Matsushima Ah! Part 1
Sure, you all are probably thinking, “Man, three months in Japan. That must be really nice.” Well, I’ll have you know this isn’t some spring time in Waikiki. Not only do I have a novel I must write within the month but I also have to make Kait’s bed in the evening. Sometimes I even help with the dishes or carry groceries! It’s a real challenge, I tell you. I’m not certain how I make it through the day.
That said, with our weekend jaunts, I have extra work to do during the week so I don’t fall behind on those days we’re out of town. Mostly, this is an explanation for why the journal entries are late. I’m doing them, they’re just second place to getting my main work finished. That, and actually seeing Japan.
Of all the places near Sendai, there was really only one that I had to see. I even warned Kait that she had to take me here. It didn’t matter how many period houses I had to see to make it happen. For, you see, Japan is pretty bottom heavy in regards to its major attractions. The bright lights of Tokyo, the ancient cultural hotbed of Kyoto and even the modern travesty and revival of Hiroshima happens almost along the exact same latitudinal line. If you’ve heard of it, chances are it is down in the Kansai-Kanto region. Kait, however, had the gall to get placed up in Tohoku. This would be the equivalent of taking a trip to the United States and deciding that Minnesota would make a good base camp.
There is that exception, however. That one spot that I had longed to visit when I was first here in 2010. But no matter how I tried, I couldn’t arrange a visit to the eponymous Matsushima Bay. But why did I want to travel here? Let me leave it to Japan’s resident poet laureate to explain:
A-ah, Matsushima, ah!
~ Matsuo Basho, 1644-1694
And you thought our haiku was bad.
Matsushima was held as one of the Three Great Views of Japan. If you didn’t know already, Japan loves making lists. But the Three Great Views stands in stark contrast to the others for being the original that made popular the short rankings. It has the equivalent cachet of visiting the Seven Wonders (and I mean the listing that doesn’t put the Pyramids of Giza as an honourable mention). The other two views are the floating torii gate of Itsukushima (of which you can see my head plastered over if you are so interested) and the sandbar of Amanohashidate (scheduled for our December travel bonanza). While the floating torii was of prime importance to me, Matsushima was always a close second and only because of its supposed grandeur.
Course, as I espoused my eagerness, Kait was quick to temper my expectations.
“It’s mostly like Georgian Bay.”
Well, it was a cloudy Saturday that we decided to make the trip. The nice thing about Matsushima was that it’s just outside of Sendai. Give it a few more decades and I won’t be surprised if the northern capital eventually subsumes the coastal locale in the inexhaustible expansion of modernity. But fortunately for me, given its geographical location and shape, Matsushima had emerged relatively unscathed from the 2011 earthquake. While I didn’t expect it to still be rubble, I had concerns whether sites would be open or not.
“Don’t worry,” Kait assured, “the only places that are closed are ones that were falling apart before the earthquake happened.”
Of course. Never change, Japan. It wouldn’t be the same touring within your borders if you didn’t have some famous place fenced off and hidden behind steel scaffolding.
As it was Kait scheduling this trip, we had yet another tight schedule ahead of us. She was a little disappointed in her first trip to the word-snatching bay. She saw only a couple of expensive bridges and had to spend the entire time with Pauline. So, with full control of the itinerary, Kait was determined to get to the places she didn’t see and this meant a seven o’clock rise so we could hurry down and catch the train to arrive in Shiogama by nine.
Shiogama isn’t technically part of Matsushima, though given that it’s a bay it does have some of the scattered weather beaten islands filling its harbour. We weren’t there to see any of that, however. Kait force marched us behind the only other Japanese person with a backpack and bucket hat in search of Shiogama Shrine. This is a shrine complex over 1200 years old and dedicated to protecting fishermen and safe childbirth. It’s a bit of a tall order for a country that loves roe on their sushi. Fifteen of its buildings are labeled Important Cultural Treasures by the Japanese government and are also stinking old. It’s a place of startling beauty and tranquillity, uplifted from the busy city streets by a flight of worn, two hundred year old steps that have shifted and grown into a steep, uneven climb beneath the ubiquitous Japanese pines.
Kait couldn’t care, however, because she was too entranced by the city’s covered ditches.
