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Pine-ing for more: 6 ways to enjoy Matsushima Bay

Pine-ing for more: 6 ways to enjoy Matsushima Bay

Made up of 260 pine-covered islets and looking like a scene from a painting, Matsushima Bay (松島湾Matsushima-wan) has splendid views which have inspired many an artist, including the famous haiku poet Matsuo Bashō (松尾芭蕉). It is said that Matsushima’s beauty left even Basho at a loss for words, so it’s no wonder that in 2013, Matsushima became the first bay in Japan to be inducted into the “The Most Beautiful Bays in the World” club.

 

Cherry blossoms at Matsushima are beautiful. (Image credit: 宮城県観光課 )

 

Located in Miyagi Prefecture (宮城県) and a short 40-minute away from the prefectural capital of Sendai City (仙台市), Matsushima Bay is one of the Three Great Views of Japan (日本三景Nihon Sankei), with the other two being Miyajima in Hiroshima Prefecture and Amanohashidate in Kyoto. Matsushima literally means “pine island”; a fitting name that pays tribute to the thousands of pine trees dotted on the bay’s islets.

 

In this article, I will introduce six ways to enjoy an outing to this stunning bay. Are you ready?

 

1) Shidaikan: The four panoramic views

With views that have remained practically unchanged since centuries ago, Matsushima has long been celebrated in Japanese poetry as a historical place brimming with romance and beauty.

 

Sunset from Otakamori (Magnificent View). (Image credit: photoAC)

 

Of all the views, perhaps the most awe-inspiring and well-known are the Shidaikan. Shidaikan (四大観 four panoramic views) is the collective name for the panoramic views of Matsushima from atop the hills of Otakamori, Tomiyama, Tamonzan, and Ogidani. Each view offers different perspectives on the bay, highlighting the grandeur, beauty and mystery of Matsushima. 

 

While these four views may take some time to reach (by car with some climbing required), they certainly live up to their reputations!

 

The Magnificent View: Sokan


The Magnificent View from Otakamori. (Image credit: 宮城県観光課)

 

Referred to as Sо̄kan (壮観 Magnificent View), the panorama of Matsushima from the 105.8m-high summit of О̄takamori (大高森) makes the pine-clad bay look like a miniature garden, and is considered by many visitors to be the best view. Otakamori is a hill located on Miyato Island in Higashi-Matsushima, with benches available for you to quietly enjoy the views.

 

Access: 10 minutes by car from JR Nobiru Station (野蒜駅), followed by a 20-minute walk to the summit.

 

The Beautiful View: Reikan


The Beautiful View from Tomiyama. (Image credit: 松島観光協会)

 

From the 116.9m-high summit of Tomiyama (富山), take in the Reikan (麗観 Beautiful View), where the pine-covered islets form neat lines in the distance. The hill is covered with large cedar, pine, and fir trees, and houses the Tomiyama Kannon, one of the three Kannon statues in Oshu (an old name for the area comprising Aomori, Iwate and Miyagi Prefectures). The statue is located in Daisho-ji Temple, the garden of which overlooks Matsushima and provides the Beautiful View.

 

Access: A 45-minute walk from JR Rikuzen-Tomiyama Station (陸前富山駅).

 

The Grand View: Ikan


The Grand View from Tamonzan. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

To get a glimpse of the Ikan (偉観 Grand View), head over to Tamonzan (多聞山) in Shichigahama Town. At a height of 55.6m, this dynamic view lets you take in Matsushima's scenery together with ships and boats weaving their way through the islets.

 

Access: 15 minutes by car from JR Tagajо̄ Station (多賀城駅), followed by a 10-minute walk to the summit.

 

The Enchanting View: Yukan


The Enchanting View during sunrise from Ogitani. (Image credit: 松島観光協会)

 

Best known for its breathtaking sunrises, Yūkan (幽観 Enchanting View) is the view from atop the 55.8m Ōgidani (扇谷). Ogidani means “folding fan valley”, which is a fitting name as the vantage point offers a view of Matsushima spreading out before you like a folding fan.


Access: 5 minutes by car from JR Matsushimakaigan Station (松島海岸駅), followed by a 3-minute walk up steps to the summit.

 

2) Feast on the bounties of the bay

Some of the delicious seafood you can feast on at Matsushima. (Image credit: 東北観光推進機構 (top) and 宮城県観光課 (bottom).

 

If you thought that people only visited Matsushima for the views, think again!  My fellow seafood lovers will be thrilled to know that as a bay where cold currents meet warm currents, Matsushima offers an abundance of freshly caught, succulent seafood, fish, and shellfish. Seafood lovers can head over to the Matsushima Fish Market (松島さかな市場 Matsushima Sakana Ichiba) to fill their tummies with catches from the bay.

