Matsushima means “pine island” and there are more than 260 of pine-covered islands that dot the Matsushima Bay. It is one of Japan’s “three most famous landscapes” (along with Miyajima and Amanohashidate). A visit is particularly worthwhile in autumn.
“Sugoi! – Gorgeous!” marvels one of the elderly Japanese tourists: “That’s like the Buddhas of Bamiyan!” It’s quite a stretched comparison. The grottoes behind Entsuin Temple in Matsushima do contain stone Buddha statues, but they are neither very big nor have they been destroyed by Taliban fanatics. Buddhist monks used to meditate in these caves a few hundred years ago when Matsushima was one of the strongholds of the powerful Date family.
The tsunami of 2011
In fact, Matsushima wasn’t even particularly hard-hit by the main calamity that befell the area in recent years: the Tsunami of 11 March 2011 that wrecked the whole coastline all around Matsushima and Sendai and killed nearly 20,000 people (including missing persons) was held off by the many tiny islands that make the bay of Matsushima so famous. While the outlying islands were hit by the main wave, and the rail tracks running north along the coast swept away completely (along with some trains), the bay itself with its picturesque pine-studded islets was only covered by a wave of perhaps three meters. The temples and gardens were spared, the streets have long since been repaired, and the only reminders are a battered Tsunami emergency sign and the distinct lack of zebra crossings, which somehow have not been restored in the course of repair works.
On a pleasant autumn day they would be useful, as the town’s sights are divided between the sea shore with its islands and boat cruises, and several temples slightly inland. The main coastal road passes right between the two and is crowded with tourists hoping for colourful autumn leaves.
Autumn colours at Matsushima Bay
On Ogitani Hill, an elevated viewpoint to watch the bay, I meet a local woman picking lowers. She is from a village nearby, she explains, and came as a scout for some relatives who wanted to know whether the Autumn Leaf Line has already reached Matsushima so that it would be worthwhile to make a weekend trip. Not yet, she will tell them, but they can always go further north or higher up into the mountains. Thanks to the geographical layout of the country, you can follow the autumn colours for months, or take in different stages of autumn atmosphere at any given time between October and December.