokado café was sublime! The topping consisted of honey syrup and half a fresh lemon, which you juiced yourself and poured over the ice before digging in. Far more agreeable than the standard sickly-sweet synthetic concoction! The ice was shaved so finely it was like consuming a cooling gust of wind. Beware that this menu item is only available during the hot summer months!
After a quick respite I recommend checking out a couple of the other interesting sights in the area, starting with Zuigan-ji, a Zen temple originally belonging to the Tendai school of Buddhism, founded in the 9th century. One particularly interesting aspect of this temple are the many caves that line the approach, which used to be used as venues for meditation practice.
I also recommend popping in to Entsu-in, a small temple next door to Zuigan-ji, and the site of the mausoleum of Date Mitsumune. The Date (pronounced dah-tay, to rhyme with Brussels paté) clan were the rulers of the Sendai region during Japan’s feudal period. The most famous member of the family is Date Masamune, who assumed power during the first half of the seventeenth century and founded the city of Sendai. Mitsumune was his grandson, who died at the young age of 19. His mausoleum is in a lovely quiet corner of this little temple, surrounded by a luscious moss garden.
After taking the train back to Sendai, you’ll probably want some refreshment after your busy day! I recommend hunting down the ‘Standing Sake Bar’ on Hirose-dori Street (opposite the ‘Forus’ department store and adjacent to the Disney store). The bar is inside a tobacconist and can only fit about half a dozen customers around the standing tables at a time, but it’s a pretty quirky place to grab a quick beer while deciding where to head for dinner!
Although I’ve focused on two recommended day trips from Sendai in this and my previous blog, there are of course some interesting sights in Sendai itself. Before heading on to your next destination, it’s worth checking out the Zuihoden Mausoleum, the final resting place of Lord Date Masamune. The mausoleum consists of a number of buildings, many of which are ornately decorated, all surrounded by majestic cedar trees.
As the largest city in the Tohoku region, Sendai is a really vibrant and interesting place to stay for a couple of nights. As part of an itinerary heading up to Hokkaido, it makes for a particularly convenient place to break the journey north from Tokyo. But the real draws for me are the two great (and totally contrasting!) day trip options that can be easily embarked upon using Sendai as a base.
If you would like to incorporate a stay in Sendai into a self-guided itinerary, please do give us a call and start planning your trip with one of our expert travel consultants today!