The first Sunday in February every year since 1978 is the Matsushima Oyster Festival or Kaki Matsuri. Not to be confused with the persimmon festival which is also Kaki Matsuri but isn’t held in Matsushima or in February. Matsushima is one of the top three most scenic places in Japan according to the list of Japanese unnecessary but thorough lists of things. For reference you can see 100 best waters of Japan and 100 best soundscapes of Japan.
The Oyster Festival is a celebration in the peak of oyster season of the delicious little bivalve. The oyster can be consumed in numerous ways. In Matsuhima the preference for eating oysters is grilled. Japanese oysters can be quite massive and on the half shell can be a real choking hazard. If you brave the cold you can stand in a massive line for one free grilled oyster. A free oyster for as many times as you can make it through. However, you get more oysters (three or four) for your time from the kakinabe line. Nabe is a stock soup that can be customized with different ingredients. At the oyster festival they give out free bowls of oyster soup to those patient enough to make it through the long wait. I recommend the kakinabe, it’s worth the wait.
Besides free grilled oysters and free oyster soup, there are both paid for and complimentary grill stations where you can set down with your group of friends and family and grill out in the cold February air of coastal Miyagi. Many of the food stalls will have deals on bulk seafood and meat for your grilling pleasure as well as single pre-cooked portions for the impatient or grill handicapped. Not to mention if you don’t get there early, there will be a long wait for a grill since the festival is very popular. Our group did not indulge in the grill area as we were feeling a bit lazy and wanted the food cooked for us.
There was a fantastic crab soup, grilled scallops, grilled oysters, tsubu (a conch shell), abalone, squid, octopus, as well as numerous desert stands selling crepes and chocolate dipped bananas. The cold weather made a cold beer unappealing but there was also hot sake available to warm you from within. My favorite besides the kakinabe was the grilled pork stand, for 400円 you got a cup o’ pork which, included sausages, bacon and a good cut of ham. The best value was probably the 5 fried oysters for 350円, they were very tasty and a real bargain.
Outside of stuffing your face, there was very little do at the festival that wasn’t geared towards entertaining younger children. Although interestingly enough, we did meet Jenny the PR dog from New Horizon 2 Unit 1. There was a military display of the Japanese Self Defense Force and some nihon-shu retailers were giving out free samples of sake on the street. So we definitely stopped there.
Unless there was a recent snow, winter is not the best time visit Matsushima as all the trees are bare and missing their spring flowers, summer greens or autumn fire. If there has been a recent massive snow fall before the festival, dress warm, and take a walk out to Fukuurajima while you’re there and check out the beautiful island covered in snow. There is the Zuigan-ji museum which is pretty cool and it’s indoors so you’ll have a chance to warm up. Also at Zuigan-ji is a special exhibition of statues that normally aren’t available for public viewing but because the main temple is under renovation, the statues are on display.
Overall I think once at this festival is enough. In Japan there is always an excuse to have a festival. I mean, there is a snow festival and a fire festival as well. Oysters are great but I prefer mine overpriced and in a classy restaurant. If you do end up heading there next year getting to Matsushima is very easy from JR Sendai Station as the Senseki line (tracks 9 and 10) goes directly to Matsushima Kaigan station twice an hour during peak times. Matsushima Kaigan is about a 10 minute walk from the festival area if you move slowly. Make sure you don’t go to Matsushima Station on the Tohoku line, it is much further away and not nearly as nice of a walk.