Matsushima Bay, where humans and sea bond forever

Widely known as home to one of Japan’s most scenic views, the cliff-rugged coastal area of Miyagi has experienced both the beneficial influence and the disastrous power of water. Local people have long held faith in the natural blessings offered by the gigantic ocean on which they rely on survival. In the idyllic fishermen villages scattered along the coast one can completely immerse themselves in the millennia-long traditions of fishing as the most essential and instinctive lifestyle adopted by people living in an island country. Here water has manifold meanings: it supports life with its bountiful supply of seafood, it transports people, goods, and messages across vast territories, it inspires artists to create masterpieces of art, but it also has a hidden devastating force that necessitates constant appeasement through the benevolent help of the spiritual deities.

Matsushima Bay is more than just beautiful scenery

The long coastal area between Shiogama, Matsushima, and Ishinomaki has long been a favourable strategic territory cherished by the local feudal lords during the old days of Japanese history. With its concentration of abundant seafood, stunning scenery, top-quality sake breweries, and relaxing hot springs, the wide Matsushima Bay area offers unrivaled opportunities for experiencing the Japanese coastal countryside. The harmonious balance between sea and land, humans, and nature guarantees that one will be able to fully indulge themselves in a bucolic serenity that embodies the true character of a Japanese fishermen village. A journey to the bay’s quaint towns recharges both the mind and the soul because of the indispensable presence of numerous factors that sustain health and longevity: seafood, delicious sake made from high-rank local rice, curing hot springs, andtruly wonderful natural views to yearn for.

Here the endless ocean embraces all human lifestyles

In March 2011 the Matsushima Bay area was struck by the sweeping force of the tsunami. Although most of the towns did not inflict the biggest damage, that sudden change of nature left lasting marks in the minds of local people. Understanding the strong will for recovery deeply rooted in the hearts of the townsmen further contributes to appreciating the rural charm of the area. Life returned back to normal with the vow to continue the traditional relations between water and men, which have always resulted in much more substantial prosperity than losses.

The beautiful sea towns Matsushima and Shiogama

Exquisite sake produced in traditional ways

My journey to the scenic coastal area of Matsushima Bay began with a visit to the quiet fishing town Shiogama, located just 16 minutes on train east of Sendai city. Immediately after arriving to the center, I noticed an impressive old warehouse building that stood out in an imposing contrast with the simple architecture of the small restaurants and shops around. The rather large warehouse belongs to Urakasumi sake brewery, one of the most distinguished and acclaimed breweries in the entire North Japan.

The impressive warehouse of Urakasumi brewery

With a history dating back to 1724, Urakasumi has long established itself as one of the few places producing refined sake by following the classical brewing traditions. Production commenced originally for the purposes and needs of the town’s most celebrated Shiogama Shrine, to which Urakasumi was an affiliate sake supplier. Throughout the centuries the brewery expanded not only in volume of final output, but it also developed a peculiar stance towards the meaning of its existence, summarized in the motto “Quality over quantity; offering carefully produced authentic sake”. Its most refined and beloved brands – “Urakasumi” and “Zen” – bear the classical elegant spirit of locally-made sake targeted mainly for domestic consumption (although recently the brewery has started international exports as well). Touring the inner parts of Urakasumi led me to the exciting discovery of a large cedar-wood bucket still used for brewing sake through the use of classical techniques that are now gaining popularity again in Japan.

The old bucket is still used even today!

The fashionable and classy atmosphere of the brewery is augmented by the stylish “sake gallery” shop in which visitors can not only taste and buy some of Urakasumi’s most acclaimed brands, but also discover exhibits of remarkable tableware and pottery created by local artisans. The sake produced here is believed to go best with the variety of distinguished seafood delicacies that Shiogama is known for.

Urakasumi’s classy array of high-quality sake

Around the “sushi town” Shiogama

Shiogama town flourished as a fishermen village in which unique techniques of salt production from seaweed was developed. Even today the town boasts an enormous seafood catch and is unrivaled in the quantity of maguro bluefin tuna caught off the shores. This has resulted in a reputation of a “sushi town”, and indeed, Shiogama has the biggest number of sushi restaurants per capita in Japan, making it immensely attractive for all lovers of melting, fresh seafood.

