Where in Japan can you see some of the country’s best and most varied scenery, chow down on fresh oysters, and explore the great outdoors from the sea to the mountains, all in the space of just a few days and only a two-hour shinkansen (bullet train) ride from Tokyo? After a trip there this summer, I was surprised to learn the answer is — Miyagi.
With mountains, waterfalls, a crater lake, a rugged coastline and a picturesque bay dotted with rocky islands, Miyagi never failed to impress me with its stunning beauty. It’s the kind of place that can be visited in a few days, but could easily fill a much longer trip as well. The weather is also a bit cooler and less humid than in Tokyo, which makes it a great choice for a summer or autumn getaway
The Shiroishi Area
We took the shinkansen to Shiroishizao station, where we rented bikes to explore the town for a day. The bikes themselves are a bit old and are nothing more than your quintessential Japanese shopping bikes, but considering the town is mostly flat they did the job just fine. After cruising through the sleepy town, we made our way to Shiroishi Castle.
After being demolished during the Meiji Restoration, Shiroishi Castle was rebuilt in 1995 to give visitors an idea of what the castle would have looked like in its heyday. While only one of the original castle’s many buildings was reconstructed, it is surrounded by a lovely lawn dotted with cherry trees and has some sweeping views from the top floor. Visitors can also take the opportunity to dress in samurai armor — a unique experience that provides both a new way of looking at samurai culture and some great photo opportunities. If you’re lucky enough to be there when the sakura (cherry blossoms) are blooming, pack a picnic to enjoy on the lawn.
While the castle was fun, the highlight of my trip to the Shiroishi area was exploring the area around the Okama Crater lake at Mount Zao. There are lots of hiking trails, and those looking for a more relaxed holiday can drive up to the lookout point. I recommend going early in the morning to avoid crowds and spending as much time as possible walking the trails and taking in the views. The lake is nicknamed goshiki numa, or “five color pond,” as it appears to change color depending on the angle it is viewed from and the way the light hits it. Watch as the clouds shift and you’ll see its appearance change right before your eyes.
Yunushi Ichijo Ryokan
The wonderful Yu-Nushi Ichijo Ryokan is the ideal place to lay your weary head after a long day of hiking and exploring. From the moment the staff greeted us at the door to the time that our taxi pulled away from the building, this was the epitome of Japanese omotenashi (hospitality). The hotel buildings are historic and beautifully maintained, the food is delicious and artfully presented, and the rooms are spacious, elegant, and extremely comfortable. The open-air bath is an added bonus that shouldn’t be missed. A warm soak in the fresh mountain air is the perfect way to relax after a long day of sightseeing.
To the northeast of Shiroishi, just past Sendai, is the lovely coastal town of Matsushima, perfect for a leisurely stroll around the temples, food stalls, shops and restaurants. Located just across from the train station, Kanrantei tea house makes the perfect first stop. Transported from Kyoto and now overlooking Matsushima Bay — said to be one of Japan’s top three scenic destinations — the tea house provides a peaceful and understated atmosphere. The tea set consisting of matcha (specially grown, finely ground, green tea powder) and a selection of local sweets is the perfect way to take a short rest after the journey while refueling for the rest of your day.
Zuiganji Temple & Godaido
While the coastal area of Miyagi was devastated by the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, Matsushima came away largely unscathed. The reason for this is that the 260-odd islands that dot the bay worked as a barrier to break up the massive wave, causing it to lose most of its power by the time it hit the mainland. As a result, the town of Matsushima saw only one fatality, and most homes and businesses were back to their pre-tsunami condition within just a couple of months.
While Godaido and Zuiganji are among the most popular sights in Matsushima, don’t skip Entsuin Temple. Located just next to the temple of Zuiganji, Entsuin is surrounded by Zen rock gardens, ponds, moss-covered ground, and cedar and bamboo groves for the ultimate in serenity. Rare to temples in Japan, there is even a Western-style rose garden, which makes for an interesting juxtaposition. Even on weekends, the temple does not get particularly crowded, and sometimes you can even feel as though you’re in your own private sanctuary.
Continuing eastward, you will come to Higashi Matsushima, which was not quite as lucky on March 11 as its neighbor to the west. Driving along the coast you will see a newly constructed sea-barrier wall, as well as lots of empty land. Formerly a residential area, the government has now forbidden inhabitation of this land because of the tsunami danger, designating it instead for agriculture.
If you’re spending a night in Higashi Matsushima, consider staying at Minshuku Sakurasou. The owners, some of the most friendly and welcoming people I have ever met, offer a pickup service from the station and provide wonderful hospitality. The dinner we ate there was enormous and unmatched, including several fish and seafood dishes made from Mr. Sakurai’s daily catch. But before dinner, work up an appetite with a short hike up to Ohtakamori, just a few hundred meters from the guesthouse. From the top, you will be rewarded with breathtaking views of the sea, and due to its position you can watch both the sunset and the sunrise.
Finally, before wrapping up your time in Matsushima and Higashi Matsushima, a trip on a boat to see the wonderful coastal scenery is a must. The Oku Matsushima Experience Network offers various fishing, boating and kayaking tours. Whichever you choose, be sure to wear swimwear and bring a waterproof camera — the views are ones you’ll want to document!