After 24 hours in Miyagi, Matsushima, with its tranquil views, isn’t far away. An easy day trip north of Sendai, Matsushima mixes natural beauty and feudal history. Its bay, dotted with pine-clad islets, has been regarded as one of Japan’s most beautiful places since its inclusion in the Nihon Sankei list (Japan’s three most scenic views) compiled by scholar Gaho Hayashi in the 1600s. Turn away from the sea, however, and warlord Date Masamune’s legacy is never far away.
From Sendai, the JR Senseki Line makes it to Matsushima Kaigan Station in 40 minutes (¥410/ £2.80 one way), and once there most travellers head for the bay, a ten-minute walk away. Sightseeing boats head out among the islets, where the wind and water have carved the pine tree-tufted rocks into all sorts of shapes and sizes.
Back on land, if you want to eat before exploring, fresh oysters and anago (saltwater eels) from the bay dominate the menus in the harbour-side restaurants. A five-minute walk inland from here, you can retrace Masamune’s influence on Matsushima, starting with Zuiganji Temple. First built in the 800s, Masamune ordered Zuiganji rebuilt in the 1600s to be the official Date family temple, adding a long, cedar-lined approach from the ocean and decorating the interior with wood carvings and paintings on gold leaf. Next to these structures, Zuiganji’s museum traces the temple’s past, as well as that of the Date clan, with a 30,000-piece collection including some of Masamune’s armoury and statues of him in his pomp. Another option is to take the train two hours further north to the historic city of Hiraizumi and its 1,200-year-old Chuson-Ji Buddhist temple, which holds a spectacular gold-covered hall.
Back in Matsushima, stop by Entsuin Temple, the mausoleum for Masamune’s son, Mitsumune, which is especially worth visiting for the traditional garden. You could just stroll the coast to soak up the views but, before heading back to Sendai, visit the Kanrantei tea house. The Date family built this as a place to enjoy tea ceremonies and welcome VIP guests; some rooms feature opulent Edo-era painted screen doors designed to highlight the family’s status. Today anyone can enjoy matcha green tea and sweets in the tea house’s tatami mat rooms, looking out on natural bay views that have changed little since Masamune’s time. Rob Goss