No wonder Shiogama is known as a sushi paradise!

I could verify this fact myself during my visit at the small but cozy Sushi Tetsu where the taste of the sushi set served matched in freshness some of the popular restaurants around Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market. Customers can choose between sitting around the counter for a classical sushi bar experience, or in a private room. The restaurant indulges demanding tastes with delicacies such as a miso soup with an entire lobster inside or the rare to find sea squirt, known as the “sea mango”.

A rare opportunity to try the mango of the seas

After this delightful sushi lunch, I strolled along the town’s pleasant streets until I reached the splendid Shiogama Shrine, built 1200 years ago on the top of a hill, at the end of a long flight of stone steps. The majestic gate and main building have impressed even the great haiku poet Matsuo Basho who recounts his visit to the shrine in his literary masterpiece “Oku no Hosomichi”. Shiogama Shrine has been long venerated as the prime location where prayers can be heard by deities protecting sailors and fishermen. The spiritual unity with nature is strengthened by the presence of many sakura cherry trees which blossom spectacularly in the spring.

Shiogama’s most venerated shrine protects the fishermen

Not far from the shrine complex is the smaller associated Okama Shrine where visitors can see four sacred cauldrons used by a Shinto god to make salt from seaweed. Besides giving Shiogama its name, these cauldrons are said to have a magical power – the colour of their water changes right before something extraordinary is about to happen. Local people claim that it also changed before the earthquake and tsunami of 2011…

Matsushima’s pine-tree islands, one of Japan’s three best views

The natural wonders of Matsushima Bay cannot be described

The best way to enjoy the scenic views of Matsushima Bay is by taking a cruise boat departing from Shiogama town’s Marine Gate port. The ship steers around the marvelous little pine tree-covered islands, rightfully known as one of Japan’s three most beautiful views (the other two being Miyajima in Hiroshima and Amanohashidate in Kyoto). Matsushima Bay is dotted with more than 260 of those islands, although only some of them are inhabited. The rest, however, serve a distinctively aesthetical purpose, for Matsushima has historically been one of the most celebrated natural areas in Japan which has inspired numerous painters, poets, and writers to create remarkable masterpieces of art.

In sunny days this is a true paradise on earth

I greatly enjoyed the eloquent and humorous announcements during the cruise that introduced some of the most attractive islands. One little tip: do not skip the quick moment when you can glimpse all four caves of the “Lucky Island” – seeing fewer than four from a different angle will make you regret the missed opportunity and will not bring legendary luck upon you.

How lucky are you to see the caves of the Lucky Island?

Matsushima Bay’s islands are exceptional not only for their picturesque beauty. They protected the coastal town from the tsunami in 2011, acting as a natural shield against the destructive force of the tidal wave. Even though some of the islands themselves inflicted partial damage and erosion, the people were saved and Matsushima miraculously did not receive any substantial harm, quickly returning back to normal life a few weeks later. Perhaps it is the almighty spirits of nature, venerated by believers and commoners, which spared Matsushima from a dramatic fate. The harmonious balance between humans and nature was preserved and fishermen still rely on the bountiful seafood resources of the bay for survival.

Gorgeous temples and historical legacy

One of the most fascinating, serendipitous discoveries I made in Matsushima was the gorgeous Entsuin Temple, originally built in 1646 by the local feudal lord Date Tadamune in mourning for his son who died at the age of 19. Overshadowed by the larger and historically more significant Zuiganji Temple, which is sadly under partial reconstruction for several months, Entsuin Temple surprisingly turned out to be a marvelous display of medieval art, landscape variety, traditional architecture, and natural beauty.

The secluded mausoleum hidden between the maple trees

The mausoleum building Sankeiden is outstanding with its gold-coated walls, ornate interior, and unique paintings of Western roses, inspired by the impressions received during one of the first Japanese envoys to Europe. I was excited to discover several different gardens, including a Japanese-style pond garden, a Western rose garden (rather unique for a Buddhist temple), a rock garden, and a moss garden hidden under maple trees whose fiery red colours in autumn attract many visitors from the entire country.