We passed a father and son running up and down the steps, the poor father probably going to be left immobile by noon from all the climbing. The shrine itself was quite clean and orderly. It was in fantastic condition and much larger than Kait and I expected. This naturally led to us spending nearly an hour poking around its grounds, taking pictures of stone cows and clam shells the size of a rambunctious child. We saw some couples parading their dressed up children for the 7-5-3 Festival that seems to run for most the month of October. It was only as we were exiting the south gate and heading towards the gentle decline for the old ladies to reach the shrine that Kait informed me our boat was leaving in ten minutes.
Apparently, the original plan had been to poke around the shrine for twenty or so minutes before taking a ferry up through the islands of Matsushima (Ah!). However, the ferry only left every hour and if we missed the one she scheduled, Kait was uncertain we’d be able to see everything that she wanted.
We hurried through the streets, stopping for the sparse route markers and heading down random streets. After a few missteps and waiting for a light before a kindly local pressed the walk button for us, we arrived at the dock just in time to see the ferry casting off.
We debated waiting for the next ferry but a look around the tiny “market” at the dock convinced us that it wasn’t worth delaying our day by two hours. Taking the train to Matsushima proper would still take about forty minutes, however, so we dejectedly retraced our steps to the station.
At least this gave us the opportunity to dig into our meagre trail mix supply. Since, you know, if we were being honest with ourselves we knew we wouldn’t be eating lunch today.
The train was as busy as one would expect for a prominent tourist spot on the first day of a weekend. We shuffled out of the crowded train and down the narrow steps into the tiny train station. We weren’t quite sure which direction we were headed and Kait was far too shy to ask anyone, so we mostly found a couple of determined tourists and followed them until coming across a guide map of the area. There was only one island Kait was going to take me to and it was solely because it was free.
We walked past what remained of the Matsushima Aquarium (everything was apparently moved to Sendai after the place was damaged during the earthquake). The route wasn’t particularly well marked and we ended up wandering through some random parking lots until we spotted the bright red bridge to a small pine covered island. We snapped our shots (as we always do) and poked around the small paths crisscrossing the island. Apparently these places were used as burial locations for the nearby temples and shrines over the years. Many alcoves had been cut into the rock with wedged epitaphs or stone statues filling their interiors. And, outside of the shrines and buddha statues, the place was as Kait described: very reminiscent of Georgian bay with its wind cleaved rock and scraggly trees wrapping their thin roots about the sharp stones. Leaves scattered across the ground while catboats cut the mirror top of the bay in their lazy circles. We found a park bench and enjoyed the pack snacks while reminiscing of sunset watching, roasting marshmallows and sleeping in tents. It’s beautiful but it’s not unique.
We poked around the island some more, snapping pictures of bleached white trees before finally giving up on the location. Kait was eager to get to the temples that she passed up the first time. We discussed meal options as we walked, likely prompted by the number of food cars parked in the centre of the waterfront park. We were hopeful to eat some sushi since Kait hadn’t truly had any since arriving in Japan. We figured that a port town like Matsushima must have some easy to find conveyor belt sushi.
We were wrong. It seems the place is more obsessed with its oysters than its fish. And neither Kait or I had any interest to indulge in that local delicacy.
But this was only of passing concern as we passed the restaurants outside the park to Zuigan-ji.
Kait warned me that Zuigan-ji–a prominent Rinzai Zen Buddhist temple–had been damaged in the 2011 earthquake and was under repair. I hadn’t expected this to include the walk to the temple, as a great fence separated the large tree lined path that beeped from bulldozers plowing its ground. The park was ringed not by buildings but a small cleaved hill with more rock carvings and burial markers for the temple’s graveyard. We snapped pictures as we went along, trying our best not to obstruct the other tourists eager to see the old National Treasures.
We puttered around the entrance of Zuigan-ji while Kait decided how we were going to explore this area. There are several temple complexes in the area but she was interested primarily in two: Entsu-in and Zuigan-ji. Reading some of the signs we learned that workers were currently addressing Zuigan-ji’s main hall and square. To make up for this closure (and to justify their ticket prices not being discounted) the temple had opened up one of the adjoining halls typically restricted to temple staff. There was also a showing of the mausoleum for Date Masamune’s wife, though apparently its opening was unrelated to the work going on.
