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Travel & Holiday

Tantalising Tohoku

Ben Nadarajan is mesmerised by the beauty of Japan’s north-eastern region, which is recovering from the March earthquake and tsunami
The Sunday Times - October 2, 2011
By: Ben Nadarajan
| More
Tantalising Tohoku The seas off Tohoku region provide harsh conditions for oyster farms but they also make Tohoku oysters very tasty. PHOTOS: BEN NADARAJAN

LOOKING out at Matsushima Bay, I can just about make out some of the 260 big and small islets dotting the ocean.

LOOKING out at Matsushima Bay
(below), I can just about make out some
of the 260 big and small islets dotting
the ocean.
These hundreds of pine-covered islands
are part of the reason why this area on the
east coast of Japan is considered one of the
top three most scenic sites across a country
full of heart-stopping sceneries.
But they proved to be more than just
decorative when a massive tsunami hit
the Tohoku region in March. While
other parts of the eastern coastline were
devastated by the huge waves that swept
inland, the coast of Matsushima was
left unscathed because these little islets
helped to break the impact of the waves.
Just two hours by train from Tokyo,
Matsushima is a popular day trip from
Japan’s capital, although visitors should
spend a night there to catch the breathtaking
sunrise. The17th century Japanese
poet Matsuo Basho once said the beauty
of Matsushima left him at a loss for words
and unable to pen a poem while there.
Fresh from the sea
In the town centre, look out for the
Matsushima Sakana Ichiba (fish market)
where there is a restaurant selling
fresh sushi or sashimi or grilled seafood.
It was evident from the first bite into
the sashimi that the seafood was fresh
out of the Sanriku Coast.
Oysters are also a must-try, especially
during oyster season from October to
March. The seas off Tohoku provide
harsh conditions for oyster farms, but
also make them very tasty. The Kakigoya
or oyster hut in the
town centre serves
broiled oysters on
the shell. There are
also all-you-can-eat
buffet of oysters for
2,000 yen (S$33) in
45 minutes, or 3,000
yen in 60 minutes.
For peace and
quiet, Matsushima
temples are worth visiting. The Zuiganji
Temple, built by Matsushima’s founder,
Lord Date Masamune, has been designated
as a National Treasure but was
closed for reconstruction works when I
was there.
The neighbouring Entsuin Temple
boasts of a peacefully quiet garden, with a
female monk running the temple. There
is a slightly western feel to the place,
with a rose garden and several European
paintings brought back from Rome in
1620. Within the temple compounds is
the Sankeiden, the mausoleum for Date
Mitsumune, the grandson of Date Masamune.
At the main hall, formerly the
summer house used by Date Mitsumune,
you can make your own prayer beads.

These hundreds of pine-covered islands are part of the reason why this area on the east coast of Japan is considered one of the top three most scenic sites across a country full of heart-stopping sceneries.

But they proved to be more than just decorative when a massive tsunami hit the Tohoku region in March. While other parts of the eastern coastline were devastated by the huge waves that swept inland, the coast of Matsushima was left unscathed because these little islets helped to break the impact of the waves.

Just two hours by train from Tokyo, Matsushima is a popular day trip from Japan’s capital, although visitors should spend a night there to catch the breathtaking sunrise. The17th century Japanese poet Matsuo Basho once said the beauty of Matsushima left him at a loss for words and unable to pen a poem while there. 

Fresh from the sea 

In the town centre, look out for the Matsushima Sakana Ichiba (fish market) where there is a restaurant selling fresh sushi or sashimi or grilled seafood. It was evident from the first bite into the sashimi that the seafood was fresh out of the Sanriku Coast.

Oysters are also a must-try, especially during oyster season from October to March. The seas off Tohoku provide harsh conditions for oyster farms, but also make them very tasty. The Kakigoya or oyster hut in the town centre serves broiled oysters on the shell. There are also all-you-can-eat buffet of oysters for 2,000 yen (S$33) in 45 minutes, or 3,000yen in 60 minutes. 

For peace and quiet, Matsushima temples are worth visiting. The Zuiganji Temple, built by Matsushima’s founder, Lord Date Masamune, has been designated as a National Treasure but was closed for reconstruction works when I was there.

The neighbouring Entsuin Temple boasts of a peacefully quiet garden, with a female monk running the temple. There is a slightly western feel to the place, with a rose garden and several European paintings brought back from Rome in 1620. Within the temple compounds is the Sankeiden, the mausoleum for Date Mitsumune, the grandson of Date Masamune. At the main hall, formerly the summer house used by Date Mitsumune, you can make your own prayer beads.. At

Bustling Sendai

After visiting Matsushima, I took a 30-minute train ride to Sendai. Although the coastal areas of Sendai still bore scars of the devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit the city so devastatingly in March, the city itself was still bustling with activities.

A main street runs through the city centre with all kinds of shops and restaurants lining both sides. There are all types of shops, ranging from the Japanese equivalent of the $1.99 shops to shopping malls selling branded bags, shoes and clothes. You can find most things here that are also available in Tokyo, and probably a bit cheaper. The shops are also much less crowded, making the shopping experience more pleasant.

Sendai beef is said to be of the highest grade in all of Japan and the steaks are definitely worth a try. Cattle in Sendai are fed sasanishiki rice stalks and barley. Another Sendai delicacy — beef tongue — also sets people’s tongues wagging. I had a long discussion with my travelling mates before we decided to try it. The beef tongue is matured, seasoned and grilled and came out to be nice and chewy.

If you love a hot bowl of miso soup with your meals, remember to sample it here. The miso seasoning, made from rice, soyabeans and salt, is matured for more than 10 months before it is sold. 

If you have the time, take an hour’s train ride north from Sendai to Hiraizumi, which has recently been designated as a world cultural heritage site. Its highlight is the Chusonji Temple with its impressive Konjikido, or Golden Hall, where the interior is completely covered in gold.

The Tohoku region may not be as popular among tourists to Japan as Tokyo, Osaka or even Hokkaido, but if you are looking for a quiet and relaxing journey, filled with good food, rejuvenating hot springs and breathtaking sights, then it is definitely the place to go.

 

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