The moss garden of Entsuin Temple

A stroll along the bay area rewards visitors withquick access to some of the closely located islands, connected to the mainland with attractive vermillion bridges. One of them is home to the iconic Godaido hall, a small temple constructed in 807 whose traditional-style architecture blends perfectly with the surrounding pine trees and produces a symbol of Matsushima Bay’s integrity between humans and nature. The scenic view of the islands and the refreshing sea breeze can be enjoyed from Kanrantei, an old tea house built in classical Kyoto fashion where visitors can have a cup of green tea and relax on the veranda.

Complete relaxation in Matsushima’s hot springs

The day ends with a retreat to the grandiose four-star hotel Matsushima Ichinobo that provides guests with an outstanding view to the entire island-dotted bay. The moment I entered the hotel I immediately understood that the concept of a space for complete relaxation is executed masterfully to the smallest details. Hot spring lovers will be excited to discover that the open-air bath can be accessed from early dawn until midnight. The view of the rising sun which colours the entire bay and all the pine-tree islands in dazzling red-orange is best observed while soaking in the hot spring pool and absorbing the first rays of sunlight. There is hardly a better example of an extraordinary experience.

Wonderful view to the bay from the open-air hot spring

Breathing the fresh salty breeze of the ocean, one can perfectly understand why Matsushima has been incontestably chosen as one of Japan’s three most scenic views.

Ishinomaki, revived by the strength of human spirits

Originally one of the world’s biggest and richest fishing habitats, the ocean city of Ishinomaki prospered during the Edo period as an important fishing town and transportation hub between North and Central Japan. Local fishermen have for centuries enjoyed the abundance of seafood in all four seasons. Water has always been the prime source of energy and life for Ishinomaki’s people, therefore the devastating tsunami in 2011 brought a universal shock whose lasting scars can still be observed. The earthquake and the subsequent tidal wave took everyone by surprise and marked the beginning of a new era for Ishinomaki’s people and their surroundings. Today the city has successfully returned to its regular ways of life, however the tragic events reshaped not only the landscape, but also the conceptual image of what Ishinomaki stands for and how its presence in Japan’s history is perceived. The prevailing narrative which frames and binds all the individual stories in a complete mosaic of shared experiences is the unyielding fight for recovery. Yet this is not a fight against nature; for the power of water can be neither tamed, nor challenged. Local people revive their traditional lifestyles in harmony with the surroundings, accepting the irreversible changes as a new step towards better times, rather than as a detrimental influence. Positivity and strong will to live and flourish delineate the picture of Ishinomaki’s present narrative. It is exactly through the lenses of such understanding that the city’s unique sightseeing spots should be perceived.

The manga heroes protecting the city

During my visit to Ishinomaki I discovered a charmingly rustic fisherman city whose people are evidently proud of certain historical and artistic aspects of their local culture. A casual walk in Ishinomaki’s center is bound to surprise visitors with the unexpected physical presence of numerous anime and manga characters everywhere on the streets.

Shotaro Ishinomori’s heroic character protect the city
©Ishinomori Production Inc., Toei

Some of them pose heroically as impressive human-size figures erected right on the pavement, others seem to be engaged in a fantastical actionand are caught chasing each other or appear halfway through building walls and roofs. These are the famous characters of Shotaro Ishinomori, a prolific manga artist from Ishinomaki with a Guinness World Record for the 128 000 pages of comics he produced during his life. Regarded as the father of live-action hero shows such as Kamen Rider and the Rangers series, he is an influential and almost mythological figure in Japan’s anime history. Ishinomaki’s people did not hesitate to decorate the entire city in the fashion style of Cyborg 009, another of Ishinomori’s famous series. Today one of the city’s highlights is the Ishinomori Manga Museum, a futuristic white-dome building located on an island in the estuary of Kyukitakami River that flows through Ishinomaki’s downtown area. The facility fascinates not only with its interesting exhibits, but also with its miraculous survival during the 2011 tsunami when all other surrounding constructions were completely swept away by the wave.

The Manga Museum was among the sole survivors on its island
© Ishinomori Production Inc.

Reports indicated that statues of Kamen Rider in the city survived without any damage too, which led people to believe in the protective spirit of Ishinomori’s brave heroes. Anime fans from all over the country engaged enthusiastically in charity events and donations for the reopening of the Manga Museum, which occurred in 2013. Today Ishinomori Manga Museum stands as a symbol of the city’s unbending will to overcome the hurdles and rise up again like the mighty characters with lion hearts from the influential manga stories.

