**A few long posts to catch up on the latest travels. Also some additionally detailed information for other travelers as I’ve found that the information online and in guide books is patchy, and not always the most interesting information on the area.**
The first ten days of my Japan ‘work stay’ have been in Sendai, in northern Honshu. A safe distance north of Fukushima (winds blow south), a bigger town for this part of the country (close to 1M people) and far quieter than Tokyo (so I hear). I’ve enjoyed living right in the downtown with all the action of the train station, the business men, and the road construction, but have not been inspired to scope out the town.
(Well I did on my very first Saturday, but then it started to blizzard and somehow my interest was quenched…)
I am working in an engineering lab at Tohoku University, a 30 min bus ride from my hotel, up the ‘mountain’ overlooking the city. Considering it’s still sort of winter, just edging on spring, I can’t say how nice it must be on top of the mountain when the trees and the grass are not grey and yellow. But up there in the forest is the Sendai museum, temple and Castle, former residence of the infamous Date Masamune, the warrior who developed Sendai and the entire Miyagi prefecture during the Edo period (1600-1868). He is still the mascot for all things Miyagi, and you see his particular helmet depicted throughout the prefecture. Other fun facts: he was blind in one eye, and his symbolic helmet inspired the Darth Vader helmet.
However, that first weekend I was more interested in seeing what this place was all about beyond the concrete towers, so I took a local train north along the coast to Matsushima. This town is situated in a small bay freckled with karst islands each growing a handful of lone pine trees. Again, in summer, it must be a total joy in the glorious sun, but I made the best of being on the beach in 10C and the sun peaked out every once in a while to boot.
The Japanese love to define and count their national treasures. So Matsushima is one of the ‘3 Most Scenic Spots in Japan’ and there are 4 hikes around the area to get up higher and enjoy views of the bay and the islands (distinctly called the Beautiful view, the Dynamic view, the Gorgeous view and the Mysterious view). With such selection I didn’t even know what adventure I felt like taking and being a little concerned about time, I chose a short option taking about 30 minutes of walking south along the coast to come out onto a point of land that gave a few of the bay just south of Matsushima as well.
After heading back into town and to the historic Kanrantei tea house (which had been transported as is from Tokyo in 1645 because it had been a gift for Data Masamune and he sure loved the views onto the bay) for a cup of matcha and sugar cookie, I walked out onto the connected islands.
Godaido is the closest island and it is a short bridge crossing to the worship hall. However, the bridge is built with beams of wood purposely leaving gaps in between leading straight down into the bay. The intention was to have visitors focus their awareness as they crossed so that they were truly ready to worship once they were on the island. If you tripped on the way, you weren’t quite ready to be on the island. Sorry!
The building was fantastically intricate as they did not use nails or glue of any kind for the construction (as far as I know) and dates back to 1604.
Following this I headed across the 250m footbridge to Fukuurajima Island which is a considerably larger island with many paths twisting around the interior. A beautiful variety of trees and new views of the bay are to be found.
I went inland from here towards the temples and mausoleums of the Masamune family. But first I stopped for some sushi (!). I’m veering from vegetarianism while I’m here. I try to keep it up but don’t get too crazy if there are some seafood squirmers that make it into the dish. Considering I can’t read anything on any menus anywhere, I’ve got to be a little flexible.
I was fortunate enough to know this was a sushi restaurant before I went in (thanks tourist office!) which was already a good start. But Miyagi is fish territory and of course I was faced with various nigri (sushi of rice on bottom, fish on top) of unknown species. Ok fishes, let’s do this.
For the record I made it through 4.5 of these sushi and half of my clam miso soup. I was pumped! And feeling a little sea sick…
Off to the Tuiganji, the zen temple from 1609 (original construction in 828). Probably really great, if not for the current construction. Still highly recommended for all the other buildings in the area.
I’m finding all of my experiences with temples and shrines to be deeply touching. Incorporating various natural elements, they are interwoven with places of devotion, rich ceremony, and preservation to the point of allowing only a few people to every see these places. As examples of this last point, the temple doors of Godaido are only opened every 33 years, and the mausoleum of Masamune’s wife, a beautifully decorated black and gold structure situated back in the forests behind the main buildings (no photos were allowed), is never open to the public. Currently, there is construction going on at the main temple, and this special mausoleum has been opened as a replacement exhibit, but I find the idea of such an incredible structure being kept from most eyes to be a stirring commitment to the peace and respect of the dead.
Further mausoleum’s can be entered, for a fee, so I continued to poke around the open areas finding the cave grave sites within the cedar forest of the temple entrance. The natural erosion of this igneous rock created caves which truly invoke a feeling of the supernatural- I can certainly understand how deities were placed and worshiped here.
A life story carved into a grave stone
On the way to the train, I stopped at one of the sea-side grills. Specializing in oyster from the bay… I chose the corn cob. My sea food quota was full for the day. But this lady couldn’t be more sweet.
A welcome escape from Sendai, this little sea-side town has as much nature, tourism, and history as you want to take in. Lots of English pamphlets as well.