Saturday, September 7

Ichiban Nihon Sankei

Matsushima is one of Japan’s famous Nihon Sankei. This phrase translates broadly as “Japan’s three greatest scenic locations”. Miyajima, near Hiroshima, is the second of these locations and a slender sand spit at Amanohashidate is the third.

They owe their modern day fame to a Confucian scholar called Shunsai Hayashi. In 1643 he wrote a book about his travels through Japan. He singled out these three three locations for special praise, calling them the nation’s most scenic beauty spots.

Matsushima’s fame subsequently grew when a famous poet, Matsuo Bashō, wrote a moving Haiku poem about his reaction to the beauty of Matsushima. School children still study it to this very day.

The name Matsushima means “Pine Tree Islands”. It’s a fitting description. Matsushima Bay is ringed by a series of small sandstone islands.  Most are topped by mature, craggy pine trees. Over time some of the islands have been sculpted by wind and waves into memorable archways and all manner of captivating shapes. Its a wonderfully picturesque and tranquil scene.

I first visited Matsushima during a business stopover in Tokyo back in 2009. I came away refreshed and in general agreement that it really was a rather unique location. I wanted Mum to experience Matsushima’s beauty as well.

 On our first full day in Japan we caught the Shinkansen north to Sendai, and then transferred to a local train for Matsushima and neighbouring Shiogama. We both marvelled at the fact that we could travel more than 370kms in two hours.

Our day began with a quick trip to the local fish market in nearby Shiogama. They say this market sells more tuna every day than any other worldwide. We arrived a little late to see the large fish being butchered but did spot one merchant sharpening his rather gruesome oversized cutting blade. Some stalls were still open and selling all manner of fish. It was fascinating to watch shoppers carefully examine dozens of specimens, before finally selecting the finest example.

From the market, we made our way to the local boat pier. We wanted to catch a boat that took a scenic route across the bay to Matsushima. The boat threaded its way around the bay past the area’s most famous islands before finally reaching in Matsushima itself.

We were keen to see the impact of the 2011 Tohoku tsunami and earthquake. I’d heard that Matsushima was spared the worst of the tsunami’s destructive force thanks to the natural barrier formed by its famous islands. It was clear that the area was flooded and buildings were damaged. We also saw photos of the tsunami's aftermath

However, the waves that reached the shore were less destructive than in the neighbouring town of Ishinomaki, a few miles up the coast. This town was inundated and thousands lost their lives. I’ve posted a photo above of the boat pier we used at Shiogama. This YouTube video shows the same location swallowed up by the tsunami.

As you can see, the water rose at least 2-3 metres in this very spot. It was rather humbling experience to think that we’d seen with our own eyes. Two years on the only visible signs of the tsunami are the large number of pavements and gutters still in a state of disrepair.

Mum loved Matsushima. Perhaps the most memorable sight for both of us was the colourful mausoleum we visited at the Zuigan-ji, the region’s impressive Zen temple. The gravesite sits on the summit of peaceful, wooded hill which we were lucky enough to enjoy alone for almost ten minutes.

 

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