 

Matsushima Fish Market (松島さかな市場)
Address: 4-10 Fugendо̄, Matsushima-chо̄, Miyagi-gun, Miyagi 981-0213
Food serving hours: 1F 8:00–15:00 / 2F 10:00–15:00
Access: 10-minute walk from JR Matsushimakaigan Station (松島海岸駅)

 

Tasty grilled oyster buffets can be found all over Matsushima. (Image credit: JR East / Akio Kobori (left) and Carissa Loh (right))

 

Speaking of Matsushima’s seafood, you can’t miss out on their famous oysters. In terms of production volume and sales, Miyagi Prefecture ranks second only after Hiroshima Prefecture. Oyster season is during winter—from late October to mid-March—so be sure come during this time if you want to enjoy fresh oysters. These cultivated creatures draw in foodies from all over the world, who visit Matsushima for its kakigoya (牡蠣小屋 oyster huts), which serve up delicious grilled oysters naturally seasoned with salt from seawater.

 

Many come to feast on a bang-for-your-buck, all-you-can-eat grilled oyster buffet, which costs around ¥2,500 for 45 minutes. You can get full and satisfied with just the grilled oysters, but if you want something extra, you can add ¥500 for some oyster fried rice and miso soup with oysters.

 

All-you-can-eat with a time limit. Shuck your oysters and discard the shells in the metal tin provided. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

No extra seasoning is added when the oysters are being grilled; they are naturally salted by the seawater. You will be given a cloth glove to hold the oysters in one hand, and a knife to shuck them with the other hand. Shucking might look daunting, but don’t worry, you’ll get the hang of it after a few tries! To protect our belongings and clothes from the flying oyster juice, we were also given a plastic bag and paper bib. Large cans were placed behind us, to discard the oyster shells. As there is a time limit, use your time wisely!

 

Many different ways of eating oysters. Clockwise from top left: raw, baked with cheese, grilled, fried. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

Indulge in an oyster hotpot. (Image credit:宮城県観光課)

 

If all-you-can-eat is not your thing, there are still many other ways to enjoy oysters. You can have them raw (生牡蠣 namagaki), fried (カキフライ kakifurai), grilled (焼き牡蠣 yakigaki), baked with cheese, or even as a rice bowl topped with oysters (牡蠣丼 kakidon), or as an oyster hotpot (牡蠣鍋 kakinabe).

 

Hoya is also known as sea pineapples. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh (left) and 宮城県観光課 (right))

 

For adventurous foodies, how about trying something more unusual, like hoya (ほや sea pineapple)? Fresh hoya has a very sweet and refreshing flavour, and goes really well with sake or beer, making it a common item on the menu of izakaya (居酒屋 Japanese-style pubs) all over Miyagi Prefecture.

 

3) Visit at night, or stay overnight 

Full moon over Matushima. (Image credit: 宮城県観光課)

 

I have only ever visited Matsushima during the day time, but many locals recommended me to come for tsukimi (月見 moon-viewing). It is said that Matsuo Basho wanted to visit Matsushima to see the moon over the bay. Full moons at Matsushima are very enchanting, with the harvest moon (中秋の名月 chūshū no meigetsu) in autumn being the most stunning of them all.

 

Matcha and confectionery set at Kanrantei. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

Kanrantei (観瀾亭) is a tea house near the boat pier, with a name that means “place to view ripples on water”. True to its name, you can get a good view of the waters of Matsushima Bay, and also of the moon at night. For one night in autumn, Kanrantei hosts the "Tsuki no Matsushima in Kanrantei" event, where you can enjoy a cup of matcha and watch the full moon rising over the bay, while live performers play music in the background.

 

Tsuki no Matsushima in Kanrantei (月の松島in観瀾亭)
Address: 56 Chо̄nai, Matsushima-chо̄, Miyagi-gun, Miyagi 981-0213
Access: 6-minute walk from JR Matsushimakaigan Station.
Moon-viewing event:
  Session 1: 18:00–18:30
  Session 2: 19:30–20:00
Admission fee: ¥1,000 (includes matcha and sweets)

 

Autumn at Entsuin during the day and at night. (Image credit: 東北観光推進機構)

 

Another night-time event you can’t miss is the autumn illumination at Entsūin (円通院), a small temple on Matsushima famed for its stunning red maple leaves in autumn. During the autumn foliage period (usually around late October–mid-November), the maple trees on the temple grounds are illuminated at night. Coupled with gentle music in the background, a visit here makes for an otherworldly experience.

