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A trip to Matsushima

Matsushima Bay

One of the great views of Japan. My trip to Matsushima bay


Islands and islands
Shattered into a thousand pieces,
summer’s sea
(Matsuo Basho)

Yuriage (picture by Patrick Colgan, 2014)

Yuriage (picture by Patrick Colgan, 2014)

Matsushima, by Yamamoto Ayano

Matsushima, by Yamamoto Ayano

I woke up troubled by dark thoughts. It’s true that I had left Watari e Yuriage, small cities close to Sendai devastated by the 2011 tsunami, with a lifted spirit, seeing the energy, effort and hope of the people. While I open my eyes lying on the futon in my ryokan I still have in my head the words of the fisherman who said: “I don’t hope for a better future, I will make it better”. But seeing those twisted trees, that emptiness where there were houses before, hearing the stories of those terrible moments, left me with a sense of dismay that stayed under my skin. Not even the friday night in Sendai with Mizue and Lorenzo, the plate of gyutan (local dish of beef’s tongue) we ate, the beer, sake and some fun at the karaoke were able to dissolve it.

I don’t want that wounded land – that I will always remember – to be the last image I will bring home from this area. It’s because of this that I woke up early, I want to go to Matsushima Bay, one of the Nihon sankei, the three great panoramas of Japan, a place loved by the poet Bashō. It’s one of the places I wanted to see, that I imagined for years. I have seen few pictures, but I have in my mind the beautiful painting of my friend, Yamamoto Ayano, which after the 2011 tsunami made one of her most beautiful works, dedicated to this place that, although damaged, survived the deadly wave.

Matsushima: an unforgettable landscape

Matsushima (松島 islands of the pines) is a bay that hosts 260 scattered rocks. No ordinary rocks, though. To them are clung pine thickets and lonely trees that look like they got trapped in stone as they were being carried away by the wind. Some islands are minuscule, some are much bigger. Here the big wave, it is said, comes every century. But these islands are still here and not much different, I think, from what they looked one thousand years ago. I will take the boat from Shiogama, a small fishermen’s village close to Sendai. It’s famous for its fish market, but I am in a hurry and won’t be able to see it.

Today a freezing wind is blowing. It bites my skin. But I am lucky – it’s one of those crisp days that I love in the Japanese winter. In the sky there are few clouds breaking the deep blue, so different from the darker one on which we are sailing. It’s of a purplish shade – like Homer’s sea, the colour of wine. And then there are those islands, like porcelain fragments floating among the waves thanks to an unknown force; they stand out like shining teeth in a toothless mouth. I am taking many pictures, too many, then I understand that this moment is slipping away. This is not how I will find the image I am looking for. So I put my camera away and immerse my eyes into the blue, trying to slow down time, to hold it back. I don’t want this journey to end.

Island in Matsushima Bay

Island in Matsushima Bay (photo by Patrick Colgan, 2014)

Matsushima Bay

An island in Matsushima Bay (photo by Patrick Colgan, 2014)

A trip to Matsushima Bay, Japan

Matsushima Bay (photo by Patrick Colgan, 2014)

A trip to Matsushima Bay, Japan

Picture from a trip to Matsushima Bay, Japan (photo by Patrick Colgan, 2014)

Matsushima Bay

An island in Matsushima Bay (photo by Patrick Colgan, 2014)

I am chasing the vision painted by my friend Ayano , titled ‘Matsushima,’ in which an island appears like it’s suspended in space. It looks like Laputa, the castle in the sky imagined by Hayao Miyazaki. I see in my mind a detail of Ayano’s painting: a red bridge, a puff of colour between the trees. I look for it, even if she has probably made it up, I think. But eventually I find it, at the end, when I get off the boat in the port of Matsushima. I had given up hope. The bridge is different from the painting. It’s several hundred metres long and links the mainland to Fukuura Island. I cross it and I find myself walking among incredibly tall pines, swaying with the freezing wind.

There’s nothing to do besides listening to the sound of the air finding its way through the rocks and the trees. It seems a noise coming from another time, or maybe from out of time. I raise my eyes to the blue sky, get out my camera and take the last picture. Now I can leave.

Matsushima Bay, Fukuura island

Matsushima Bay, Fukuura island (photo by Patrick Colgan, 2014)

Matsushima Bay,

Matsushima Bay, the last picture (photo by Patrick Colgan, 2014)

A trip to Matsushima: how to get there

  • The two ports of Matsushima bay (from where the ferries leave) are close to the railway stations of Hon-Shiogama (few signs, ask somebody for directions) and of Matsushima Kaigan. There are frequent local trains from Sendai and both stops are on the same line (320 yen, about 30 minutes, Japan rail pass is valid). Shiogama is famous for its fish market (and its delicious sushi) and its Shinto sanctuary (Shiogama jinja). In Matsushima too there are other sights, as the Godai-do, a small wooden temple opened once every 33 years (the next in 2039!). And, as I wrote, you can cross the bridge to the Fukuura island (200 yen), allow at least an hour to stroll around it. Local specialty are oysters (which are in season from october to march).
  • The ferry: there are various itineraries, the most popular being the Basho cruise, which supposedly retraces the poet’s itinerary. It costs 1400 yen and lasts around 40 minutes. Ferries can be taken in both directions.
  • Leaving early, a trip to Matsushima can be a day trip from Tokyo with the Japan Rail Pass: the trip to Sendai with the Shinkansen only takes 100 minutes. Therefore you will have several hours to spend in the area during a daytrip.
  • The Japan guide page about Matsushima can be extremely helpful.
  • Matsushima is also the title of one of the chapters of my book Horizon Japan.
Matsushima, by Yoshu Chikanobu 1898

Matsushima, by Yoshu Chikanobu 1898 (from Wikipedia Commons)

All the texts are by Patrick Stephen Colgan. All pictures by me, when not otherwise specified, are licensed under the Creative Commons licence by-nc-sa. For commercial uses please contact me. This post has been translated from my italian blog, Orizzonti.

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