Kait opted to explore Entsu-in first. It was a much smaller complex renown for its garden grounds. I should correct that: it was very renown. We had hardly paid our tickets and taken several steps inside before we were crushed in a mass of gawking bodies. A long, ponderous and shuddering line wove its way through the stone paths with hidden hands lifting cameras and tripods at every turn.
We joined in, taking what pictures we could of the rock garden. I’m assuming this was Kait’s first and it’s a shame that she had to experience it in a rushed and crowded manner. I actually quite enjoyed viewing the meditation gardens in Kyoto when there were less people and I had the luxury to sit beneath the eaves and take in the meticulously manicured piece beneath pregnant clouds. The experience is significantly less when you have people bumping into you and you’re pushed to the tightest corners of the walkway.
Things improved as we ventured deeper into the grove and the trees rose up around us as a carpet of tended moss stretched between their roots. We found ourselves before the primary attraction: Date Masamune’s grandson’s mausoleum. It was small and relatively understated, at least from the outside. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a good look at the interior with the amount of people gathering before it so I missed the little decorative details that slyly hinted at the young man’s Christianity during a time when the religion faced persecution.
We wandered the rest of the grounds which were dedicated to gravesites than enlightening tranquility. Kait looked for a yew tree or something to little success and we descended a staircase sheltered with tall bamboo stalks into the rose garden. And, in Kait’s own words, “I don’t like rose gardens.”
There was a heart shaped fountain which, if you prayed before it, you got good luck or a healthy sex life or something. Really, the reason we were stopping at every spot was because Kait was looking for the fabled location where we could make our own rosaries. We finally found a hall with several shoes in boxes outside and what looked suspiciously like groups of tourists crouched on the floor and poking in boxes. Of course, there wasn’t any English, so Kait fretted and dithered, unsure whether she should ask or whether we should just leave altogether.
She eventually decided to enquire over the thirty dollar bracelet option. She poked her head inside, prompting a worker to shuffle nervously over. When it was clear Kait was only going to be speaking English, the younger worker was waved over and we were brought to a corner of the room. There, we were to measure our wrists against a pile of sample bracelets. I didn’t know this at the time but Buddhist rosaries come in specific bead sets. Typically they’re a denomination of 108 unless you have weird wrists like mine then there’s an option to settle for twenty-two beads and consider it close enough. Once sized, we were instructed to pick out a central bead that would be unique from the others. Then we had to pick two small beads that had to match but, once again, had to be unique to everything else. After that, we were given free reign to design our rosaries however we want.
Kait elected for a subtle orange and black design. I initially was tempted towards the darker colours–which surely comes as a surprise to everyone. However, I decided that I should try something different. I picked up the white stones veined with grey striations and attempted to make something pleasing to the eye that would also not be all gloomy. Kait wrapped hers up while I was still poking and prodding over half my design. Invariably, I roped her into assisting since she has loads of experience doing crafty stuff. Surely, I reasoned, that would mean she had a good head for colour balance.
The consequence of my nagging, however, meant that Kait forgot to take photos of the activity. Eventually, I settled on a combination I could live with. It wasn’t brilliant but at this time my legs were killing me as we were sitting in seiza since neither of us wanted to stand out amongst the others dutifully making their own buddhist bracelet. So, knees cracking as we stood, we shuffled to the small table where one of the workers sat. She tied and glued them together and rang our purchase. Then she waved over the older woman who, surprisingly, worked through the meaning of the bracelets as best she could in English. It wasn’t… the most coherent but Kait at least understood that she was naming which stones and giving a general idea of what they convened. I discovered that the more different types of stones you slapped on your string, the more positive benefits you apparently would receive. So, while Kait and I both shared good business fortune, I was also blessed with better health and two kinds of stress and anxiety free living!
Woohoo, Kevin wins again!
So if you ever end up in Entsu-in (which I would recommend since, as I commented to the old lady in a kimono who stopped us on the way out, the garden is very lovely) and you elect to make your own bracelet, try to slip as many coloured beads as you can around your wrist. It may look gaudy but at least the universe will smile on you!
And despite our Scottish nature, Kait was all grins leaving the temple with the rosaries in hand. They certainly made a unique souvenir!