 

Matsushima Fall Light Up (円通院の松島紅葉ライトアップ)
Address: 67 Chо̄nai, Matsushima-chо̄, Miyagi-gun, Miyagi 981-0213
Access: 5-minute walk from JR Matsushimakaigan Station.
Date: late October–mid-November (autumn leaves period)
Night Illumination: 17:30–21:00
Admission fee:
  Adult ¥500 weekdays/ ¥800 weekends and holidays
  Child (elementary to junior high) ¥200
*Due to COVID-19, the illumination event has been cancelled for 2020.

 

Full moon from the outdoor hot spring. (Image credit: Ichinobo)

 

Do you enjoy onsen (温泉 hot springs)? For something even more special, how about staying overnight at a hot spring hotel overlooking the bay? The outdoor hot springs (露天風呂 rotenburo) usually provide a wide view of Matsushima Bay, and you can get amazing views at night under the moonlight, or of the brilliant orange and pink sunrises in the morning. It is a wonderful way to rejuvenate your mind, body, and soul.

 

Enjoy the sunrise while soaking in the outdoor hot spring. (Image credit: Ichinobo)



4) Explore islands with your own two feet

From JR Matsushimakaigan Station, you can easily walk to three of Matsushima's pine-covered islets—Godaido, Fukuurajima and Oshima—by crossing bright red footbridges connected to the mainland.

 

Bridge to Godaido. (Image credit: JR East / Akio Kobori)

 

Godaidō (五大堂) is a small temple hall located right next to the boat pier. It has the shortest bridge, and is the most-visited of the three islands. Due to easy and free access, Godaido has become a must-visit in Matsushima.

 

An admission fee is required to cross the long and photogenic bridge to Fukuurajima. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

The longest of the three bridges is the one leading to Fukuurajima (福浦島). Although you have to fork out ¥200 to cross the 252m-long bridge, the connected island is fairly big, and you can easily spend 30–60 minutes exploring it. Head over to the other side of the island, where there are gazebos from which you can enjoy views of Matsushima Bay. The bridge to Fukuurajima is a 5-minute walk from Godaido.

 

Explore the caves on Oshima. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

One of the more interesting islands, Oshima (雄島) used to be a retreat for monks. Meditation caves, which were carved out of the rocks, still remain dotted around the island. It is said that there used to be 108 caves, but currently only about 50 remain. Inside some of the caves, stone tablets dedicated to praying for the souls of the dead can also be found. Oshima is a 15-minute walk from JR Matsushimakaigan Station, and crossing the bridge is free.

 

5) Enjoy a breezy boat ride

Sightseeing cruises are a fun way to enjoy the views of Matsushima. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

How about hopping on a sightseeing cruise to enjoy a close-up view of Matsushima’s pine islands? These boat rides run all year round, and take approximately 50 minutes to complete. The most popular course takes you on a loop around the bay, but there is also a one-way course which takes you from Matsushima to the nearby port city of Shiogama.

 

See islands up-close and enjoy the breeze. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

Some boat companies even provide English commentary as the boat goes around the islands, introducing some of the more interestingly-shaped islands and their history! The boats have seats, but you can also go out on deck to get closer and enjoy the breeze.

 

Boat departures are frequent, with many companies operating them. Depending on the ferry company and your preference, tickets can be reserved online in advance, or bought on the spot before departure.

 

6) Join a bus tour for a hassle-free experience

Bus tours are a hassle-free way to enjoy the sights of Matsushima. (Image credit: JR Bus Tohoku, 宮城県観光課,  JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

Perhaps you are travelling with young children or elderly, and are looking a hassle-free experience. Why not join a bus tour? JR Bus Tohoku operates the MATSUSHIMA OSANPOGO, a bus tour that departs Sendai Station every afternoon between April and October.

 

This tour lets you enjoy Matsushima by bringing you to a beautiful park that is difficult to reach by public transport, and letting you have free time to enjoy yourself. Although the accompanying tour guide is Japanese, English audio guidance is provided.

 

Tour itinerary:
13:30 | Depart Sendai Station East Exit
20 minutes | Saigyo no Modoshi Matsu Park (fantastic view of Matsushima Bay)
90 minutes | Free time at Matsushima (ticket + matcha at Kanrantei included)
20 minutes | Sasa kamaboko Museum + Tanabata Museum
17:30 | Arrive back at Sendai Station East Exit

 

Views of Matsushima Bay from Saigyo Modoshi no Matsu Park. (Image credit: 宮城県観光課 and 東北観光推進機構)

 

One of the highlights of the tour is the Saigyo Modoshi no Matsu Park (西行戻しの松公園 Saigyо̄ Modoshi no Matsu Kо̄en), where you get 20 minutes to enjoy the amazing view. Saigyo Modoshi no Matsu means “the pine tree that made Saigyo go back”, and there is a story behind the park’s unique name. In the past, a poet called Saigyo was on a pilgrimage and exchanged Buddhist riddles with a young boy under a large pine tree (松 matsu). Saigyo ended up losing to the boy, and went back.