Ishinomaki’s scenic spots

The story of Ishinomaki’s revival and fight for glorious future can be observed on the top of Hiyoriyama Park, a small hill overlooking the city. I was impressed to discover a giant shrine gate facing the sea at the top of the park, as if the enshrined deity is the boundless ocean water itself. During my visit, a group of priests were performing a religious ceremony next to the gate. Their silent prayers were echoed by the sea breeze that also swayed the small flames of the lit candles. Historically, the shrine on the top of Hiyoriyama Park signified fishermen’s prayers for safety in the sea, but I couldn’t help wondering if the priests I saw there were appealing to the gods for quicker recovery and prosperity.

A silent prayer for safety, hope and brighter future

The park’s observatories offer splendid panorama views over Ishinomaki. Signboards and exhibited photos remind visitors how the landscape looked before 2011. This beautiful park, praised by the great haiku poet Matsuo Basho in his literary masterpiece “Oku no Hosomichi” and appreciated for its collection of blossoming sakura cherry trees, protected local people during the hours of the tragic accident and lent its spacious area as a temporary refuge. Mixed thoughts ran through my head as I was watching the present view of Ishinomaki; yet, I could feel the spiritual power of the park and its embracing affection towards humans.

Is the deity of the sea enshrined here?

Sake born out of loyalty to traditions

My visit to Hirako Sake Brewery, Ishinomaki’s main sake producer, uncovered a story that fit perfectly in the general narrative of recovery through hope and optimism in the future. Established in 1861, the brewery encountered various problems before developing its best-known brand “Hidakami” at the beginning of the 1990s. It is currently managed by a 5th generation owner who inherited the work amidst economically-turbulent times, yet managed to revive the business and progress thanks to his persevering young spirit.

The tanks for brewing sake had to be replaced after 2011

A walk around the facilities of Hirako Sake Brewery, which remains loyal to traditional techniques of sake production, revealed multiple traces of the events that struck the city in 2011. The workers explained what damages the old warehouse inflicted back then and what renovations had to be undertaken in order to reopen the brewery. Although the recovery is now complete and the city’s favourite local brand “Hidakami” is being produced without delay, I was informed that some of the workers lost their homes and still live in temporary housings. Yet their faces did not exude any sadness, but satisfaction from the achieved progress and optimism towards the prospects of the future.

Ishinomaki’s past and future

Some of Ishinomaki’s other significant locations include the attractive replica of Sant Juan Bautista, Japan’s first Western-style galleon that was used for trans-ocean journeys during some of the country’s first diplomatic missions to Europe and Mexico at the beginning of the 17th century. The ship stands as an open-air museum symbolizing Ishinomaki’s historical importance as a transportation hub. Inside the city visitors will also find numerous temporary housings for the hundreds of people who lost their homes in 2011 and the somber remains of Kadonowaki Elementary School building that inflicted considerable damage after the tsunami hit (however, all students and teachers survived after fleeing to the top of the nearby hill). The presence of such locations and their stories contribute to understanding Ishinomaki’s relations with nature as a result of compromises and negotiated harmony. Life continues to be sustained by the blessings of the environment; but it is through the relentless effort of local people and their reliance on long-standing traditions that the recovery has reached its final stages. The hope and trust in what guaranteed prosperity in the past remain the main vital factor in Ishinomaki city, for it is nothing else but the cooperation between humans and nature that can pave the road to a successful future and immortalize the spirit ofthe idyllic countryside villages.

Ishinomaki is currently building a new future with everyone’s help

Photo credit: © Ishinomori Production Inc., © Ishinomori Production Inc., Toei

Access to Matsushima Bay

Shiogama, Matsushima and Ishinomaki are stations along the JR Senseki Line which departs from Sendai Station. A ride on the Tohoku Shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo to Sendai takes about 100 minutes, while 40 more minutes are necessary for the trip to Matsushima (90 minutes in the case of Ishinomaki). The entire trip costs 11 720 JPY but is fully covered by the JR Rail Pass.