Traveling in Sendai and environs.
If you look hard enough at the two craggy rocks, jutting out of the silvery waters of Matsushima Bay one atop the other, you just might be able to make out the “cigar,” supposedly perched in the mouth of Niou, the wrathful Deva King who guards the entrance to Buddhist temples.
Known as Nioujima, or Niou Island, the oddly-shaped natural structure is supposed to look like a Niou statue smoking a cigar in the middle of the ocean, just north of Sendai in Miyagi Prefecture.
Although, to me, Nioujima looked more like a spaceship than a cigar-smoking figure from Buddhist lore, it is one of the more recognizable among the numerous pine-covered islets that dot the calm waters of Matsushima Bay.
Many of the others that can be spotted from the cruise boat that ferries travelers across the bay, with humorous names like “frog” island, “rabbit” island and “eyeglasses” island, stretch the imagination even further.
But this is Matsushima, one of the most beloved sites in Japan, where history and folklore have become intertwined, imbuing the area with an air of mysticism and sanctity.
Legend has it that a Buddhist monk, Kenbutsu, who achieved enlightenment at Matsushima, was able to fly to Kyoto, more than 800 kilometers away, cure the then-Emperor of his ailment and fly back, carrying an imperial gift of 1,000 pine trees, which he planted on each of Matsushima’s 260 islets.
The more prosaic explanation is that the numerous land formations in the bay were created at the end of the ice age, when the receding glaciers left bits of land exposed in the ocean.
Whatever the reality, thanks to these islands, which acted as breakwaters, and the bay’s relative seclusion from the open waters of the Pacific Ocean, Matsushima was spared the worst of the destruction caused by the tsunami in the aftermath of the Greater East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011, that claimed over 16,000 lives and devastated countless communities along the country’s northeastern Pacific coastline.
Even most of the pine trees on the islets survived the tsunami, with the exception of those that have lost their needles due to damage from bird droppings, according to our guide. Tourists used to feed salty snacks to the seagulls that populate the area, a practice which is now banned.
I visited Matsushima in early March as part of a tour of Sendai and its environs sponsored by Sendai City, to witness, among other things, how the area’s scenic sites have fared in the 5 years that have passed since 3/11, as that tragic day is commonly known in Japan.
Our ferry ride across the Bay from Shiogama Port, north of Sendai City, to Matsushima, the main tourist center on the Bay, was pleasant enough, with the strangely shaped islets to gaze at from the deck and a sizzling oyster hot-pot lunch to keep us well-fed on board.
Matsushima Bay is said to be best viewed from the four scenic spots of Ogidani, Tomiyama, Otakamori and Tamonzan but sadly, there was insufficient time to tour these sites.
As the boat approaches the pier at the town of Matsushima, the scene is, unfortunately, marred by unattractive concrete hotels, which distract from the beauty of the bright red Fukuura Bridge and the Godaido Hall, first built in 807 and reconstructed in 1604 by the local feudal lord, Date Masamune.
But once on land, there are striking temples and historic buildings to explore, such as the idyllic Kanrantei, a teahouse originally built in Fushimi, then relocated to Tokyo and finally brought to its current location by ship.
In addition to being a guesthouse for visiting nobility, the teahouse was used by the feudal lords as a tsukimigoten, or a palace for moon-viewing.
We also visited Entsu-in, a temple with a beautiful garden, where we tried our hand at making juzu, or lucky charm bracelets.
Unfortunately, Zuiganji Temple, Matsushima’s most famous historic site, was closed during our visit, due to renovation work unrelated to the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
After a pleasant stroll around Entsu-in we left Matsushima behind and retired to our lodgings for that night in Akiu, an area known for its hot spring baths, about half an hour’s drive from Sendai.
Sakan is a mammoth hotel with a history dating back 1,000 years, and is gearing up to host G7 finance ministers and central bank governors for their annual summit in May.
The hotel is very atmospheric in parts – there is a section by the lobby that is said to be 400 years old – but has some curiously tacky touches, such as the bright blue lights that illuminate one of the rotenburo, or outdoor hot spring baths.
While Akiu is best known for its hot spring baths, there are also scenic spots to be enjoyed there, such as the Rairaikyo Gorge and Akiu Ootaki Falls (see the post on Yamadera from Nov 16, 2015, in “On the Road”).
But for me, the highlight of our visit was the kokeshi doll-painting workshop at the Akiu Kogei-no-Sato, where a community of local craftspeople live, work and sell their wares.
Kokeshi dolls, which are indigenous to the Tohoku region of Japan, are rather simple wooden creations, but painting them is much harder than you might expect.
It is particularly nerve-wracking to be told that the doll ends up looking like the person who made it. Still, our group managed to paint some charming examples, with the expert advice of our instructor and veteran Kokeshi doll craftsman, Akira Suzuki.
On the way back from Akiu to Sendai, with our colorfully painted kokeshi dolls in hand, we stopped for lunch at a small restaurant in the middle of nowhere.
Noka-no-Resutoran, or Farmers’ Restaurant, is run by a friendly couple, Shigeru and Hideko Sato, who left their city jobs to become farmers, a practice known as datsusara, or “leaving the salary man’s lifestyle.”
Their nondescript house, which serves as their restaurant, gives no clue as to the extraordinary feast that is served there, comprised mainly of homegrown organic vegetables.
The carrots, lettuce, horseradish, burdock and other organic vegetables garnished with home-made salad dressings are so crisp and sweet, they are unlike any vegetables found in cities, such as Tokyo.
The Satos began organic farming 35 years ago, well before it became fashionable, “because we didn’t have the money to buy fertilizers or pesticides,” Mrs Sato says with a broad smile that conveys her pride and joy in the way things turned out.
All those years of chemical-free farming have made their land so rich that the vegetables grown have a higher sugar content than many fruits, she says.
The Satos and their eco-conscious neighbors have huge plans for the future of their extensive farmland, which covers 60,000 tsubo (one tsubo is 3.3 square meters), including an eco-tourism program they hope to start this spring.
As we wave goodbye to the Satos, feeling full but healthy after a hearty, vegetarian meal –a steal at Y2,160 – I am already plotting my return trip later in the year, when their rolling farmland is bound to be bursting with ripe summer vegetables – fresh, colorful and chemical-free.
How to get to Sendai, Matsushima and Akiu and getting around :
Sendai is about 90 minutes from Tokyo on the Tohoku Shinkansen bullet train. Matsushima is 40 minutes from Sendai on the Senseki Line. There are cruise boats to Matsushima from Shiogama, which take about an hour to 90 minutes. The boats leave from Shiogama Pier, an 8-minute walk from Hon-Shiogama station, which is less than half an hour from Sendai on the JR Senseki Line.
Akiu is a 30-minute bus ride from Sendai. It is possible to get around Akiu by bus and/or taxi, but planning an itinerary based on public transportation can be tricky, as buses tend to be infrequent. Particularly, if you are planning to visit Akiu as well as Matsushima, it is best to rent a car.
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