 

Beautiful cherry blossoms at Saigyo no Modoshi Matsu Park. (Image credit: 宮城県観光課)

 

The park offers a stunning panorama overlooking Matsushima Bay, and is often considered the best place to view cherry blossoms at Matsushima. Sunrise offers magical moments, and during summer, the view of the lush green pine trees and brilliant blue waters of the bay is very beautiful.

 

Saigyo Modoshi no Matsu Park is a 25-minute walk up from JR Matsushimakaigan Station, but the bus tour will drop you off directly at the park.

 

Enjoying a quiet time at Kanrantei. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

After Saigyo Modoshi no Matsu Park, the bus will drop you off at Matsushima’s main sightseeing area. A ticket (admission + a cup of matcha) to Kanrantei tea house is included in the tour, which you can use to your convenience. The stop lasts for 90 minutes, during which you are free to go around as you please—walk around, take a boat ride, grab a bite to eat, the choice is yours!

 

Grilling sasa kamaboko at Matsushima. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

On the way back to Sendai from Matsushima, the tour stops by Kanezaki Kamaboko World, a sasa kamaboko museum. Sasa kamaboko (笹かまぼこ) is a fishcake made in the shape of a sasa (笹 bamboo leaf), which was the crest of the Date clan, Sendai’s former ruling clan. At Matsushima, you can try out grilling your own sasa kamaboko, then enjoy them as a snack while you walk around the bay. If you missed it at Matsushima, fret not, at the museum you can still try some samples or buy some packed ones to bring back home as souvenirs.

 

 

The Tananata Museum displays fukinagashi decorations from previous years’ festivals. (Image credit: JR East / Akio Kobori)

 

Also located within the Kanezaki Kamaboko World’s premises is the Tanabata Museum, which displays fukinagashi decorations from previous years’ Sendai Tanabata Festivals. The Sendai Tanabata Festival (仙台七夕まつり Sendai Tanabata Matsuri) is Miyagi’s biggest summer festival, which you can read more about in my other article here!

 

Route of the JR Bus Tour Matsushima (click to enlarge) (Image credit: JR Bus Tohoku)

 

The bus tour departs every day between April and October, and costs ¥3,300/adult or ¥1,650/child. Reservations can be made online, by phone, or in person at Sendai Station’s bus counter on the day of departure if seats are still available.


Getting to Matsushima

Alighting at JR Matsushimakaigan Station. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

Matsushima’s main sightseeing area can be accessed by a short walk from JR Matsushimakaigan Station (松島海岸駅), which is a 40-minute train ride from JR Sendai Station (仙台駅) on the JR Senseki Line (仙石線).

 

I recommend using a combination of the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) and local 1-day or 2-day passes to maximise cost efficiency. Use the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) on the days when you will be travelling between Tokyo and Sendai / Sendai and other major cities requiring bullet train rides, and use the local passes for the days you will be exploring Sendai City and Miyagi Prefecture.

 

1-day Sendai Area Pass and 2-day Sendai Marugoto Pass

Get the 1-day Sendai Area Pass for day trips to surrounding areas outside the city. (Image credit: Steering Committee for Sendai Marugoto Pass)

 

If you are visiting Sendai and taking day trips to surrounding areas like Matsushima, check out the 1-day Sendai Area Pass. The pass can be used on JR lines, subway lines, and buses within the valid area, and is exclusively for foreign visitors. Tickets can be purchased at the JR EAST Travel Service Center at JR Sendai Station;  just be sure to bring your passport along with you. The pass is ¥1,320 for adults (12 and above) and ¥660 for children (6–11).

 

If you will be staying in Sendai for a longer period, check out the 2-day Sendai Marugoto Pass  which offers a wider coverage. The pass is ¥2,720 for adults (12 and above) and ¥1,350 for children (6–11).

 

With these passes, you can also get discounts on JR Rent-a-car and admission fees at certain facilities.

 

JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area)

JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) and usage area. (Image credit: JR East)

 

If you are visiting Sendai and the Tohoku region, check out the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area), an affordable pass offering unlimited rail travel on JR East lines (including bullet trains) in the valid area for any 5 days of your choice within a 14-day period. At only ¥19,350 when purchased overseas, it costs less than a round-trip between Tokyo and Sendai (~¥23,000), and the 5 days do not have to be consecutive. You can also make seat reservations for bullet trains, some limited express trains and Joyful Trains online for free, up to one month in advance, here. After exploring Sendai, you can also visit the nearby prefectures of Yamagata, Fukushima, Morioka and more!


Header image credit: 宮城県観光課 and 東北観光推進機構

 

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