Though the islands are legendary here, venerated as one of the Three Views of Japan in 1643 and immortalised by the poet Basho in The Narrow Road to the Deep North, they continue to carry great weight in the Japanese psyche in the modern era.
Today, they serve as possibly the premiere tourist attraction in Miyagi and though their great fame has seen the bay developed and re-developed, the rugged outcrops remain much as they have always been.
The waterfront itself is lined with piers for pleasure cruises through the islets, from which tourists can gain a closer view of the many unique islands while throwing snacks to pursuant seagulls. Foreign and Japanese tourists swarm the promenade while loaded buses thunder along the main road. The area’s fabled calm is sadly lost to antiquity.
Though Matsushima found itself at the epicenter of the 2011 Great Tohoku Earthquake, the bay’s sheltered geography miraculously kept damage to a minimum while towns to the north and south were demolished by the ensuing tsunami. Sadly, a 5 metre natural arch did not survive.
Though not untouched, the town has quickly returned to business as usual, though trains only run from and to Sendai – a replacement bus service will run from Ishinomaki for several years into the future.
The bay itself is far from the only point of interest in the area. The waterfront promenade features many seafood stalls, tourist attractions and omiyage shops – all equally overpriced, but selling local seafood and goods.
Zuiganji temple carries its 1,000 years of history with gravity. It’s hushed, pine-covered approach is lined with ancient caves, carvings and moss-covered Buddhas and feels many miles away from the swarming waterfront by which it sits.
A nearby onsen hotel offers an open service into the late afternoon, featuring panoramic views over the bay from outdoor rotenburo baths. An aquarium can also be found on the seafront.
Hikers will be glad to know that many paths are available to reward the determined with peace and quiet, a path to the less developed Oku-Matsushima or the finest views of the inlet.
For anybody visiting Tohoku, it goes without saying that Matsushima is a necessary stop – whether for one day or several, it offers a wide enough variety of experiences to satisfy every palate. Roughly three million people pass through in a year - though it’s busy in all seasons, especially summer, such popularity is reinforced by a millennium of history and absolutely justified. Even for those of us who typically prefer quiet locations off the beaten path.