Tucked away on the coast of Miyagi Prefecture is Matsushima, a small town most famous for its pine (matsu) islands (shima). Its picturesque bay is one of the so-called Three Views of Japan, which also includes the floating shrine gate at Itsukushima in Hiroshima.
Matsushima is also home to a significant number of Buddhist temples with deep connections to Japanese history. Here’s a quick rundown of some of the most important.
This is Matsushima’s most famous temple, and a major Zen temple of northeastern Japan. Originally established in 828 before falling into disrepair, it was eventually rebuilt as a family temple in 1609 by Date Masamune, a powerful warlord who also founded the city of Sendai. Much of the temple has National Treasure status.
In keeping with Matsushima’s natural beauty, a long, arrow-straight path flanked by cedars leads up from the bay. Ahead lies the main temple, to the side a series of caves formerly used for meditation.
Only two of the buildings are public. First is the hondō (main hall), whose rooms boast some of the most stunning fusuma (sliding screens) in Japan. Chief among these is a gilded panel of a peacock, plumage fanned in full display, symbolizing Buddhist paradise in the central Peacock Room. Buddhist memorial services are still held here to this day.
Directly opposite the kitchen is the other public building, the museum. Here you can see a number of important artifacts of the Date clan, the original 400-year-old unrestored High Room, and a life-size wooden statue of Date Masamune himself in full armour. No English guidance is available for the museum.
A stone’s throw from Zuiganji is Entsūin, built in 1647 to house the mausoleum of Masamune’s grandson Mitsumune, who died in mysterious circumstances at age 19.
Most unusually for a Buddhist temple, Entsūin features not only a traditional Japanese rock garden (modelled after the islands of Matsushima Bay), but also a Western-style rose garden. In autumn, the temple remains open late into the evening with beautiful underlit groves of maple and cedar. For a small fee, you can even make your own Buddhist bead bracelet.
English leaflets are available at the gate.
Important ice-cream interlude!
Now for the really crucial stuff: between Zuiganji and Entsūin is an apparently nameless ice cream parlour like no other. Alongside the usual chocolate, strawberry and vanilla is a bevy of wacky flavours including cherry blossom, sake, whitebait (yes, fish ice cream), tofu milk, zunda (sweet soybean paste), wasabi and jellyfish, of all things! I opted for the last two; the wasabi is genuinely delicious, the jellyfish genuinely bizarre. Unadventurous eaters proceed with caution.
This small temple, situated on an islet next to the pier, affords a spectacular sweeping view of Matsushima Bay. The name refers to the Five Wisdom Kings of Japanese Buddhism, statues of which are kept safely inside and put on public display once every 33 years.
Access is via three of Matsushima’s many red bridges. Watch your step when crossing the second two, as the gaps between the planks are perfect both for viewing the waters and for swallowing your leg! Schoolgirls tentatively edging their way across while nervously clutching the handrail is not an uncommon sight.
Side visits: Tenrin’in 天麟院 and Yōtokuin 陽徳院
Tenrin’in, a small temple next to Entsūin, houses the mausoleum of Masamune’s daughter Iroha-hime. Yōtokuin is next to Zuiganji and houses the mausoleum of Masamune’s wife Megohime. Both are very much worth visiting while you’re in the area.
And finally: Kanrantei 観瀾亭 and the Date Masamune Historical Museum
Kanrantei ("place to view waves") is a tea house that once belonged to the ruling Date clan. Unbelievably, it was originally built in Kyōto, gifted to Masamune then transported 850km by his son Tadamune sometime in the 17th century. For a modest fee you can enjoy fine green tea here complete with — as the name implies — another splendid view of the bay.
Last up is the Date Masamune Historical Museum. Here you can learn about Masamune’s life and influence, paint your very own kokeshi (traditional wooden doll) and even dress up as the man himself in television-grade replica armour. Some English guidance is available.