Over the weekend we visited one of Japan’s “most beautiful places,” according to the tourist map we were given upon our arrival in Matsushima. It was about an hour by train from our apartment in Iwanuma and one of the better days we have seen weather-wise. It is May and there are hardly any signs of summer’s approach, but we were graced with some sun so we took the opportunity to finally see the Pacific Ocean from the other side. We live on the coast now but the shore is not visible due to the large wall that has been built here post-tsunami. While it is obviously a smart precaution, it is rather unthinkable to us Californians to block off an ocean view. Perhaps there was never much demand for scenic restaurants in Iwanuma.
Matsushima is a lovely little town on Japan’s east coast, tucked back in a bay that is home to hundreds of little islands covered with Japanese pines called matsu, from which the town derives its name. These pines are revered for their beauty and were made famous by the haiku poet Matsuo Basho. Once we arrived in town we enjoyed some lunch in the sunshine and then hopped on a small cruise boat that takes you through the bay for an hour to see some islands up close. The boat had two decks, and the upper deck was a bit more expensive. We couldn’t see what the difference was so we opted for the lower level, since it also had an open-air observation deck. As soon as the boat began its departure from the shore we realized why the upper level was preferable. Apparently the observation area is not for site-seeing and taking pictures, it is exclusively for feeding seagulls. Snacks are sold specifically to entice the seagulls to follow the boat in a swarm, and small children are encouraged to hold out food for the large birds to come grab out of their hands. Suffice to say I was not expecting to become a cast member of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” when I bought my cruise ticket. Hundreds of seagulls surrounding the stern and followed us the entire hour, pacing the boat so closely that their wings routinely hit the posts of the deck. At any moment you could have reached your hands out and grabbed a bird. This may seem novel for a couple minutes, but I thought eventually the feeding frenzy would stop. No. The Japanese tourists fed the seagulls for the entire hour, making me wonder if this was the real attraction, not boring old islands.
By some miracle I managed to snap a few photos devoid of the birds, but I will never again be fooled into saving money on a Japanese boat tour. Back on the mainland we decided to explore the temple grounds of Matsushima. The area is a small forest surrounded by stone walls embedded with several hollowed out crypts, carved into the rocks thousands of years ago. We strolled among the beautiful trees in quiet reverence and made our way to a scenic look-out high in the neighborhood for a view of the ocean from above. Along the steep path to the top I saw a hilarious cartoon sign of a child being dragged up the hill. Laughing at its oddity I snapped a picture, but on the way down we encountered just such a child being dragged to the look-out. Poor little kid had no idea why some white lady was laughing her head off at him.
Next on our agenda was the island Fukuurajima, which is close to the shore and connected to Matsushima by a long foot bridge. According to the map, “the island itself is a natural garden covered with 300 kinds of trees and wild grasses, providing an atmosphere of complete bliss for roaming the island.” Complete bliss you say? Well sign me up! While en route, I proceeded to make many wise cracks about preparing myself for complete bliss, but upon arrival I found the tourist map statement hard to argue with. The island is indeed a stunning little wilderness frozen in time, boasting impressive pines and covered in camellia plants. Camellias are common to East Asia but they were a nice reminder of home. The Japanese word for camellia is tsubaki, so if any of you know my favorite Sacramento restaurant Hana Tsubaki, you now know it means “camellia flower.”
After achieving complete bliss on Fukuurajima, we headed inland to grab some souvenirs and a sashimi rice bowl, since Matsushima is also know for its super-fresh seafood. It was delicious, like everything in Japan, and then we hopped our train home via Sendai where we stopped at the import store to grab some necessities. Kraft Mac and Cheese and some chevre! Overall a wonderful day in a truly beautiful place.